Since a violent protest eight months ago that involved white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, Madison has scrutinized possible options for the fate of two Confederate monuments in Madison.
On Tuesday, Madison’s City Council determined their future.
The Council voted to remove a large cenotaph, or gravestone, with the names of 140 Confederate soldiers located in the middle of a section of the cemetery called Confederate Rest.
The approved resolution calls for both a previously removed plaque and the cenotaph to be offered to the State Historical Society or the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.
“For me, this monument needs to go, if only for reparations,” Council President Marsha Rummel said.
Following the protest in August, Mayor Paul Soglin, who was absent from Tuesday’s meeting, ordered the removal of a small plaque from 1981 that previously sat outside Confederate Rest. Soglin has previously said he supports keeping the cenotaph and adding explanatory signage.
The city’s Board of Park Commissioners, Equal Opportunities Commission and Landmarks Commission debated the future of a larger cenotaph still located in the cemetery and forwarded their recommendations to the Council.
Ald. David Ahrens, District 15, offered an amendment that would add interpretive signage about the history of Confederate Rest and the current controversy. The Council rejected the amendment 13 to 5.
Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, District 1, voted against allowing an explanatory sign.
“When I think of the countless number of slaves that were killed, there was no monument there, was no marker, there was no headstone and no signs saying who died here,” McKinney said. “Any representation, any romanticizing, any uplifting of what happened during that period, I am not going to support.”
Landmarks Commission Chair Stu Levitan said the failure to permit an interpretative display is an “abdication of civic duty.” He feels a sign is needed to explain how soldiers from the South ended up in Wisconsin and the current controversy.
“On behalf of the Landmarks Commission, I’m disappointed at both the removal of the grave markers and the refusal to put in an interpretative sign,” Levitan said.
The city’s Landmarks Commission and Board of Parks Commissioners recommended adding more explanation, as opposed to removal. Ald. Shiva Bidar, District 5, highlighted the challenge of writing such a sign, fearing it could become “another Madison quagmire.”
“We don’t have interpretative signs on all the other things ... in Forest Hill Cemetery,” Bidar said. “There is plenty of history of Madison that one could have signs and put in context.”
The Council’s decision sets a path forward for the monuments but does not preclude future decisions to add signage, City Attorney Mike May said.
Alds. Paul Skidmore, District 9; Mike Verveer, District 4; Zach Wood, District 8; Steve King, District 7; and Ahrens supported adding a sign. Alds. Maurice Cheeks, District 10, and Denise DeMarb, District 16, were absent Tuesday.
The city opened Forest Hill Cemetery in 1857. In April 1862, about 1,200 captured Confederate soldiers were moved to the Union Army stockade at Camp Randall. Though the majority of prisoners were relocated later that year, 140 soldiers died in Madison.
The soldiers were buried in a mass grave at the cemetery and later given their own headstones in Confederate Rest. Union soldiers who died in local hospitals are buried in a nearby plot.
The larger cenotaph from the early 1900s sits in the center of Confederate Rest and has the names of the 140 soldiers etched into the stone.
It also includes the name of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which installed the cenotaph, and recognizes Alice Whiting Waterman, who cared for the graves and was buried in Confederate Rest in 1897.
For some, the connection to the United Daughters of the Confederacy is problematic. The organization was founded to, among several goals, honor the memory of Confederate soldiers and preserve material for a “truthful history of the War Between the States.”
“The Daughters of the Confederacy are a pernicious, racist, active group and that monument was put up by the Daughters of the Confederacy in love and memory and it needs to go,” Kathleen Nichols, a former Dane County Board Supervisor, said.
However, other speakers including David Blaska, also a former supervisor, felt the cenotaph honors and identifies the woman who cared for the Confederate graves.
The Landmarks Commission felt the cenotaph honors the dead soldiers and not for the reason they died.
"We found that the structure does not extol the Confederacy or secession but functions as a grave marker, listing the names of the dead, which are not visible on the individual markers," Levitan said.
Another option included removing the lower portion of the cenotaph and retaining and relocating the top portion with the names of soldiers to an area in front of the stone walls of Confederate Rest.