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City to decide fate of two Confederate monuments in Madison cemetery

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Confederate monument overview

Stuart Levitan, chairman of the Madison Landmarks Commission, visits the Confederate Rest section of Forest Hill Cemetery in anticipation of a joint meeting of three city commissions this week to decide the fate of Confederate monuments there.

Although the debate over Confederate monuments has faded from national headlines, it will soon reignite in Madison.

On Tuesday, the city’s Landmarks, Park and Equal Opportunities commissions will conduct a rare joint meeting to create a plan for two Confederate monuments that have rested in Forest Hill Cemetery on the West Side.

After a violent protest involving white supremacists left one person dead and more than 30 others injured in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, Mayor Paul Soglin ordered the removal of a 1981 plaque at the Confederate Rest section of the cemetery and asked the commissions to consider options for the plaque and a larger 1906 stone cenotaph installed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and still at the cemetery, 1 Speedway Road.

The options include:

  • Permanently removing the monuments.
  • Leaving the monuments in place but altering their messages.
  • Leaving one or both of the memorials in place but erecting a new monument providing details of the “false narrative” of the “Lost Cause” movement and the role the monuments play in that effort. The Lost Cause movement, the resolution says, “seeks to alter history and to paint Confederate soldiers as heroic figures, rather than rebellious traitors on the wrong side of history and humanity.”

In August, after the Charlottesville incident, Soglin said he expected communities to put a sharper focus on the history of memorials erected decades after the Civil War, which he said came amid efforts to promote white supremacy and the subjugation of blacks through Jim Crow laws or Black Codes.

Confederate Marker Forest Hill Cemetery

A concrete slab remained where a stone and plaque memorializing the resting place of Confederate soldiers from the Civil War was removed from the Confederate Rest section of Forest Hill Cemetery in August. 

The mayor said he prefers leaving the larger monument in place, erecting a new one next to it explaining the history and nature of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and discarding the plaque, which Soglin said has “no historical value.”

“For me, I’d favor just removing them and erecting something simple there that would inform the public of what was there before,” City Council President Marsha Rummel said. “My commitment is to reparations, and taking down these monuments in public places is a small part of that.”

Efforts to reach someone with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, based in Richmond, Virginia, were unsuccessful. The organization’s website describes one of its aims as “to collect and preserve the material necessary for a truthful history of the War Between the States and to protect, preserve, and mark the places made historic by Confederate valor.”

Nine days after the Charlottesville incident, the organization’s president general, Patricia Bryson, issued a statement denouncing white supremacy and seeking tolerance for Confederate symbols.

“We are grieved that certain hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own,” she said. “The United Daughters of the Confederacy totally denounces any individual or group that promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy. And we call upon these people to cease using Confederate symbols for their abhorrent and reprehensible purposes.

“It is our sincere wish that our great nations and its citizens will continue to let its fellow Americans, the descendants of Confederate soldiers, honor the memory of their ancestors,” she said.

The American Historical Association had its own take on Confederate monuments after Charlottesville.

“Memorials to the Confederacy were intended, in part, to obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction, and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life,” the association said in August. “A reprise of commemoration during the mid-20th century coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and included a wave of renaming and the popularization of the Confederate flag as a political symbol.”

Confederate Rest

The city opened Forest Hill Cemetery in 1857, and it has particular connections to the Civil War.

Starting in April 1862, roughly 1,200 captured Confederate soldiers were moved to the nearby Union Army stockade at Camp Randall. But Camp Randall was ill equipped to serve as a prison camp, and prisoners were relocated to Camp Douglass near Chicago in July that year.

Still, 140 of the Confederate prisoners being housed at Camp Randall died of disease or wounds during their short stay. The soldiers were initially interred in a mass grave at Forest Hill and eventually given their own headstones there in an area now know as Confederate Rest.

In a nearby plot, 240 Union veterans were buried.

The city still owns and maintains the grave sites and monuments there.

“In the 1860s, like today, no one would have argued that the dead should not be appropriately buried,” said Stephen Kantrowitz, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of history at UW-Madison. “But I think it’s fair to say that no one would have imagined that the soldiers of an army of rebellion against the United States deserved a monument to their heroic sacrifice.

“That came later, at the turn of the century and later, when white Americans had for the most part agreed to forget that the war had been a struggle over the future of slavery,” Kantrowitz said.

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In 1906, the United Daughters of the Confederacy installed the larger monument, on which is inscribed the names of the deceased, including that of Alice Whiting Waterman, who cared for the graves after moving to Madison from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1866, and was buried there in 1897.

Soglin has described the Daughters group as “a racist and bigoted organization” and said the monument honors “treasonous rebels” as part of a national propaganda campaign to rewrite history and provide a favorable interpretation of the Civil War.

The first Confederate monument went up “when the reunion of white Northerners and Southerners had been accomplished at the cost of accepting Jim Crow,” Kantrowitz said.

In 1982, the city allowed the small monument to be donated and erected just outside the Confederate Rest section. It describes the men buried there as “valiant Confederate soldiers” and “unsung heroes.” The privately funded plaque, which rested on a granite structure, said the soldiers were buried in the Union state after surrendering in a battle and dying at Camp Randall as prisoners of war.

Before removal

The 1981 memorial to the Confederate soldiers buried at Forest Hill Cemetery that was removed.

The plaque “celebrates what was already by then understood to be a fatally flawed interpretation of the Civil War — one that moves the crucial issues to one side in order to celebrate ‘valiant’ and ‘unsung heroes,’” Kantrowitz said.

Soglin ordered the plaque removed on Aug. 16, and it is currently in storage at an undisclosed location. The city would not allow the Wisconsin State Journal to photograph the plaque at its current location but assured it hasn’t been damaged.

The mayor initially outlined options for both monuments in a blistering critique on Aug. 21, in which he called the larger monument a historical “lie” placed there to promote a new form of racism, rather than a monument of the Civil War.

“Of course we need to know the history of the Civil War, and of the Confederacy, and of its army,” Kantrowitz said. “But we don’t need to celebrate a flawed understanding of that history with a monument.”

The city has already taken actions to reduce the Confederate presence at Forest Hill.

Before 2000, the city owned and stored both a Confederate national flag and a Confederate battle flag and would fly them on a city-owned pole in the Confederate Rest section one week before and one week after Memorial Day. The Sons of Confederate Veterans would also place small replicas of the battle flag on the graves at the same time.

City policy evolved

In 2001, after an effort to limit the flags raised objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, city policy evolved to allow Confederate flags to be flown on the city-owned flagpole by individuals, groups or organizations only on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, with small Confederate flags at gravesites at any time.

But on June 17, 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, a white supremacist and neo-Nazi, entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown, South Carolina and slaughtered nine African-Americans. After the massacre, photos of Roof surfaced with the Confederate battle flag, including one in which he held the flag in one hand and a gun in the other, triggering national outrage and efforts to remove Confederate symbols around the country.

Under intense pressure, South Carolina acted first, passing legislation to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds, where it had flown since 1962.

Confederate monument detail

The monument to Confederate soldiers placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy at Forest Hill Cemetery in 1906.

In 2016, Madison removed the flagpole from the Confederate Rest area at Forest Hill and last year changed policy for gravesite flags and flagpoles, allowing only the U.S. flag, flags of the armed forces, the city and state flags, and recognized flags of current United Nations members.

Madison’s current conversation comes amid a national debate over Confederate monuments.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified at least 1,503 Confederate symbols across the nation, including 718 monuments and statues, 109 schools named after Confederate icons, 80 cities and counties named after Confederates, nine official Confederate holidays in six states, and 10 military bases named after Confederates.

“To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history,” the American Historical Association said.

The historical association urges communities to use the expertise of historians to help make decisions based on evidence. “We also encourage communities to remember that all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place,” it said. “They should be preserved, just like any other historical document, whether in a museum or some other appropriate venue.”

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The original version misstated the year the United Daughters of the Confederacy installed a stone cenotaph at Forest Hill with the names of Confederate soldiers buried there. The monument was erected in 1906.]

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