As the Spy has noted before, it was inevitable that after the tragedy of Charleston and the banning of the rebel battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds earlier this year, every municipality in the United States was going to take a second look at how it honors the veterans of the Confederacy. And Talbot County has not been the exception here. The 100-year-old “Talbot Boys” Memorial, which gives tribute to those who fought for the South, was an extraordinarily good candidate for this kind of scrutiny.
And scrutiny has indeed been the case. The local chapter of the NAACP has formally asked for its removal, the Star-Democrat has advocated a similar position while the Talbot County Council has had at least one open meeting on the subject. In addition, the Talbot Association of Clergy and Laity has scheduled a four-month program of events, workshops, and social gatherings built on the theme of race awareness to continue the conversation as well.
Let there be no doubt how constructive this kind of community dialog is for all who live on the Mid-Shore. While it is surprising it took a century to have a regional discussion about the appropriateness of the Talbot Boys Memorial as it stands now, this prolonged examination of the past provides an extremely useful, and perhaps even healing history lesson for all who choose to participate. Painful as such subjects are like slavery and racism, they are nonetheless collectively the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed often and with great care.
The fact that the Talbot Boys has been the catalyst for all this activity testifies to the powerful symbolism monuments have, consciously or unconsciously, in our society. While many times lost in the daily lives on those who pass these statues, they still convey the importance of history, particularly when located on the sacred grounds of a courthouse of justice.
In the case of the Talbot Boys, the symbolism seems at first rather clear. With large initials spelling C.S.A. to indicate the Confederate States of America, the memorial lists the scores of local men who lost their lives fighting for the South. With no mention of the similar number of Talbot’s Union soldiers who were also killed, the statue welcomes the impression that Talbot County’s pride has only been reserved for the boys in gray. And by extension, this one-sided tribute could logically be seen as not only honoring the South’s veterans, but to also mourn subtly the death of the Confederate cause itself.
While there could be a legitimate debate on what that “cause” was, for the vast number of Americans living today, many of whom rely exclusively on Hollywood as their primary source for history, the only motive for the South’s secession was to preserve the institution of slavery and racism in our laws. And this consensus of opinion has enough facts behind it that any effort to formally highlight that “cause” can only be seen for many, and particularly African-Americans, only as repugnant reminder of the evil that slavery has caused humanity. It seems reasonable therefore that all of these potent symbols should be eradicated from the public’s property.
But if only it were as simple as that. Real history inconveniently reminds us often that with the Civil War very few things were black or white or blue or gray. As our interview with local historian Russell Dashiell last week highlighted, there was perhaps no other region in the country, nor Maryland for that matter, who was more evenly divided between secessionists and unionists than the Eastern Shore. As Dashiell points out, newspapers and local elections show almost a clean 50-50 split during the lead up to the Civil War.
Adding to the complexity was the frequently seen paradox of local slave owners, or their sons, enlisting with the Union while known anti-slavery advocates felt compelled to serve in the Confederacy to support state rights. Similarly, local newspapers echoed this strange dichotomy with editorials supporting the South’s right to leave the country while being on record as abhorring slavery; others wanted Maryland to continue as a slave state but remain in the Union. In short, the Eastern Shore was profoundly conflicted on both the cause and purpose of the war.
Keeping in mind that the majority of those who held those debates were rarely candidates for military service themselves. The call for enlistment targeted teenagers and young men of Talbot County to join both sides of the war. And in the keeping with the local values of duty, loyalty, and family tradition, most of those boys had no choice in determining on which side they would serve. In the isolated world of a rural Eastern Shore town in 1861, their allegiance had been conditioned and sealed decades before they were even born.
Those Talbot boys marched into battle for the simple reason that they loved their family and their community. To attribute any other motivation would be exceedingly difficult and unconvincing. For every man that had the critical thinking skills to debate the moral or political pros and cons of a war, there were twenty to thirty illiterate and poor farm boys only doing what was expected of them.
And in that sense, those boys do need to be honored by our community. They possessed an unconditional sense of responsibility and courage that should stand out as something worthy of special acknowledgment in Talbot County. Those values were important then, and they are important now. To honor those who possessed that sense of duty, regardless of the tragically flawed thinking of their elders, is the right thing to do on the courthouse lawn.
But the same holds true for the Union’s Talbot boys. Those qualities of bravery and loyalty were equally present with those in blue uniforms. Their noticeable absence from the lawn cannot be compensated by the presence of Frederick Douglass nor any other leader of the Civil War era. Those young people had their own names and their own families. They deserve the same honor of public acknowledgment, not because of the righteousness of a cause, but because they were our community’s boys.
They were all Talbot County boys.