When I was 22, I was drafted into the army. I remember the somber and emotional moment when I raised my right hand and took the oath “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” The year was 1970, and the Vietnam War was still raging and far from over. Close to a half-million American troops were stationed there, halfway around the world. Like many young men during that time, I was conflicted about the war, but nevertheless, I did my duty as an infantryman. I eventually came home safely – others were not so lucky. Their names and the dates of their deaths are inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.
Recently, three new granite war memorials were installed on the public grounds of the Talbot County Courthouse commemorating the soldiers from the county who did not return from WWI, WWII, and the Korean War. These memorials are a welcome addition to the Talbot County Vietnam Memorial that had previously been erected there. As a veteran and as a citizen of Talbot County, I applaud the presence of both the new memorials as well as the statue of Frederick Douglass that stands on the green to the north of them. The war memorials honor the men who fought for liberty and made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. The Frederick Douglass statue, in turn, pays tribute to a giant American patriot who was the principle moral compass for the nation during the Civil War and the years that followed, and was unquestionably the most well-known orator of his day.
What disturbs me, however, is the presence of the oldest of the monuments on the courthouse grounds, a Confederate monument commonly known as the “Talbot Boys” statue. This monument clearly a symbol of racism, thumbs its nose at Douglass and the Talbot veterans honored on the nearby memorials. Standing between them, it remains a stark contradiction that many, including three of our council members, Price, Divilio, and Callahan, choose to ignore. As a veteran, I firmly believe this monument, depicting its racially offensive Confederate flag, fails to meet the high standards of the other monuments located in the public space, and needs to be removed.
The Confederate soldiers names carved into its granite base never took the military oath that I and millions of others took “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States” – quite the opposite. Their allegiance was to those states that chose to leave the Union and continue the institution of slavery. These soldiers never fought for anyone’s freedom. Instead, they sided with those who held the sinister belief of a white man’s right to own another. Contrary to what many believe, after the Civil War ended, these Confederate soldiers were not given status as veterans. It’s true, as a humanitarian gesture, their wives were able to receive benefits, but their husbands were never recognized as true veterans of the United States.
This all begs the question: What would Frederick Douglass think of this glaring contradiction if he were alive today? A recently published biography of Douglass, entitled Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight, gives us a fairly good idea. Talbot County’s most famous son, was the country’s most important civil rights leader during the last half of the 19th Century. He was also a crucial advisor to President Abraham Lincoln during the years of Reconstruction. Douglass felt strongly that history mattered and feared the Lost Cause sentimentality that was rapidly spreading across the Southern States soon after the Civil War. This was the same Southern historical fiction that was used to justify the erection of the Talbot Boys statue on the courthouse grounds in 1916 at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was at its peak and Jim Crow laws were being cruelly enforced by lynchings throughout the South and in many of the border states including Maryland.
According to Blight, Douglass believed such sentimentality was wrong and dangerous. He was equally upset with the veneration of General Robert E. Lee after he died in 1870, disgusted at what he called the “bombastic laudation” and the “nauseating flatteries” of the “rebel chief.” Douglass concluded, “He, (meaning Lee), was a traitor and can be made nothing else.” Like Douglass, I can think of no other country after experiencing such a horrific civil war, would be so magnanimous and eager to honor its enemy. The South’s keenness to honor Confederate generals with statues as well as romanticize the Confederate cause, I believe, is one of the principle reasons that this country, more than 150 years after the Civil War had ended, has not been able to heal its racial wounds.
Finally, let me be absolutely clear, those of us who want this monument to be removed from the courthouse grounds, do not wish to destroy it, or as some would argue, to erase history. All we ask is that members of the County Council find another location for the monument and not allow it to continue to be the last Confederate monument to stand on Maryland public land. That is certainly a distinction, but not one we should be proud of. There is no question in my mind, this monument that shamelessly honors traitors and continues to spread the false history of the Lost Cause, will be removed.
Jim Richardson is an artist and writer who lives in Claiborne, Maryland.