The Talbot County Council must move the Confederate monument from the grounds of the courthouse.
That is a necessary first step toward resolving a controversy that has been facing the council since at least 2015 and to recognize Talbot’s full history, which has included slavery, white supremacy, segregation, and racism.
In the past five years, the county council has voted three times against measures to move the statue dedicated in 1916 to the men from Talbot County who fought against the United States of America in the Civil War:
- in 2015, after a white supremacist killed nine people at an historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C.;
- in 2017, after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., left one counter-protester dead; and
- in 2020, amid the rising calls for racial equality during protests against police brutality against minorities.
One could argue that the issue actually has been broiling since 2004, when the county council narrowly approved the construction of a monument honoring Frederick Douglass.
In what should have been a no-brainer, council members dithered over the best site to honor Douglass as some argued the courthouse lawn was “sacred grounds” upon which only veterans should be remembered.
It also must be noted that the erection of the Douglass statue was to honor Talbot’s greatest native son, not to somehow provide balance to the Confederate monument. Because that is what statues and monuments are for — to honor those represented, not to give viewers a history lesson — despite the arguments across the nation that destroying or moving monuments erases history.
Since the county council voted 3-2 last summer against removing the Confederate monument, a majority of members have declined to meet with the local NAACP chapter and faith leaders to discuss the issue. Despite that, the monument’s removal has been a predominant topic for those calling in to council meetings to offer public comments.
On one side are those who argue that the monument honors those who fought to preserve slavery and white supremacy and should be moved off the courthouse lawn, where it sits in a place of honor just outside the entrance to the Talbot County Circuit Court.
Opponents also argue that having a Confederate battle flag — a symbol of racism and white supremacy — outside the courthouse suggests to African-Americans that they will not get equal justice there.
On the other side are those who argue that the monument honors those who fought against the tyranny of the federal government — particularly in Maryland — during the war and that the monument is history and should remain where it is on public property.
The current debate has pitted cousin against cousin, much like the Civil War divided some families among those who supported and fought for the United States of America and those who supported and fought for the Confederate States of America.
As we discuss the war and the Talbot Confederate monument, we must keep key facts in mind and also acknowledge what we don’t know.
The cause of the Civil War
One of the most important facts we know is that the main cause of the Civil War was slavery.
The Confederacy was formed in order to preserve and extend the institution of African-American chattel slavery.
There are no ifs, ands, or buts about that fact. The historical record makes it clear. Historians largely agree. Many of the seceding states made it clear in their articles of secession. The Confederacy spelled it out in the Articles of Confederacy and in the “Cornerstone” speech made by the Confederate vice president.
With the election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States, the Southern states feared that slavery — the foundation of the region’s economy and its white supremacist society — would be ended.
As a result of that fear, Southern slave-holding states made a violent, unconstitutional attempt to leave the Union.
Why did Talbot’s rebels fight for the Confederacy?
We don’t know.
We do know — based on a review of Census data and war records — that a number of Talbot’s Confederates were slaveholders, with several having connections to Wye House, the plantation that enslaved more than 1,000 people during its peak.
Those enslaved at Wye House included a young Frederick Douglass; former Confederate President Jefferson Davis visited and stayed there in 1867.
he Preserve Talbot History group claims that Talbot’s Confederates were motivated by the unconstitutional wartime actions of Lincoln and his subordinates.
According to that group, Talbot’s Confederates are different from other Confederate soldiers due to what happened in Maryland and the county during the Civil War, including the imprisonment of Confederate sympathizers and the beating and arrest of Talbot’s judge.
But that is just their opinion. There is no evidence as to why a number of Talbot men — far fewer than those who fought for the nation — decided to leave their homes and do battle against the United States.
We do not have their letters or diaries explaining their reasons to join the Confederacy.
But we know from the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson in For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War — based on a review of more than 25,000 personal letters and 250 diaries — that “white supremacy and the right of property in slaves were at the core of the ideology for which Confederate soldiers fought.” (p. 106)
According to Wikipedia, “McPherson states that the Confederates did not discuss the issue of slavery as often as Union soldiers did, because most Confederate soldiers readily accepted as an obvious fact that they were fighting to perpetuate slavery, and thus did not feel a need to debate over it:
“‘[O]nly 20 percent of the sample of 429 Southern soldiers explicitly voiced proslavery convictions in their letters or diaries. As one might expect, a much higher percentage of soldiers from slaveholding families than from nonslaveholding families expressed such a purpose: 33 percent, compared with 12 percent. Ironically, the proportion of Union soldiers who wrote about the slavery question was greater…. There is a ready explanation for this apparent paradox. Emancipation was a salient issue for Union soldiers because it was controversial. Slavery was less salient for most Confederate soldiers because it was not controversial. They took slavery for granted as one of the Southern ‘rights’ and institutions for which they fought, and did not feel compelled to discuss it.‘ — James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997), pp. 109–110″
It could be reasonably inferred that Talbot’s slaveholding Confederates fought for the same reason as most Confederates — to preserve slavery.
One monument supporter even went so far in a call to the county council as to suggest the Confederate monument here is comparable to the preservation of Nazi concentration camps in Germany as a way to preserve history and ensure its atrocities aren’t repeated.
Other monument supporters have made the same ludicrous argument, not understanding or recognizing the difference between a statue meant to honor people and the preservation of sites that remind us of the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Confederate monument does not remind us of the horrific nature of slavery and the tremendous loss of thousands of innocent lives at the hands of white supremacists.
The current monument only serves to honor those men listed on its base, without any historical interpretation of their actions. It is a participation trophy as much as anything.
Unlike other war monuments on the courthouse lawn, which lists the local men who died in those conflicts, the Confederate monument lists the names of anyone with a connection to Talbot County who served in the military of the Confederate States of America. Those names include some men who were born here but had moved away before the war, as well as nearly a dozen men who moved to Talbot County after the war.
Certainly those Confederates from other states were not motivated by the “federal tyranny” in Maryland. They were fighting to maintain slavery.
A more fitting reminder of the evil of slavery — as suggested by Bishop Joel Johnson and others — would be interpretive panels at the site of the Confederate monument detailing the slave auctions that were held there on the courthouse lawn, the families that were torn apart, the thousands of people sent to be enslaved, raped, tortured, and killed.
Rather than honoring the Confederates who were born in Talbot County or moved here after the war with a participation trophy on the courthouse lawn, we need to recognize the full, true history of race relations in the county.
To do so, we must first remove the Confederate monument from the courthouse lawn. Then we can begin discussions on the best way to remember Talbot County’s involvement in the Civil War — and the county’s history of slavery, white supremacy, racism, and segregation.
This commentary was updated on February 27 for clarification.
John Griep is the public affairs editor for the Spy Newspapers. A native of Caroline County, John has spent more than 25 years as a reporter and editor covering Talbot County and the Mid-Shore, including county and town governments, courts, police, planning and zoning, business and real estate. He is a graduate of Washington College.