New England’s only standing memorial to the Confederacy, a modest stone marker on Georges Island commemorating Confederate prisoners who died at Fort Warren, remains covered pending its move into storage. But what the Commonwealth decides to do with its space could help shape the direction of our national soul-searching about Confederate monuments in the Union’s public spaces.
Those opposed to removing Confederate memorials often claim to do so for the sake of history: “You shouldn’t try to erase the past! Without these reminders, how will we learn from history?” But monuments to the past are not the same as the past itself. They’re interpretations of the past, clothed in the authority of granite and bronze, erected to convey values that those who dedicated them wanted the public to share.
And the main problem with Confederate memorials, including ours in Massachusetts, isn’t that they remind us of an unpleasant part of our history. It’s that they misrepresent it. They were meant to; their most prolific sponsor was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose prime goal was to rebrand the Confederacy as a noble lost cause. Make no mistake, the UDC did good works: It raised money to support orphans, widows, and aging veterans of the Civil War. But for more than a century, the group also systematically whitewashed history by rewriting textbooks, stationing Confederate flags and monuments in public schools and parks, and lobbying legislatures to advance benevolent views of the Confederacy and of its defense of slavery. Today’s enduring narratives about the Civil War as being fought over states’ rights and Confederate symbols as “heritage, not hate” are testaments to the UDC’s success.
Massachusetts needs to reckon with our memorial — also the UDC’s handiwork — not as an isolated marker, but a northern outpost in a campaign to rewrite history. The Fort Warren memorial may seem innocuous, but it tells a glib and disingenuous story, asking us to see equal virtue on both sides of “the War Between the States” and to empathize with Confederate prisoners of war while glossing over the stories that brought them here.
Major Reid Sanders, for instance, had been a POW twice. First captured in November 1862, he was released by the North a month later in exchange for a Union POW. After he was caught again, his mother, a friend of the family of Jefferson Davis, begged the Confederacy’s president to exchange another Union soldier for her son. But prisoner exchanges broke down a month after Sanders was taken to Fort Warren when Davis refused to include captured black soldiers from Massachusetts’s 54th Infantry in the deals on the grounds that only people, not property, could be considered POWs. Sanders died of dysentery, but indirectly because the Confederacy refused to acknowledge blacks were humans, let alone Americans or soldiers. The memorial also displays the Great Seal of the Confederacy, an assault on the very idea of the United States, and flaunts a motto — Deo Vindice, both “God is our protector” and “God is our avenger” — that promises the war isn’t over.
Those who argue that monuments help us learn about our past are right. We shouldn’t simply let the spaces Confederate memorials once occupied blind us with their emptiness. As a nation, we have been discussing where to relocate these monuments, but we haven’t really wrestled with what should take their place. When we move the memorial on Georges Island — and perhaps it can eventually be put inside the fort itself as part of an educational exhibit — we could replace it with one that more fully reflects the stories of Fort Warren’s POWs, like the escape attempt witnessed by Charles Stone, custodian of Fort Warren’s prisoners. As he recounted it in the Globe in 1931: “The idea was to rush and kill the garrison and then turn the guns of the fort on The General Scott, a big passenger steamer . . . . If everything went O.K., they were to bring the heavy artillery to bear on Boston.” The story could enter city lore with a memorial to the Union troops who foiled the Confederate POW coup that would have “laid Boston in ruins” and changed the course of the war.
Fort Warren was also famously humane, and the 13 Confederate dead listed on the memorial represent one of the lowest mortality rates of any Civil War prison, less than half a percent. (By contrast, nearly 13,000 Union POWs, almost 30 percent, died of disease and malnutrition at the camp at Andersonville, Georgia.) That’s in part because the residents of Boston pitched in to help the Confederate POWs, urged on by the city’s newspapers, which ran stories about the prisoners’ needs and editorials calling for Christian charity. People responded with blankets, shoes, coats, food, and more. A memorial that recalls Boston’s mercy toward the captured would convey American values and exemplify the past more accurately than the current marker.
Whatever the fate of Confederate monuments, here and elsewhere, we should consider carefully not only what to do with them, but what to put in their place to undo over a century of propaganda and provide a more complete view of our history. Communities nationwide are grappling for answers. Massachusetts has an opportunity to help lead the way.Christopher Polt is a Newhouse Fellow at Wellesley College and a professor of classical studies at Boston College. Follow him on Twitter at @CBPolt. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.