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State officials still undecided about fate of Boston’s only Confederate memorial

The boarded-up Confederate war memorial on George's Island on Tuesday, August 15, 2017. A DCR employee declined to comment on why the monument to 13 Confederate soldiers who died here was boarded up.
The boarded-up Confederate war memorial on George's Island on Tuesday, August 15, 2017. A DCR employee declined to comment on why the monument to 13 Confederate soldiers who died here was boarded up.(Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe)

Not long after New Orleans officials removed four Confederate statues that many viewed as symbols of racism and hatred this summer, Governor Charlie Baker voiced his desire to remove Massachusetts’s only Confederate memorial, located near Fort Warren on Georges Island.

It’s an effort that has proven easier said than done.

The memorial, erected in 1963 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, has been boarded up since June 16 as the Department of Conservation and Recreation and Massachusetts Historical Commission determine what to do with it.

State officials say the process of removal or relocation is under greater scrutiny because of Fort Warren’s designation as a national historic landmark. Meanwhile, the headstone commemorating 13 Confederate soldiers who died while imprisoned at Fort Warren during the Civil War remains on a grassy slope near the visitor center, its future unclear.

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Questions about the memorial in Boston Harbor come as Confederate statues around the country have become a flashpoint for violence and unrest, and as President Trump took criticism for his comments on the planned removal in Charlottesville, Va., of a statue of Civil War General Robert E. Lee.

Before dawn Wednesday, officials in Baltimore whisked off four Confederate statues, loading them onto flatbed trucks and driving them away. The city had reportedly been studying the removal of the statues since 2015. It is unclear where, or if, they will be relocated.

A similar question swirls around the memorial at Fort Warren. In June, DCR Commissioner Leo Roy sent a letter to the Massachusetts Historical Commission seeking guidance about the removal. The agency responded in July and requested that the DCR submit preferred alternatives, removal techniques, and other options the agency was considering for the historical commission to review.

The Massachusetts Historical Commission has not received the form, according to Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who is chairman of the historical Commission.

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In June, Baker voiced his desire to remove and relocate the Confederate memorial, and his spokeswoman reiterated his wish this week.

“Governor Baker believes we should refrain from the display of symbols, especially in our public parks, that do not support liberty and equality for the people of Massachusetts,” Elizabeth Guyton, the governor’s communications director, said in a prepared statement on Tuesday. “Since this monument is located on a national historic landmark, the governor supports the department working with the historical commission to explore relocation options.”

Officials at the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which has its headquarters in Virginia, could not be reached for comment on the memorial at Fort Warren.

“These were women at the turn of the 20th century who saw it as their mission to protect the memory of the Confederacy, to continue to memorialize the men who fought, the soldiers in the ranks, their leaders, and the cause itself,” said author and Civil War historian Kevin Levin of Roslindale.

Emblazoned with the seal of the Confederacy, the marker states that more than 1,000 Confederate soldiers were imprisoned at Fort Warren, and lists those who died by name.

A 2016 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found an estimated 1,503 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces around the nation, most of them in the Deep South. Many were erected decades after the Civil War ended — during the early years of Jim Crow or as the civil rights movement gained strength in the 1960s.

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Historian Barbara Berenson, author of “Boston in the Civil War: Hub of the Second Revolution,” said context and historical background must be considered if the Boston Harbor memorial is to be relocated. She points out, for example, that the memorial references the “War Between the States” rather than the Civil War. The “War Between the States” is one of several terms for the Civil War used by some in the South.

Berenson said the marker was erected in an attempt to perpetuate an incorrect view of history during the Civil War centennial in the 1960s.

“I think museums, with accompanying proper contextual explanations, are in general the best place for Confederate war monuments,” Berenson said. “The contextual information should explain both historical inaccuracies on the monument and the story behind the erection of the monument.”

Nina Silber, a professor of history and American studies at Boston University, said she’s become more sympathetic to the view that these sculptures should be removed from public spaces.

“There is now a sense that a Confederate monument represents the movement that converged on Charlottesville this past weekend,” Silber said. “So a Confederate monument now bears that weight of what happened there, and what alt-right, white supremacist groups did.”

Though the Confederate memorial on Georges Island is less conspicuous than a large Civil War sculpture of a general on a pedestal, the question becomes whether it’s even necessary, she added.

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“The thing about the Georges Island plaque, it doesn’t say all that much, but in that regard it doesn’t add much either,” Silber said. “In a sense, all it’s doing is allowing the United Daughters of the Confederacy to have a place of legitimacy in a national historic landmark. I see no reason why they should.”

The Confederacy lost the Civil War and stood for principles that are antithetical to American values, Silber said. “The memorial might be innocuous,” she said, “but why give it a place?”


Cristela Guerra can be reached at Cristela.Guerra
@globe.com.