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A Civil War statue on Martha’s Vineyard has sparked a controversy on that island

The monument was built in 1891 by a former Confederate officer.
The monument was built in 1891 by a former Confederate officer.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

OAK BLUFFS — The Union soldier looks toward the nearby ferry terminal, hands resting on the barrel of his rifle, his trim frame draped in a military coat and cape. A proud Martha’s Vineyarder defending his country at a time of desperate peril.

It’s a 19th-century monument like thousands of others in town squares and city parks throughout the North. Except for this: Its iron-cast base contains a 1925 plaque that honors the Confederate enemy, a surprising tribute for a summer getaway long known for its vibrant black community.

Civil War statue plaque.
Civil War statue plaque.(Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff)

“The chasm is closed,” the plaque reads. “In memory of the restored Union, this tablet is dedicated by Union veterans of the Civil War and patriotic citizens of Martha’s Vineyard in honor of the Confederate soldiers.”

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The tablet, placed on a Union monument built in 1891 by a former Confederate officer who had moved to Oak Bluffs, was meant as a gesture of reconciliation with the South and for years attracted little notice.

But nearly a century after its dedication, the plaque has suddenly turned divisive, with the island’s NAACP chapter leading calls for its removal. The NAACP also wants a marker that mentions the Confederate tribute removed from the ground in front of the statue.

“We do not honor treason or those who fought to continue the institution of slavery,” Gretchen Tucker Underwood, a leader of the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP, told the Board of Selectmen at a contentious meeting last week.

But for many residents, including the island’s veterans agent, removing the plaque is tantamount to rewriting the historical record. The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, a national organization, also opposes its removal.

“I just hate taking from history just because someone doesn’t like it,” said Jo Ann Murphy, the Dukes County veterans agent and American Legion commander in Vineyard Haven. “This is a monument we dedicated to those who fought in the war, and they were all Americans.”

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In the two years since white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Va., monuments to the Confederacy have been toppled or removed from Baltimore to New Orleans amid a polarizing debate over race and history.

Now, that dispute has found its way north to this picturesque island. Some historians believe the Oak Bluffs plaque is one of only a few in the North — perhaps the only one not on a Civil War battlefield in the region — that honors Confederate soldiers. A tablet in Boston Harbor honoring Confederate POWs who died on Georges Island was ordered removed by the state in 2017.

The Oak Bluffs statue was erected by Charles Strahan, a former Confederate lieutenant who was wounded in battle, moved to the island after the war, and bought a newspaper he renamed the Martha’s Vineyard Herald.

Three sides of the monument contain Union inscriptions, and the plaque wasn’t added to the fourth side for 34 years. Aging and frail at the time, Strahan finally realized his hope that the remaining Union veterans would recognize an old foe with something other than emnity.

But now, the tablet reminds its critics of the Confederacy’s fight to preserve slavery.

A plaque on the Civil War statue in Oak Bluffs.
A plaque on the Civil War statue in Oak Bluffs. (Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff)

“This just proves to me that the chasm is not closed,” said Erik Blake, the town’s police chief, who is white and president of the NAACP chapter. “We need to do the right thing.”

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The timing of any decision is uncertain.

Selectmen last week scheduled a public forum on the issue for May 21. That meeting will occur weeks before most black summertime residents arrive, and seasonal resident Clennon King assailed the move as exclusionary.

“This whole thing is about race at the end of the day,” said King, a documentary filmmaker from Roxbury.

His remarks drew an angry comment from across the crowded room.

“We’re not prejudiced here!” someone said.

The exchange prompted Gail Barmakian, the board’s chairwoman, to call a timeout.

“If this continues, I’m going to shut everything down,” Barmakian said.

The tempest has surprised many residents here, where the plaque avoided controversy for decades.

“I don't recall there ever being a discussion of it being problematic,” said Anthony Bowdoin Van Riper, research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. “What happened in Charlottesville probably lit the fuse on it and got more people conscious of monuments that in some way celebrated the Confederacy.”

Although the plaque is not viewed as a “celebration” of the Confederacy, its Southern ties are well known. Indeed, for years, the statue was thought by many islanders and tour-bus drivers to be a Confederate soldier.

Gretchen Tucker Underwood, next to the controversial statue, is on the execuitive committe of the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP.
Gretchen Tucker Underwood, next to the controversial statue, is on the execuitive committe of the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP.(Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff)

Van Riper believes the town-owned statue, which sits dozens of yards from the police station, was part of Strahan’s long-running struggle to win over Union veterans and their friends.

“This is a guy who really, really wants his neighbors to like him and not treat him like dirt just because he was on the other side,” Van Riper said. “He’s like the most unpopular kid on the block who throws a big party and invites all the cool kids.”

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Strahan, a Baltimore native who fought with the Army of Northern Virginia, needed to do something.

His newspaper announced plans for a Memorial Day event, but Union veterans threatened to boycott the celebration if he showed up. Instead, Strahan stayed away and sent a reporter, who wrote effusively of the bravery and honor of the Grand Army of the Republic, the postwar organization of Union veterans.

Then came the statue. At its dedication 26 years after the war, Strahan spoke of his affection for the restored Union and his gratitude that slavery had been abolished.

Later, paraphrasing the dying words of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Strahan expressed hope that Union veterans might place on the statue “a token of respect to their old foes in the field, who have passed over to the other side of the river and are resting under the trees.”

But to some, that “token of respect” glorifies the cause for which they fought.

“This is your welcome to Martha’s Vineyard,” said Underwood, glancing at the statue rising above her. She suggested that the plaque be donated to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

“It’s a nice statue, but . . . ” Underwood said, her words trailing off. “Someone has to stand up and remove these incendiary symbols. I don’t think there’s ever a wrong time for righteousness.”

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Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.