Monumental Debate

Erica Thompson
Dave Dobos, board president of the Hilltop Historical Society

The second Confederate monument at Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery, located on Sullivant Avenue in the Hilltop area west of Downtown Columbus, was met with great fanfare at its unveiling in 1902.

Thousands gathered and gazed upon the bronze statue of a south-facing Confederate soldier, rifle in hand, perched atop a granite arch inscribed with the word “Americans.” Below the arch was the first monument, a 3-foot boulder erected in 1897, bearing the inscription: “2260 Confederate Soldiers of the war 1861-1865 buried in this enclosure.”

Flowers sent in from the South — including a large floral piece from the Robert E. Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy — adorned the arch and surrounding area. Poems were read, prayers were recited and songs such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Dixie” were performed.

Leading the event was Civil War Union veteran Col. William H. Knauss, who, in the mid-1890s, spearheaded efforts to mark the graves of the Confederate soldiers who were held captive and died in Camp Chase, once a prisoner of war camp. He also oversaw the upkeep of the grounds (the land had fallen into disrepair after the war), and, in 1895, began hosting an annual ceremony to honor the Confederate men and small percentage of Union veterans buried there. He recorded his endeavors in great detail in his book, “The Story of Camp Chase,” first published in 1906.

Each June, both Confederate and Union veterans joined together to decorate graves and deliver addresses at the event. Reporting on the 1898 ceremony,The Columbus Dispatch painted a picture of solidarity: “The soldiers of the two sections long ago learned that the war is over, and the exhibition of today was only a manifestation of that return of peace at which all the world wonders.”

It was a sentiment also captured by Ohio Gov. George K. Nash, who presented the new monument at the 1902 ceremony. “Forty years ago we were divided into two hostile camps. Today the scene is changed. We are not here as Federals; we are not here as Confederates; we are all here as Americans to do honor to our heroic dead and to do something, if possible, to make our country greater and better in the years to come,” he said.

“The days of strife are over; they are gone forever, and nevermore will they disturb our peace and harmony,” he continued.

But 115 years later, in the early hours of Aug. 22, 2017, the Confederate statue was toppled and decapitated by vandals who absconded with its head. A fitting symbol for an arguably broken nation, the act of vandalism occurred less than two weeks after the “Unite the Right Rally” of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and self-professed alt-right members protesting the proposed removal of the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park (recently renamed from Lee Park) in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The rally, during which a man drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, re-ignited the nationwide debate on the removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces. The discussion was also brought to the forefront by the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina church massacre by white supremacist Dylann Roof.

In the month since the deadly events in Charlottesville, Confederate monuments have been coming down at a rapid rate, both by unlawful means — like the toppling of a Durham, North Carolina Confederate statue by protesters — and government orders, like those given by Baltimore, Maryland Mayor Catherine Pugh to abruptly remove four monuments overnight.

In Ohio, both a Gen. Lee marker in Warren County and a historic marker outside the former home of a Confederate general in Worthington have been removed. Currently, the memorial beside Confederate Capt. William C. Quantrill's grave in Dover, and the statue of a Confederate soldier in Johnson's Island Confederate Cemetery on the coast of Lake Erie, remain intact.

According to the National Cemetery Administration, the Camp Chase statue will be repaired, but the monument represents a gray area in the deliberation over the fate of Confederate symbols. Should a statue erected as part of an effort to remember deceased veterans and promote unity be off limits?

“This is a cemetery, and I think we've got to respect those who are there and what came before us,” said Dave Dobos, board president of the Hilltop Historical Society, which has been overseeing the long-running June memorial ceremony since 1995. “If folks know the history of why that statue was there and who it was there to remember … I think [they] would look at it differently.”

Dobos stressed the statue depicts not a Confederate leader like Gen. Lee but the “common soldier,” and is not to meant to honor the “cause” of the Civil War.

And while there is widespreaddebate over the extent to which Confederate soldiers have equal status as U.S. veterans, Confederate cemeteries — including Camp Chase — are overseen by the National Cemetery Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“These are folks on the Confederate side who just simply didn't get to go home,” Dobos said of those buried at Camp Chase. “This place played a significant role for the Union during the Civil War, and this is our little part of history in our community.”

Prior to becoming a prison, which once held 8,000 inmates and was on at least once occasion ravaged by disease, Camp Chase was a training camp for Union army recruits. It extended into the present-day Westgate residential community and on the land now occupied by West High School. Residents of the neighborhood and Greater Columbus, along with descendants of both Union and Confederate soldiers from many states, attend the annual memorial ceremonies, Dobos said.

To further promote unity, one Confederate soldier and one Union soldier are highlighted at the event, which does not include any political statements, Dobos added.

Interestingly, there are also African-Americans buried at Camp Chase, though their presence is hardly a testament to equality. For example, two African-American men, identified as Haywood Goodloe and Walter [last name unknown] in Col. Knauss' book, were servants captured along with their Confederate masters. Although they were given the option to “go home” — as prisoners, their masters could no longer control nor protect them — Goodloe and Walter decided to stay at Camp Chase, and both later died from pneumonia.

The reason for their decision to stay is not mentioned, but one has to wonder if the thought of returning “home” to subjugation in the South appeared less favorable than imprisonment.

For many African-Americans today, Confederate monuments are reminders of this oppression, including slavery, segregation and suppression of civil rights, especially given that many of the monuments were erected during tumultuous times.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has made an effort to catalog Confederate symbols in public places, the dedication of those symbols spiked during two periods of history: in the early 1900s during the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the enactment of Jim Crow laws adopted to disenfranchise African-Americans; and during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Today, as demonstrated by events in Charlottesville, these Confederate monuments can become rallying places for white-supremacist groups expressing hate speech against ethnic and/or minority groups.

So, while some argue that removing Confederate monuments is changing or erasing history and culture — on Aug. 17, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments” — others argue that keeping them up is promoting a history and culture marked by the exclusion of and terror faced by a segment of the population.

But Confederate monuments at cemeteries — which the SPLC excluded from its catalog — are a delicate matter.

“It should definitely be talked about,” said local African-American activist Stacey Little, who works with criminal justice reform group People's Justice Project. “[But] that's touchy when you're talking about burial grounds and cemeteries. … If someone I know was buried somewhere, I wouldn't want someone to go and make a ruckus at their burial site.”

Dobos also welcomes open discussion about the fate of the Confederate statue at Camp Chase, but was “profoundly disappointed” that an anonymous culprit made the decision to knock it down. “I don't think any one person has the right to actually take that type of action themselves. If something is going to happen, that's a community [and] federal government decision,” he said.

Prior to the vandalism, the Department of Veterans Affairs press secretary Curt Cashour said, “Monuments to Confederate soldiers stand only in cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are buried or memorialized, and we have no plans to disturb those grave sites or monuments.”

“I stand with mayors across the country as they remove statues and monuments that celebrate leaders of the Confederacy,” Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said in a statement. Regarding Camp Chase, however, he mentioned he would “look to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for guidance as they consider the appropriateness of historical markers.”

In a statement toAlive following the vandalism, Ginther said:

“I understand that markers of the Confederacy bring pain to those fighting persistent racism in our community and across our country, but the destruction of property — and the desecration of any grave site — is unacceptable regardless who was interred. We must remain focused on productive, not destructive, action to bring about the change we seek and to further the fight for equality.”

Among activists in Columbus, more attention has been paid to the statues of Christopher Columbus in the city. On August 19, the Columbus branch of activist group Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) held a “Solidarity with #Charlottesville Rally” at City Hall, calling for the removal of the Columbus statue onsite.

Like Confederate leaders, Christopher Columbus is regarded by many as a symbol of the oppression of people of color — specifically the extermination of Native Americans and initiation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Following the Charlottesville rally, a Columbus statue was vandalized in Baltimore, Maryland, one was decapitated in Yonkers, New York, and another was defaced in Queens, New York. And now, the New York City Council is currently debating the removal of the Columbus statue in Columbus Circle near Central Park. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, activists recently launched a petition aimed at replacing a statue of Columbus with a true local icon: Prince.

“There are many perspectives on the Christopher Columbus statue at City Hall,” Ginther said in a statement toAlive. “But I would urge residents not to be distracted from the need to address the real problem: the racial divide in our community and across the country.”

When asked for his next steps to address the racial divide in Columbus, which has seen numerous protests in response to racial issues, including several police-involved killings of African-Americans in the past two years, Ginther replied with a statement highlighting several initiatives, including the formation of an Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the commencing of a diversity study aimed at ensuring women and minorities have equal access to city contracts. “I am committed to taking concrete steps to address disparities that exist and to make sure all of our residents have an equal opportunity to succeed,” he wrote.

Stacey Little attended the SURJ rally at City Hall and has plans to organize students to get the Columbus statue removed from the grounds of Columbus State Community College, where she attends school.

“I just want to get the students to understand and learn the history,” Little said. “This isn't a representation of our campus. It isn't a representation of me. It isn't a representation of my friends that I know, faculty and/or staff. It's just not a good representation of this city or school as a whole.”

“I feel like Christopher Columbus is the catalyst,” Little continued. “Honestly, if Christopher Columbus never would've sailed the sea, I don't think we'd be talking about the Confederacy. I don't think we'd be talking about Nazis. … He gave the blueprint.”

While conversation continues on the future of the Columbus statues, and the Camp Chase Confederate statue undergoes its repairs, Little has a unique solution for handling debated monuments.

“All this is a way for us to have the conversation … as we try to come up with a real-life representation of our nation,” she said. “I think every statue should be replaced with a globe, because everyone's from everywhere.”