Slowly but surely, the national debate over the appropriateness — or lack thereof — of many historical monuments is making its way to Massachusetts. Local activist Kevin Peterson recently suggested renaming Faneuil Hall, since merchant Peter Faneuil was a slave owner. And this past weekend, the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr argued that several Boston statues might deserve a reassessment of their own.
So far, though, the state’s only Confederate memorial hasn’t been part of this burgeoning discussion — possibly because most people don’t even know it exists.
It takes about 45 minutes by boat to get to Georges Island in Boston Harbor. The island is home to Fort Warren, which housed Confederate prisoners during the Civil War and is now a National Historical Landmark. There’s also a visitor’s center that recounts the lives of the men who resided there — and, tucked into an unobtrusive spot behind the visitor’s center, a small memorial that gives this history an unexpected twist
“It [was] dedicated, or placed, on Georges Island in 1963, which is the height of the Civil War centennial,” said local historian and writer Kevin Levin, who writes the blog Civil War Memory and might be one of the only people to give the Georges Island memorial any thought.
“The centennial, for Americans, was not an attempt to get at the causes and consequences of the war," Levin said. "The centennial was about the brave white soldiers on both sides who died for their respective causes.”
“I think it’s best understood as a marker,” he added. “It doesn’t engage in the kind of flourish … that you’ll find on other Confederate monuments from early in the 20th century. This is just, ‘These men were prisoners here, 13 of them died.’”
Still, some of the memorial’s details might raise eyebrows. For example, it describes the Civil War as the “War Between the States,” a phrase favored by defenders of the Confederacy for the extra legitimacy it confers.
The memorial also boasts the Confederate seal and the Confederate motto, “Deo Vindice,” Latin for “With God as our defender.”
And then — perhaps most provocatively — there’s the backstory of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose now-defunct Boston chapter placed the marker on Georges Island.
UNC Charlotte Historian Karen Cox is the author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture,” the definitive book about the UDC. As she explains it, after the Civil War, the group worked to promulgate the mythology of the Lost Cause, which glorified all things Southern.
Even today, United Daughters of the Confederacy cites establishing “a truthful history of the War Between the States” as one of its primary goals.
Asked what “truthful history” means in this context, Cox identifies some provocative claims — starting with the notion that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights rather than slavery.
“They had romanticized the Old South,” Cox said, apparently referring to the UDC’s earlier days. “Confederate soldiers were not traitors but … rather, defenders of the Constitution.”
“They also regarded slavery as a benevolent institution — that planters were not mean to their slaves,” she added. “If anything, [planters] imparted Christianity to — they would call them savages. They would use that word.”
And, Cox added, “They see the original Ku Klux Klan, who were former Confederate officers, as heroes.”
Georges Island is an exception. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation, which owns and operates Georges Island, says there have been no requests for the memorial’s removal.
Levin thinks that’s understandable.
“The marker doesn’t really engage in any kind of justification for the war itself, or the Confederate cause,” he said. “I’d suspect that most people just walk by it and don’t give it a second thought.
But if more people knew about the existence of Massachusetts’ lone Confederate monument — and about the beliefs of the group that placed it on Georges Island — they might feel differently.
Since the state controls Georges Island, I asked the Baker Administration whether the governor believes the memorial should remain in its current location.
In a statement, Lizzy Guyton, Baker’s communications director, suggested that he doesn’t.
"Gov. 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,” Guyton said in an email. “Since this monument is located on a National Historic Landmark, the governor supports [DCR] working with the Massachusetts Historical Commission to explore relocation options."
It’s not entirely clear how any relocation process would work, however — especially since Fort Warren has National Historic Landmark status.
A spokesman for Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who oversees the Massachusetts Historical Commission, suggested the federal government might have final say over whether and how to move the monument.
An inquiry to the National Park Services’ National Historic Landmarks Program was not immediately returned.