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Confederate monuments are falling across the nation, but in Philly a memorial to Southern troops still stands

How the Confederate monument came to stand in the Philadelphia National Cemetery is a tale of persistent lobbying, changing politics, and tenacious efforts to reshape the American memory.

The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument, erected in Philadelphia National Cemetery in 1912, to honor the soldiers who fought for the South and who were buried here after their deaths at Philadelphia-area Civil War hospitals.
The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument, erected in Philadelphia National Cemetery in 1912, to honor the soldiers who fought for the South and who were buried here after their deaths at Philadelphia-area Civil War hospitals.Read moreJeff Gammage / Staff

Confederate monuments and statues are coming down across America, scores of them gone in just the last few months.

But not in Philadelphia, where a memorial to Southern war dead has stood for more than a century in the National Cemetery in West Oak Lane.

Its dedication in 1912 — on the 42nd anniversary of the passing of Gen. Robert E. Lee — aimed to obscure the pro-slavery cause of the Confederacy, and to recast the fight of the Southerners who lay nearby as true to the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

The thick granite block stands 9 feet, 6 inches tall, and bears the names of 184 Southern soldiers and sailors on three plaques. The fourth proclaims, “Erected by the United States.” The troops, all prisoners of war who died at local military hospitals, lie within a rectangular green field whose corners are marked by four squat, square stones inscribed with a “C.”

So far, no one has publicly suggested removing the monument, and many people don’t even know it’s there, not far from the graves of 350 African American soldiers from the Union U.S. Colored Troops, who died to free those enslaved by the South.

Whether it’s the only Confederate monument in the city is uncertain. Aside from those in Gettysburg National Military Park — untouchable under National Park Service policy — only four other markers are known in the state, all in Fulton County. There’s dispute over whether they honor Confederates or merely note their presence after the burning of Chambersburg in 1864, the last time Southern troops camped on Pennsylvania soil.

The dedication of the Philadelphia monument on Oct. 12, 1912, drew a thousand people, who heard Southern orator John Shepard Beard praise “the righteousness of the cause” for which the Confederates gave their lives.

“We are under sacred obligation to rescue their fame from the persistent stigma and unjust aspersion of ‘rebellion’ and ‘treason,’ ” he said, expressing his gratitude that “the heroes of the American Anglo-Saxon race, of two opposing armies, could be honored in one cemetery.”

The crowd sang “Dixie” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A bugler played Taps.

How the monument came to be is a tale of persistent lobbying, changing politics, and tenacious efforts to reshape the national memory. At the time, the United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored dozens of monuments promoting the glory of “the Lost Cause,” not only in the South but as far north as New York and Boston, and staged elaborate dedication ceremonies as Blue-and-Gray reunions.

Now, the memorial’s presence takes on new meaning amid the Black Lives Matter protests. It raises the question of whether cemetery monuments differ from those on courthouse lawns. And whether a city that in June took down a statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo and covered another of Christopher Columbus will overlook a memorial to those who fought to overthrow the United States.

“I don’t think the Rizzo statue or the Confederate monument — even for prisoners of war — are any different," said Megan Malachi, an educator and organizer with Philly for REAL Justice, which helped lead massive demonstrations against racism this summer. “They represent the same white supremacy.”

» READ MORE: For local Native Americans, a reckoning over hurtful images goes way beyond one South Philadelphia statue

The United Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond did not respond to requests for comment on the Philadelphia memorial. On its website, the group denounces white supremacy while asserting, “Confederate memorial statues and monuments are part of our shared American history and should remain in place.”

The Kenney administration plans to review all city-owned landmarks to be sure they align with city values, said spokesperson Mike Dunn. The Confederate memorial in the National Cemetery, which is maintained by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, could fall under that evaluation if monuments away from city property are considered, Dunn said.

“It has to go,” said historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries, who studies the Civil Rights Movement at Ohio State University. “The fact that it’s in a cemetery to me doesn’t make that much of a difference.”

Since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25, at least 93 Confederate statues and symbols have been taken down, or in the case of roads, parks or schools, renamed, according to national tracking by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. Those are among 146 monuments removed since 2015, after a white supremacist murdered nine worshipers at an African American church in Charleston, S.C.

The center counts symbols that both celebrate the Confederacy and are located on public land, but not those in graveyards, battlefields, or on private property. BeenVerified, a New York public-information firm, cites higher numbers based on wider criteria, saying 143 monuments have come down since Floyd’s death. It estimates that 1,652 remain, nearly all in the South.

President Trump opposes the removal of “our beautiful” Confederate statues, tweeting, “Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!” Several Southern states passed protective legislation, while other monuments have been removed by government action or toppled by demonstrators.

“That’s the great irony of monuments and memorials,” said Caroline Janney, a history professor at the University of Virginia, where she directs the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History. “The people who put them up intend for them to stand without any need for explanation. … But society changes around them, and those monuments no longer hold the meaning they once did.”

A 2016 Landscape Journal study examined 15 Northern graveyards with Confederate monuments, concluding they were emblematic of “the white South’s need for a narrative to support white supremacy and of the North’s abandonment of racial justice as it sought reconciliation.”

“The patina of age does not obscure their intent,” wrote authors Ned Crankshaw, Joseph E. Brent, and Maria Campbell Brent.

Gary Casteel, commander of the Gettysburg camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and whose ancestors fought on both sides, rejects the idea that the Philadelphia memorial or other Confederate monuments perpetuate white supremacy.

“Hogwash,” he said. “If you can’t accept the past, then you must have a hard time accepting America.”

» READ MORE: A school once named after a Confederate general now honors a former NBC10 anchor’s trailblazing parents

Philadelphia National Cemetery, at Haines Street and Limekiln Pike, contains more than 12,000 veterans from the Civil War and later conflicts, along with spouses and children. It’s a quiet space in a busy neighborhood, its rolling lawns surrounded by rowhouses.

Like other early national cemeteries, it developed from the Civil War — a conflict that fundamentally changed how Americans thought about death, and helped drive a national desire to properly bury the deceased.

In the early 19th century, people embraced the ideal of “a good death,” explained Sarah Beetham, chair of Liberal Arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she studies the destruction of Civil War monuments. They envisioned their loved one, fading but lucid, offering a peaceful goodbye to family members and quietly ascending to heaven.

The war ended that reverie. Too often, men died physically shattered, in agony, and alone. Thousands could not be identified, and some simply no longer existed — artillery fire could reduce foot soldiers to pink mist.

To Americans, Beetham said, the idea of locating, identifying and reclaiming the dead, of resting them in individual graves, became enormously important. That included placing memorials.

“The context of putting something in a cemetery is a little different from putting it in the town square [where it would] obviously speak about power, and white supremacy, and reserving the government for white people,” Beetham said. “Something that’s soberly marking their graves isn’t something I necessarily would take issue with.”

Nor does Andy Waskie, a retired Temple University professor and perhaps the city’s most esteemed Civil War historian.

“I have strong feelings for veterans, being one myself,” he said, “and despite the evil cause they died serving, they fought bravely in that lost cause and now rest, acknowledged as U.S. veterans, in eternal peace in a National Cemetery.”

Waskie’s ancestors fought for the Union — one wounded at Antietam, another at Petersburg — but he notes that veterans on both sides long ago abandoned their animosity.

"Who are we now over 150 years later to seek the removal of ancient monuments dedicated not to the horrible causes of the Rebellion, but rather to honor the humble veterans who served willingly and in some cases unwillingly to what they believed then to be a just cause?” Waskie said.

Union troops who died in Philadelphia-area hospitals were interred in soldiers' lots in 10 cemeteries. Those locations, while physically apart, were established in 1862 as Philadelphia National Cemetery.

By 1881, Army Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, son of a prominent Philadelphia obstetrician, was worried that new streets through local burial grounds would disturb Union graves. He recommended a single national cemetery. Four years later, the military acquired 13.3 acres to reestablish Philadelphia National Cemetery in one place.

Union remains were reinterred. Confederate dead were moved there in the 1880s from three Philadelphia cemeteries — Glenwood City, Odd Fellows, and Mount Moriah — and from Rural Cemetery in Chester. They were reburied in a single section, without headstones or a memorial.

That rankled the Philadelphia chapter of the UDC, which approached the cemetery superintendent in 1887 about donating a monument.

Impetus for recognition was growing, encouraged even by the White House.

When President William McKinley traveled to Atlanta in 1898, seeking support for the peace treaty that ended the Spanish-American War, he turned his address into a gesture of reconciliation: The federal government, he announced, would begin to tend Confederate graves as a "tribute to American valor.”

By May 1900, the local UDC had raised $95.05, equal to about $3,000 today, to erect a tall obelisk. But a protest went up from Union veterans at Germantown-based Ellis Post No. 6, Grand Army of the Republic.

“Memorial Day is our day, and we do not want any desecration of it by Confederates,” they wrote, “nor do we think that a National Cemetery in a loyal City of the North should be disgraced by a monument to would-be destroyers of our Union.”

The UDC instead installed a modest, ground-level tablet to memorialize what it said were 224 unknown Confederate dead.

That would not end the efforts to commemorate Southern troops in Philadelphia, especially as the UDC grew into a well-connected lobbyist and the war became more often depicted as a fraternal, if deadly, dispute.

In 1906, Congress authorized headstones for those who died in Northern military hospitals and prisons, and established the Commission for Marking Graves of Confederate Dead. In Philadelphia, the commission could not determine how the UDC arrived at its count of 224 unknowns. It remains a mystery.

The commission found, though, that while specific graves could not be matched with individual soldiers, the names of the Confederate troops in the cemetery were known.

The big memorial was completed in 1911, and the UDC sponsored the dedication the next year. Not all Union veterans were opposed. Some showed up that day to fire a 30-gun salute.

“I’m OK with marking the dead,” said Ohio State’s Jeffries. “It’s another thing to have a giant memorial to say, ‘Here we honor ….’”

If up to him, Jeffries said, he would replace the memorial with a story board explaining why the stone was erected, and how, as America reevaluated its values a century later, it was taken down.

“No Black person in Philadelphia is going to be lifted out of poverty if you remove it — or Rizzo or Christopher Columbus,” he said. “The removal of a statue is modest, but it’s meaningful. Because we’re saying as a society, ‘These are no longer the principles we uphold.’”