Thursday, August 18, 2011

Historical travesty in Oak Bluffs

When you disembark from the ferry into the Martha's Vineyard Island town of Oak Bluffs, this watchful life-size Civil War soldier on a pedestal stands directly ahead on the grass. He doesn't seem out of place; after all town is famous for its quaint Victorian-era gingerbread cottages. It's not at all odd that it would have a Civil War monument. Massachusetts sent almost 150000 men to fight the secessionist states of the Confederacy; nearly ten percent of those never came home.


But the meaning of the statue becomes a lot more murky if you actually read the plaque on the monument:
"The chasm is closed"
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

Whaa? What's a monument to Confederate dead doing on the green in Oak Bluffs?

Apparently it is a relic of a conservative political movement in the late 19th century that sought to "look forward, not backward" -- to re-remember the Civil War as some kind of huge national mistake that killed heroic brothers, to erase the reality that the war was fought to end slavery. That is, when we see this monument and its inscription, it is as if we're meeting a kind of "Fox News" from the 1890s, distorting reality for the benefit of the powerful, all preserved in heroic cast iron.
The prominence of this monument in Oak Bluffs is particularly odd given that Oak Bluff is where comfortable Black people have vacationed in New England for generations.
I became aware of this monument when I glanced through a throwaway newsprint tabloid called "School's Out," written, published, and distributed each spring by the 7th grade students of the Island's West Tisbury School. It's an impressive class project, over 50 pages of student articles and ads boosting the tourist attractions and life of Martha's Vineyard. I can imagine that I would have loved working on it as a child.

But I was stunned to read this sentence as the lead in one article:
The Civil War started in 1861, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law ...
Yikes -- where was this child's history teacher? Emancipation didn't come until two years into the Civil War, until 1863, by which time the murderous conflict had become a clear cut fight over whether the system of slave labor would survive or die. The story of our defining intramural war is emblematic of the country's lurching path toward broader human freedom. A child doesn't have to know or understand about all that, but it is up to her teachers to help her get the basic chronology right.

The student writer also enthused about the monument. Okay, I can imagine she needed a topic and a quick essay to finish a homework assignment. But some teacher ought to have offered some perspective on this very contentious subject. We do students no favor by glossing over our history, its shame as well as its accomplishments.

UPDATE: See the comment from Bruce Nevin below. Looks like I got this wrong.


Bruce Nevin said...

It's actually a Union soldier. To create and erect it was the project of Charles Strahan, editor of a now long defunct local newspaper. He was a Confederate veteran who had come to the Island from Richmond, Virginia, where he had also been a newspaper editor. It took him many years to raise the money and accomplish this gesture of peace, and the plinth was blank until the 1930s because of recalcitrant opposition from Union veterans. Look at the plaque on the other side of the base for the story. A description, with pictures, by a descendant, is at

DvL said...

I don't remember seeing the statue when I visited the island, but maybe it's because I took a different ferry. I probably came over into Vineyard Haven terminal, but I did go visit Oak Bluffs a number of years ago. I guess people are still talking about it.

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