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COMMUNITY VOICE

'Airbrushing' a Confederate grave marker in Indianapolis

Monday, July 21, 2014 - 9:07 am

Indianapolis was the site of a large prisoner of war camp during the Civil War. Camp Morton housed thousands of Confederate soldiers captured on southern battlefields, many of whom died from disease, wounds and maltreatment. They were buried in an unmarked mass grave in Greenlawn Cemetery.

In 1912, the federal government erected a monument to mark the graves and identify the individuals buried there. Among the dead Confederates was William Blythe, a great-great-grandfather of former President Bill Clinton. As the city expanded, plans were made to close the cemetery and relocate the graves to Crown Hill Cemetery. In 1928, for reasons that are not exactly clear, the Confederate Monument was moved to Garfield Park. A few years later the dead were moved to a specially designated plot at Crown Hill and a new burial monument was erected. Over the years, the original monument in Garfield Park has been ignored and has deteriorated. A move is now underway to restore it and, according to The Indianapolis Star, this restoration movement is the subject of some controversy.

The headline in the print edition of the Star differs from the online story to which I link and was deliberately provocative:

“Group Wants to Restore Monument Honoring Confederate Fighters, but Some Question the Effort.”

This question arises inevitably from the inaccurate characterization of the monument: It does not “honor” Confederate fighters and it was never intended to do so. That ought to be obvious to anyone who can read the inscription on the monument: “Erected by the United States to mark the burial place of 1616 Confederate soldiers and sailors who died here while prisoners of war and whose graves cannot now be identified.” It is a grave marker, not a Confederate memorial.

That doesn’t deter the Rev. Charles Harrison: “It’s a very painful history for us. Many in our community believe that a lot of the problems we’re enduring as a people is (sic) the result of slavery. I believe it should be left to rot and go away.”

It is not exactly clear how destruction of this grave marker that has gone largely unnoticed and unremarked upon for over a century will help relieve the anxieties that beset the reverend, but he likely speaks for that “side of history” that progressives insist is always inevitable.

In recent years objections have mounted to military bases being named for Confederate officers (Fort Lee, Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, etc.). Schools and parks bearing names of Confederate veterans are being renamed, and statutes are being relocated.

This move to purge the American landscape and American culture of any public memory of the Confederacy and those who fought on its behalf is part of what may be called “airbrush history movement” modeled on the Stalinist practice of airbrushing from photos the images of purged comrades and rewriting official Soviet history to eliminate any reference to those who ended up on the wrong end of Stalin’s six-shooter.

This assault on the unvarnished history of our Civil War may, I concede, end up being the least of our worries in this regard. The new Common Core history standards relegate Washington and Franklin to the dark shadows of our revolutionary history and make mincemeat of the lesser Founders. While there is no evidence that a multicultural society without a unifying and common history can live together in harmony, few pause to ponder the consequences of disfiguring our shared experience.

History — the good, the bad and the ugly — is, as the American scholar Richard Weaver observed, the “minutes of the last meeting.” It is going to be tough going when no one is around who has bothered to read them.

Tom Charles Huston, A.B., J.D., has served as an officer and director of Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana and Historic Indianapolis, Inc.; a director of Preservation Action; and a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.