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

By Jeff Gammage, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA - 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.

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