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City Talk: Take close look at Savannah’s Confederate monument in Forsyth

The current national controversies about the role of Confederate monuments in 21st century America have led many Savannahians to question the presence of the large memorial in Forsyth Park. Mayor Eddie DeLoach and members of City Council addressed the question at Thursday’s meeting.

Georgia state law blocks municipalities from removing any monuments related to military service, but the language of the law leaves room for relocation or reinterpretation.

As city leaders prepare to hear citizens’ views at an upcoming forum, we should engage in a broader civic discussion about the Confederate memorial in Forsyth.

Of course, many people have already dug in their heels — they have adopted inflexible positions and have no interest in further discussion. I am not writing this column for those people.

Some argue that all Confederate monuments should be removed, but that argument does not take into account significant differences between various monuments.

Some argue that monuments should never be removed. The argument generally holds that monuments recognize parts of our history and that the statues themselves are part of our history too. If we make any changes at all, we are “erasing history.”

That is a compelling argument to some people, but, as Americans and as Savannahians, we are routinely reassessing the past, interpreting history in different ways and making major changes to the built environment, sometimes even to monuments.

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Changing times, changing monuments

Consider the case of Tomo-Chi-Chi, the Yamacraw Indian chief who played a pivotal role in the early years of the Georgia colony. He was buried prominently in the center of Wright Square, with the grave marked by a pyramid of stones.

In 1883, the mound of stones on Tomo-Chi-Chi’s grave was removed to make room for the monument to William Washington Gordon that we see today. The nearby granite monument that honors Tomo-Chi-Chi was added in 1899.

Many of us would argue that Tomo-Chi-Chi’s grave never should have been disturbed, but should we try to right that wrong now?

The Confederate monument in Forsyth, which was created because of the efforts of the Ladies Memorial Association, has itself been altered significantly. When it was installed in 1875, the monument had two ornate statues — one representing “Silence” in the center and one representing “Justice” on top — that were soon removed.

According to a 1998 article by Frank Wheeler in the Georgia Historical Quarterly, an 1875 Savannah Morning News piece said the original monument was “too symbolic to meet popular approval, and the general effect was lacking in charm as to offend those of artistic trend.”

The statue of “Silence” can now be seen in Laurel Grove Cemetery, and the statue of “Judgment” ended up in a cemetery in Thomasville. The statue of the unnamed Confederate soldier, which was proposed by George Wymberly Jones DeRenne, was added in 1879.

The monument is flanked by smaller statues with busts of the Confederate military figures Francis S. Bartow, who died at Manassas, and Lafayette McLaws, who died in Savannah in 1897. Those statues were moved from Chippewa Square to make room for the statue of James Oglethorpe that was installed in 1910.

Are all Confederate monuments the same?

Many of the Confederate monuments that have become flashpoints around the country were installed several decades after the Civil War and had clear political intent. For example, a monument in Decatur near the DeKalb County Courthouse was installed in 1908 and contains language that many consider racist.

By contrast, Savannah’s Confederate monument is primarily funereal.

According to Wheeler’s article, here’s how DeRenne described the statue of the unnamed soldier in a letter to the Ladies Memorial Association: “It represents him as he was … a man who chose rather to be than to seem; to bear hardship than to complain of it; a man who met with unflinching firmness the fate decreed him, to suffer, to fight, and to die in vain.”

DeRenne’s fatalism echoed the tone of a Savannah Morning News piece from 1874, before the monument was completed: “We were not a victorious people; on the contrary, we have to commemorate the noble heroism of those who fell in a ‘Lost Cause,’ hence silent grief and undying faith were to be exposed in the chiseled stone.”

Today, the Confederate monument occupies a highly visible location in one of our most vibrant parks, but in the 1870s, the site was on the city’s southern fringe.

How much, if at all, do these details and differences matter? Should we view the busts of the Confederate officers differently than the original monument? Should we add a marker that explains the historical context?

These are the types of questions that we need to ask, and answer, if we want to have a civil discussion about the monument.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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