A monument to reunification

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It’s worth a reminder with all the discussion of Civil War monuments that the Oak Bluffs monument, despite some confusion to the contrary, is not a Confederate monument.

We covered this same issue back in May, just before Memorial Day, in an editorial on the Island’s many war memorials.

But it’s worth repeating, given what happened in Charlottesville during a protest over a decision there to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee. The city council there voted in May to remove the statue, but its removal has been delayed by a lawsuit, according to The New York Times.

A march by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and some so-called “very fine people,” as President Donald Trump referred to them, turned deadly when James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly drove his car into a counterprotest, killing Heather Heyer and injuring more than a dozen other people.

That’s sparked a debate nationwide over monuments, mostly in the south, that have Confederate ties.

Closer to home, it’s ignited debate over whether to rename Yawkey Way, the Boston street named after former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who notably passed on great black ballplayers such as Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, and was the last owner to sign a black player.

And it appears to have opened the old confusion about the statue in Oak Bluffs, at least for some. We received a letter from a writer who wanted to start a petition drive to have the statue across from the OB ferry terminal removed.

So let’s attempt to set the record straight.

The only tie to the Confederacy is that the monument was actually commissioned by a Confederate soldier named Charles Strahan. Mr. Strahan moved to Martha’s Vineyard after the Civil War and used subscription money from his newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Herald, to pay for his tribute to the war.

He was a veteran of the Virginia Regiment, fought under General Lee, and faced some backlash on the Island as a result of that past, according to a history of the monument written for the Dukes County Intelligencer. For those not acquainted with that publication, it’s a journal of the Dukes County Historical Society, predecessor to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

In May, Bow Van Riper, a historian at the museum, told The Times the monument is actually a nod toward the reconciliation of the north and south.

So where does the confusion come from? Well, longtime Islanders will remember that at one time it was painted gray, which was the uniform color of the Confederate soldiers. There were tour guides who got the story wrong, and even at least one author who, Mr. Van Riper told The Times, should have known better.

The monument was restored, the gray paint expunged, and rededicated in 2001.

The original monument design included four tablets. Three of them reference the Grand Army of the Republic. The fourth, added years later, is a gesture from surviving members of the Grand Army of the Republic as a reciprocal gesture of reconciliation. That inscription reads: “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.”

And Mr. Strahan’s own words should leave little doubt what the meaning is behind this statue displayed so prominently on the Oak Bluffs waterfront. “That this comes from one who once wore gray, I trust will add significance to the fact that we are once more a union of Americans,” he said in a speech at the original dedication in 1891.

With that historic footnote, it may be one of the most meaningful Civil War monuments in the country, which made it a fitting place for Indivisible MVY to hold its “Rally for Unity” in the wake of what happened in Charlottesville.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Fifty years ago this month I moved from the quiet Southern city of Washington to the quiet Southern town of Charlottesville to attend The University of Virginia. The following March, while on a trip to Penn State to set up the central Pennsylvania headquarters of the McCarthy for President campaign, I sat in a darkened apartment in the middle of the night and watched the residents of Washington literally set my hometown ablaze live on national television in the wake of the murder of Martin Luther King. I was heartbroken. This week I sat in my home on Martha’s Vineyard and watched on TV as the residents of Charlottesville figuratively set their town ablaze. Again, I was heartbroken. Have folks really learned so little in half a century?

  2. I supported the restoration of the monument in 2001. It is one of my favorite features of Oak Bluffs, a town with many special features. I got a t-shirt for my support of the “Soldiers’ Memorial Fountain Restoration Project” I quote from David G McCullough from the back of my t-shirt. ” The Civil War memorial in Oak Bluffs is a treasure. It deserves the support of every one of us who loves the Vineyard and who cares about our country’s history. It is both the most important statue on the island and one with a story unlike any other”

    Kelsey Biggers
    Ocean Park, Oak Bluffs

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