Wednesday, June 17, 2020

REMOVING THE OBELISK: A MODEST PROPOSAL


In February of 1864 a small force of Confederates marched eastward from Lake City to confront a force of Union soldiers marching west from Jacksonville. They met and fought Florida’s largest Civil War battle on February 20, with the Confederate forces emerging victorious and the Union forces retreating to Jacksonville. Approximately 151 Confederate soldiers died defending Lake City that day, and they are buried in Memorial Cemetery near the old football field.

Later in that year General Ulysses S. Grant decided upon a strategy of degrading the South’s war making capacity by destroying the means of keeping the Confederate army supplied. The first phase of this strategy unfolded in May of 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley, which was considered the breadbasket of the Confederacy. Grant sent General Philip Sheridan to the Valley with orders to completely devastate its ability to produce agricultural products. He supposedly instructed Sheridan to render the Valley so desolate that “a crow flying over it would have to carry his own rations.” Sheridan followed his orders to the letter, completely destroying everything of agricultural value in his path. He wrote to Grant:

I have destroyed over two thousand barns filled with wheat and hay and farming implements; over seventy mills filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over four thousand head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than three thousand sheep. This destruction embraces the Luray Valley and Little Fort Valley, as well as the main [Shenandoah] Valley.

In November of that year General William Tecumseh Sherman marched south from the smoldering ruins of Atlanta, Georgia, on his famous (or infamous) march to the sea. Saying that he would “Make Georgia howl,” Sherman cut a swath of destruction 60 miles wide and 285 miles long from Atlanta to Savannah.  

Although it was highly unlikely that Union General Truman Seymour would have wrought similar devastation on Lake City had he been successful in reaching the town, contemporary Lake Citians could not have known that, and they must have been very thankful to the men who gave their lives in defense of the town.

For as long as I can remember an obelisk has stood in front of the courthouse in Lake City commemorating the sacrifice of those men who died defending Lake City. It is not a statue of a Confederate general. It merely recites what the men did, who was in charge, and gives a list of some of the fallen. I have no doubt that it was erected at a time of hard feelings toward those “damnyankees” who turned the South into the equivalent of a Third World country, but the war is now more than a century in the past. There are probably more descendants of “damnyankees” living in Lake City than there are descendants of people who lived here during the Civil War. The time for hard feelings should be over.

Some people now want to remove that monument. I say to them that the time for hard feelings should be over. There is a world of difference between an obelisk commemorating men who died defending their hometown from a possible "Shermanesque" destruction and a statue of a slave-trading Confederate general suspected of overseeing the massacre of black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow. 

I suggest that the obelisk stay, but that something be added to it. There were other men who died at Olustee that day, and some of them were members of the most prestigious unit of black soldiers in the Union Army, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Indeed, the 54th Massachusetts and the 35th United States Colored Troops fought the rearguard action which covered the retreat of the Union forces.

There are two blank faces on the base of the obelisk. Why not add a commemoration of the Union troops, black and white, who gave their lives in a cause they deemed just as important and just as noble as defending home and hearth against an invading army?

A tribute to the Union soldiers could go on the blank side of the obelisk visible from the sidewalk. On the blank side facing the shrubs, it might be possible to engrave a few lines from Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed:”

"Had he and I but met
            By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
            Right many a nipperkin!

"But ranged as infantry,
            And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
            And killed him in his place.

...

"Yes; quaint and curious war is!
            You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
            Or help to half-a-crown."

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