Tributes to Confederate and Union troops in the same Florida park reflect an ongoing war over the monuments

ST. CLOUD, Fla. — Unlike the century-old Confederate monuments that dot the country, the granite obelisk in this Orlando suburb is modern and glistening. Just 13 years ago, the great-great-grandsons of Confederate soldiers gathered around a banquet table at Fat Boy’s Bar-B-Q and voted unanimously to build a modern-day monument down the street in the city-owned Veteran’s Park.

 

The memorial they had in mind would bear Confederate symbols and names of Confederate soldiers buried in or near the city limits. It would also be a near-mirror image of one dedicated in 2000 in that same park by a group of great-great-grandsons of Union Army soldiers.

“When we saw the Union monument go up, it seemed only fitting that we also have one,” said Al Massey, commander of the local group of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “If the city’s residents vote to take it out, so be it. What irritates me is when outsiders come in and force the issue.”

The current debate over Confederate monuments largely centers on towering, decades-old statues erected during the Jim Crow era, such as the monument to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, where torch-wielding white nationalists protested once more on Saturday against its planned removal.

Building monuments to the Lost Cause, however, is also a contemporary phenomenon that many see as an extension of the nation’s debate about race.

At least 50 smaller Confederate monuments have been built since 1990, including a bronze statue near a courthouse in Cleburne, Texas, and a tombstone-shaped monument on the grounds of a public elementary school in Prattville, Ala. Even Union states have them: Two Confederate monuments have been erected in Iowa in the past 12 years.

Newer monuments are popping up mostly in rural towns and tend to laud foot soldiers rather than Confederate generals and political leaders. All but seven are in Confederate states and 60 percent are on public land.

They’re often small enough that they can be easily attended to by one person with a step ladder. Some are obelisks, like the one in St. Cloud, while others are stone markers that resemble oversized tombstones or boulders decorated with bronze historical plaques.

A majority of the monuments are financed by local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Most cost less than $5,000, paid for with money raised with chili cook-offs, bake sales and Civil War reenactments.

“We don’t need something massive to do this,” said Michael Landree, who is executive director of the national Sons of Confederate Veterans. “We want to put up a lot of these across the country.”

Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans say the tributes are meant to honor their ancestors and other Confederate soldiers who they believe fought for noble causes. As they describe it, the North was invading the South, and the soldiers were fighting to defend their homes, their land and their families against invaders who pillaged their towns.

Most Civil War experts say this distorts history, pointing to the Constitution of the Confederate States of America and other documents from the time that show the war was primarily driven by a goal of preserving slavery.

The smaller monuments allow local groups to continue to promote the Confederacy without drawing a lot of attention, several Civil War historians said. The shift to building monuments to foot soldiers instead of the generals is also a calculated move, they said.

“One of their defenses is, ‘We are honoring ordinary people,’ ” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, a professional organization of historians. “But they know what they are doing. They are paying tribute to the Confederacy, and the cornerstone of the defense of the Confederacy is slavery.”

In St. Cloud, the opposing monuments reflect a quiet, cold war that has been brewing there for decades, rooted in the town’s complicated, unique history.

Florida may have been a Confederate state, but St. Cloud was founded in 1909 as a retirement community for Union veterans. The Grand Army of the Republic - a fraternal organization of Union Army veterans - bought a defunct sugar plantation and organized a land company, selling lots for $50 apiece exclusively to Union veterans.

The land for Veteran’s Park was also donated to the town by the St. Cloud’s Woman’s Club, a group of Union wives “that really wanted to civilize the town,” said Olive Horning, curator of the St. Cloud Heritage Museum.

The town’s logo still identifies it as “Soldier City.”

As with many places across the United States, particularly in the South, the state of Florida and St. Cloud passed laws and ordinances after Reconstruction that discriminated against blacks. Even in recent years, the city and local businesses maintained visible vestiges of this past.

The public cemetery was segregated for nearly 100 years, and the grass often grew high in the “black section” - on a parcel owned by a civic club - until the city began to regularly mow it 10 years ago. The popular diner Koffee Kup Kafe - a reference to the Ku Klux Klan - didn’t drop the “Kafe” from its business signs until 15 years ago, after an out-of-towner bought it.

“People said I’d go out of business if I changed the name. A bunch of weirdos wanted everything I had that said ‘Koffee Kup Kafe,’ ” said owner Frank Woodsby. “That’s how sick people are. I put it all in the garbage.”

When the Sons of Confederate Veterans sought approval for the Confederate monument from the St. Cloud City Council, no one officially opposed the request. But the monument was vandalized in August, days after a group of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members gathered in Charlottesville, to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“USA. One Nation” was written in black spray paint on the St. Cloud monument over more than a dozen Confederate soldiers’ names that are etched on the obelisk. Small chunks of granite were hacked from an engraved image of a Confederate flag.

After Obama’s inauguration, Angela Eady visited Veteran’s Park in St. Cloud, the town where she grew up and lived until she moved to a neighboring city in 1989.

“There was an event at the park and I noticed” the Confederate monument, said Eady, one of the few black politicians in the area. “I said: ‘Do you see what is going on here? White people rule. That’s just how it is here.’ “

The town of about 46,000 people is more than 60 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 7 percent black.

Eady, who was elected Kissimmee city commissioner last year, said she feels like a referee, stuck between two groups with vastly different approaches to addressing racial strife in her community. On one side is a younger generation that can be “more boisterous and vocal” when they protest the slow-moving ways of the South. On the other side is an older generation of blacks who want to “go with the flow,” she said.

Some older white residents protest both for and against the cultural shifts in quiet, sometimes subversive ways. Woodsby, the owner of Koffee Kup, said he’s had firsthand experience with this. Until a few years ago, his hostesses were still rejecting payments from longtime customers who wrote “For Dues” on the memo line of their checks, what Woodsby said was a nod to the days that the cafe represented an extension of the KKK to the community.

Roger Heiple, a 78-year-old white member of St. Cloud’s Sons of Union Veterans, pulled his Union Army exhibit out of the local museum two years ago, after the Sons of Confederate Veterans created their own display that includes two Confederate flags.

“If a black person came in and they saw those Confederate flags, they would not feel welcome,” Heiple said. “I would not condone that.”

But one of the most lauded members of the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is 88-year-old Nelson Winbush, whose grandfather was a slave and followed his owner into the Civil War. At the time of his death, he asked to be buried in his Confederate uniform, Winbush said.

“My grandfather was just 14 years old and he went along with his master and his sons,” Winbush said, recounting what his grandfather told him during frequent horse and buggy rides together. “I joined because there is so much misinformation about blacks serving in the Confederate Army. My grandfather ended up fighting like everyone else. He felt the South was being invaded by the Yankees.”

At the heart of the current monument building, though, is a fear that many whites have of losing cultural and political clout to minorities, said Grossman, of the American Historical Association. That’s why he believes the timing of the current effort by the Sons of Confederate Veterans is “not coincidental.”

The group decided to build a museum to the Confederacy in October 2008, weeks before Barack Obama was the first black person elected president of the United States.

The executive committee voted then to launch a $5 million fundraising effort to erect a 18,500-square-foot museum at its headquarters in Tennessee.

The grand opening is scheduled for next year.

“Every museum out there has based their stories upon a popular narrative of the war, which is a Northern perspective of the war,” said Landree. “We are telling the story from the Confederate side.”

 

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