In Taneytown, Maryland, plans are afoot to possibly build a brand new Civil War memorial. Sculptor and historian Gary Casteel is lobbying to build a timeline of the war – which he hopes will become America’s first official national Civil War memorial – including 20 sculpted panels, 17 bronze statues, and 32 portraits of various significant people from the war, including Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, George Meade, and John Wilkes Booth.
It is the inclusion of Booth that has caused some controversy.
At least one local politician, councilman Bradley Wantz, opposes the memorial and said he was “shocked” that it would include an image of Lincoln’s assassin. “This horrendous act does not justify memorializing Booth with a relief portrait equal in size and placement to those of President Lincoln, General Grant, or Harriett Tubman,” he said. “At the most, he deserves no more than a footnote dictating that he was responsible for the death of an admired president. Consider the fact that Booth’s own family chose to not mark his grave to avoid it becoming a memorial in its own way.”
I completely disagree with these sentiments. Monuments like this one are exactly what America needs more of. Casteel’s planned memorial would include a variety of people from both the Union and the Confederacy, and it would not take a position on which side was right and which side was wrong. That is exactly what a great public monument should do: accurately depict historical people and events and allow viewers to form their own opinions.
A Wonkette article by Stephen Robinson goes even further with this bashing of Booth and the proposed monument. “This wasn’t some random-ass president like James Garfield,” he writes. “Daniel Day Lewis played Lincoln. He’s on our money. You can’t ‘both sides’ an assassination.”
In addition to being extremely insulting to James Garfield (was his assassination somehow less tragic because he is not depicted on currency or portrayed by a famous actor?), this is just incorrect. Any memorial in a public place is not only allowed, but obligated, to ‘both sides’ any historical event, conflict, or controversy that it depicts. Anything else is intolerance and bigotry.
“The South just can’t quit their memorials to racist traitors,” Robinson sneers, completely disregarding the fact that the memorial includes people from both sides of the war (as well as the fact that Confederate leaders were not traitors but rebels fighting against an authoritarian government, something that any true American would be in favor of… but that’s a whole different blog post.) Even a lawyer who has represented members of the Booth family described the monument as “a memorial to Confederates & their flag.”
It is disturbing that so many people characterize a memorial giving equal prominence to the Union and Confederate sides as a Confederate memorial. The monument designed by Casteel would include portraits of Booth and other Confederate leaders and activists, along with those of activists on the opposite side, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Lincoln. It would treat both sides equally, which is exactly what it should do. Yet for far too many people, treating both sides equally is unacceptable. These people demand that public monuments depict only the historical figures that they personally like. Their idea of a neutral Civil War memorial is one depicting only those who fought for the side they personally agree with.
Although Booth’s decision to assassinate Lincoln was extreme, brutal, and illegal, and it’s safe to say that most people in present-day America don’t like him, none of these is a reason to exclude him from a Civil War memorial. The purpose of public monuments is not to honor individuals who happen to be popular or to reflect the values of the majority. It is to honor a wide variety of individuals who represent a wide variety of values and viewpoints. There is an almost endless list of memorials and statues of Lincoln, and buildings, streets, and cities named after him. What’s so bad about one having statue or portrait of Booth among those of 31 other Civil War figures? It is indisputable that Booth was a remarkable and historically significant person. As one of the only Confederates who fought for his beliefs till the bitter end and never surrendered, Booth’s viewpoint deserves to be recognized.
America ought to honor those who fought for the Union and Confederacy equally, and that includes Booth. A society that honors only popular and non-controversial historical figures would be a society of authoritarianism and mindless conformity.
“I am a very open-minded individual who respects history for what it is, not for what I wish to make it,” said Casteel, the sculptor behind the memorial, who according to Fox News is a member of both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Sons of Union Veterans.
If only more people thought this way.