Fight flares over Sons of Union Veterans’ request for monument in North Florida Civil War battlefield

New York Times
Friday, January 17, 2014

OLUSTEE — There is an old saying in this state of seesawing sensibilities: The farther north you go, the farther south you get.

Florida’s northern counties have long seen the South as a kindred place — one that breaks the same biscuits, hunts the same deer and shares the same political bent. So around this tiny town 45 miles west of Jacksonville, on the edge of Florida’s largest and bloodiest Civil War battlefield, a Union incursion on sacred ground feels, to some, like reopening 150-year-old wounds.

"Old grudges die hard," said John W. Adams, a former division commander in Florida for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "And feelings run deep."

Last year, nearly a century and a half after the Battle of Olustee, the Florida chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War made a request to the state Parks Department. It asked for permission to place an obelisk to honor Union soldiers (who lost the battle on Feb. 20, 1864) inside the 3-acre Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, the same patch of land that holds three monuments commemorating Confederate soldiers.

State officials agreed that the park favored the Confederate side and began to act on the request, first by holding a public hearing and then by choosing a precise location in the park.

"There were twice as many Union casualties there as Confederate," said Charles Custer, 83, whose ancestors fought on both sides of the war and who supports the push for a Union monument. "They fought. They bled. And they are really not recognized anywhere."

But the request has enraged many in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which views the state’s decision as a betrayal of the small park’s legacy. As word spread, an online call to arms was issued by the national Confederate group’s leader to oppose the "Darth Vader-esque obscene obsidian obelisk" in what the group’s members see as the Second Battle of Olustee. Reinforcements were drafted, namely state Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Republican chairman of the state House Judiciary Committee and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

To descendants of the Confederates in North Florida, the move was perceived to be the latest salvo against this area’s values and traditions. The Civil War may have ended long ago, but in Florida, unlike much of the South, Yankees never stopped marching (or rolling) into the state, lured by milder weather and tax rates. Other newcomers arrived, too, slowly eroding the state’s Southern identity.

"The descendants of these families have moved over and moved over," said Baxley of the Confederate side. A fifth-generation resident of North Florida, Baxley has drafted a bill to require legislative approval to alter commemorative sites. "You have 20 million people from all corners of the earth and the country. We have all these different perspectives here, and these descendants have accommodated that. But I think that diversity and respecting people’s ancestors applies to everybody."

Adding a Union monument to Olustee, Florida’s first state park, Baxley said, violates the public trust because it would redefine the historic park.

"My biggest concern is that this is revisionist history and that these decisions are being made by park officials and not an elected body," he said. "You have to have some obligation to the people."

The Civil War is serious business in Olustee. Every February, one of the Southeast’s largest Civil War re-enactments unfolds at the surrounding 600-odd-acre site, most of which is actually a federal park. Thousands show up to witness the four-hour battle, an experience that Confederate and Union re-enactors are hoping will not be marred this year, the 150th anniversary, by a resurgence in hostilities.

Although the Olustee battle was relatively small, it was significant. The Confederate victory forced Union troops to retreat to Jacksonville, preventing them from establishing a government in Florida and cutting off supplies of beef and salt. In the end, nearly 2,000 Union soldiers — including members from three black regiments — and 1,000 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or were missing in the battle.

Last month, opposition to the monument exploded during a state parks workshop in nearby Lake City. Before a crowd packed into a school auditorium, a black advocate for the Confederacy (from out of state) waved a Confederate flag. Confederate supporters rose quickly to their feet and belted out Dixie. Speaker after speaker denounced the Union proposal.

"There are some, apparently, who consider this to be a lengthy truce and believe that the war is still going on," Custer, known as "Buck," said.

The Confederate demands were clear. The Union monument could be built anywhere in the federal park, just not on the original 3-acre state park where the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected their obelisk in 1912.

"We are not opposed to the monument at all; we are opposed to the location, and here is why — it’s like any other historical building," said James S. Davis, 66, the Florida division commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "You put something brand new in there and it destroys the significance of it."

Had somebody proposed another Confederate monument on the 3 acres, Davis said he would have objected just as strenuously. In his view, the best place for the Union obelisk is across the road near the museum.

Other Confederate supporters argued that a separate monument is redundant. Union soldiers are sufficiently remembered on the Confederate obelisk, which makes reference to the 6,000 Union forces that battled there, their Union general and the outcome. A nearby private cemetery also has a commemorative cross for Union soldiers.

The Sons of Union Veterans said they are dumbfounded by the opposition to the proposed monument, which would be about half the size of the Confederate obelisk.

"They seem to think they own it," Mike Farrell, a member of the Florida chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans whose ancestor survived Olustee (and then moved to New York), said of the state park. "It’s not a shrine over there. It’s public land."

After years of explaining to re-enactment visitors that no monument to Union soldiers existed, Farrell said the group decided to raise funds for the Union obelisk. The obelisk belongs on the official commemorative grounds, he said, "not off in the woods where people don’t go."

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