Judge urges truce in war memorial fight

Court lets SCV lawsuit proceed over location of monument to Confederate dead

Date published: 3/9/2010

The legal fight will continue over a new monument to Confederate dead.

Fredericksburg Circuit Judge Gordon F. Willis yesterday declined the city’s request that the court dismiss a lawsuit brought by the local camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But Willis urged both parties to try to settle their dispute out of court.

At issue is the location of a granite-and-bronze memorial erected last spring by the SCV’s Matthew Fontaine Maury Camp No. 1722. It sits on one corner of the grassy triangle at Barton and George streets that is dominated by the much-larger Fredericksburg Area War Memorial.

The City Council decided last fall that the SCV monument–dedicated in April during a public ceremony–must move. It enacted an ordinance saying the triangle is the exclusive site of the War Memorial honoring local military personnel killed in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The multi-columned memorial was designed and donated by the Potomac Region Veterans Council.

The SCV’s monument honors 51 soldiers from seven Southern states–including three from Virginia–who died here in 1861 and 1862 on garrison duty before the Battle of Fredericksburg. They were buried nearby along Barton Street.

By resolution on Nov. 1, 1861, the City Council set aside land there for the soldiers’ graves. The Rev. Alfred M. Randolph, pastor of St. George’s Episcopal Church, presided over the burials. There is no record that the soldiers’ remains were later disinterred.

Judge Willis’ decision clears the way for the litigation to proceed. But he urged both sides to arbitrate their dispute, relying on a retired judge as a mediator under procedures established by the Virginia Supreme Court.

"Before we have a second War of 1812, you might want to consider that," Willis told City Attorney Kathleen Dooley and Patrick McSweeney, attorney for the SCV camp.

Calling the dispute "very unfortunate," Dooley told Willis that both city staff and SCV officers were acting in "good faith" as they discussed the building permit that was issued for the Confederate monument.

But in granting the permit, city staff exceeded their authority, she said. Only the City Council is empowered under state law to site a war memorial on city property, Dooley said.

McSweeney countered that city staff members have routinely approved historical markers and monuments and other encroachments on public property.

The two lawyers were on their best behavior during yesterday’s one-hour hearing, but once it ended, the scene turned ugly for a few minutes. A few members of the SCV and the Veterans Council briefly traded verbal barbs across the courtroom’s center aisle before tempers cooled.

The SCV’s Maury Camp also includes veterans, and Veterans Council member David Ellis said he normally would be sympathetic to that group’s tribute to their fallen brethren. "It may have been well intended, but it’s in the wrong place, and came at the wrong time," Ellis said of the SCV monument.

The Veterans Council worked for 10 years to create its "Fallen Heroes" memorial to 400 wartime casualties, he noted.

The group obtained the City Council’s express permission, after consulting neighboring residents and changing the monument’s size and design to meet their concerns, Ellis said.

Dooley said she will consult the City Council about how it wishes to proceed.

McSweeney said the Maury Camp is open to talking with the city and trying to resolve the matter out of court. For now, though, it intends to take the case to trial, he said, and will depose city officials to document how they handled the SCV’s plans for the monument.

But, McSweeney said, the SCV can’t afford to lose the protection of state statute it claims bars Fredericksburg from relocating the monument. "That makes it difficult to reach a settlement," he said. "We can’t bargain that away."

Dooley argued that no such legal protection applies to the SCV monument.

Copyright 2010, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co.

On The Web:   http://fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2010/032010/03092010/533165