by W. B. King
From Charlottesville, Virginia to San Diego, California, public monuments celebrating leaders of the Confederate Army, such as Robert E. Lee, are being toppled by residents and municipalities that decry associations to slavery and oppression. This heated national debate now includes a local Confederate monument in Mount Hope Cemetery in the Town of Greenburgh.
“The Confederacy was a part of the United States history,” said Kathy Soderstrom, who has lived in Hastings-on-Hudson for 50 years. On a picturesque, warm summer day, she stood in the stark shadow of the 60-foot pylon Confederate monument, which was erected in 1897, and added: “Read history, study history and learn from it.”
Soderstrom, like many Americans, argue that American history, no matter how ugly, simply can’t be whitewashed. There are lessons to be learned and not forgotten, she insisted.
“We know this monument has been here for years because we have family buried in this section of the cemetery,” said Soderstrom. “No one ever said anything until now.”
Pointing at one of the roughly 50 Confederate headstones that surround the monument in tiered circles, she added, “These particular people did not die in the battles. They were just people, who moved north after the war and deserve to be buried and be at peace.”
Fallen not Forgotten
One headstone is that of William Haas from the First Calvary of Florida who was born in 1844 and died September 11, 1904. A few feet to his right rests First Infantry and First Calvary soldier Edwin Selvace, who was born in 1839 and died in 1930. Other headstones are of Confederate veterans’ family members.
“This monument is not on the same level of some of the other controversies around the country,” said Hastings-on-Hudson Mayor Peter Swiderski. “This is a memorial marker in the cemetery for a bunch of Confederate soldiers who wanted to be buried together but had moved to the north and settled there.”
Swiderski explained that the May 22, 1897 monument dedication ceremony was attended by soldiers and families from both the North and the South. The speeches given, he said, were about unity and peace.
“About 10 years ago, what is now probably the great-great-great grandchildren of Union soldiers raised money and rehabilitated the plot and it was rededicated,” said Swiderski. “And every year, there is a small memorial service. This monument is all about reconciliation and acknowledgement of service.”
Members of The Sons of Union Veterans of The Civil War, Department of New York Admiral John L. Worden Camp 150, care for the monument and those who are interred there. The organization’s website states that each year the Worden Camp of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War gather at this site to observe Confederate Memorial Day.
According to “The Oxford Companion to United States History,” Confederate Memorial Day (also called Confederate Heroes Day in Texas), is a public holiday observed by Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana and Texas. Each state celebrates on different days, including January 19 (Robert E. Lee’s birthday).
“We do this not to honor the causes for which they fought, but because we know that there are thousands of Union graves in the South – as there were once thousands of wounded and dying Union soldiers –that received care and compassion from the hands of their former enemies, and their enemies’ families,” the Members of The Sons of Union Veterans of The Civil War website states. “We do for theirs, as we would have them do for ours and as we know they do.”
Antidote to Racism: Education and Inclusion
The Mount Hope Confederate monument, akin to the Washington Monument, is striking, but otherwise imperceptive. It is only upon close inspection that visitors gain insights to the monument’s purpose. There is an excerpt of a poem, “The High Tide at Gettysburg,” by Will Henry Thompson, etched on the back of the monument, which reads, in part:
“Fold up the banners! Smelt the guns! Love rules, her gentler purpose runs. A mighty mother turns in tears, the pages of her battle years, lamenting all her fallen sons.”
In front of the impressively tall monument, which cost $5,000 to construct in 1897, a small American Legion plaque is staked in the ground. The front of the monument reads: “Sacred to the memory of the heroic dead of the Confederate Veterans Camp of New York.”
The monument was a non-issue until mid-August when the Town of Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner received calls from concerned citizens about the monument and what it might represent. He investigated the issue and was initially troubled.
The Journal News reported that Feiner wrote to the privately-run Mount Hope Cemetery noting that the monument “honors soldiers who believed in the supremacy of the white race.” He added that residents “believe that the monument should be removed or the wording honoring the Confederate soldiers on the monument should be removed.”
Mount Hope Cemetery President, Theresa Joyce, said that there is a difference between a memorial marking a burial ground in a private cemetery and a statue honoring a military figure in a public space.
“Mount Hope is not a municipal cemetery, nor can we alter the privately-owned memorials,” said Joyce. “The protection and peace of the 100,000 at rest in Mount Hope and their families is our paramount concern.”
While Feiner was acting on behalf of concerned residents, and purporting his views, he received a handful of emails from people around the country who disagreed with his stance. One email was racist, profane and anti-semitic.
“You don’t have anything better to do than to write a letter to take down a monument,” the email from “Anti-Zionist” stated. “We are coming for you and your family.”
These threats did not deter Feiner from further investigation, which resulted in an amicable, educational and thought-provoking phone call with Mayor Swiderski.
“If the monument was placed at the cemetery as part of a reconciliation effort, I have no objections to the monument. If the monument was placed at the cemetery as part of a white supremacy initiative, which I now think it wasn’t, it shouldn’t be given a prominent place at the cemetery,” noted Feiner. “Forgiving and reducing anger and hatred is what we need in America today. Perhaps this monument could provide our national leaders with an example—our country shouldn’t be as divided as it currently is.”