Boston’s Confederate Monument Controversy

I guess we can add my home town of Boston to the list of cities facing questions about what to do with their Confederate monuments. A recent segment on Greater Boston about a Confederate monument/marker at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, in which I was interviewed, has attracted the attention of the governor.

Yesterday, Governor Baker’s office issued this statement:

Gov. Baker believes we should refrain from the display of symbols, especially in our public parks, that do not support liberty and equality for the people of Massachusetts. Since this monument is located on a National Historic Landmark, the governor supports [DCR] working with the Massachusetts Historical Commission to explore relocation options.

I suspect that the governor is trying to get out in front of this story to avoid the controversy surrounding his comments back in 2015 about the public display of the Confederate battle flag.

The vast majority of Bostonians had no idea their city included a Confederate marker before this story broke, but if they feel strongly enough I guess it should be removed. The marker includes the Confederate seal and motto and refers to the war as the “War Between the States, but all it really does is list the thirteen men who died in the prison during the war. It does not attempt to offer a Lost Cause justification for the war.

Confederate Marker at Fort Warren, Dedicated in 1963

It might be helpful to place this marker alongside a more prominent Civil War monument tucked away in Park Square, just one block from the Boston Common and Public Gardens.

In 1879 a replica of Thomas Ball’s Freedman’s or Emancipation Memorial was placed in Park Square. The original was dedicated a few years earlier in Washington, D.C. and included an address by Frederick Douglass. Douglass is claimed to have been critical of Ball’s design, specifically in regard to the kneeling slave at Lincoln’s feet and suggests that more recent concerns are not simply a reflection of an evolving understanding of emancipation.

When it was first dedicated the monument enjoyed a direct line of site all the way to the State House on Beacon Hill, which certainly gives us a sense of its importance. This also placed the Freedman’s Memorial in a very interesting relationship to both the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and Robert Gould Shaw (54th Mass.) Memorial on the Boston Common.

Leslie Jones Collection at the Boston Public Library

Both the 54th Monument and Soldiers and Sailors celebrate the role of both black and white soldiers in ending slavery and preserving the Union, the former in the form of brave marching soldiers and the latter in the form of its inscription.

The Freedman’s Memorial celebrates Lincoln’s role as the “Great Emancipator” but it does so at the expense of the slave. This was Douglass’s criticism. The slave is not just submissive, but passive in the story of emancipation. In fact, if we were to look at this monument as history we would have to conclude that slaves played no role in their own emancipation.

But the memorial also raises interesting and important questions about how African Americans were viewed in the United States after the Civil War. Did a kneeling slave reinforce the view of blacks as second class citizens in a city like Boston even with its rich abolitionist heritage? How do we understand this memorial at a time which witnessed the gradual removal of African Americans from Boston’s North End and the backside of Beacon Hill to communities such as Roxbury? To what extent does the kneeling slave overshadow the history of Beacon Hill’s black abolitionists such as David Walker? Are the 54th and Freedman’s Memorials compatible or do they depict contradictory narratives of the Civil War and emancipation? What, if anything, does this tell us about racial tension in Boston at the time of the premiere of Birth of a Nation in the city in 1915?

Finally and more directly, does this memorial perpetuate a racist view of African Americans?

It is hard to imagine the city of Boston dedicating such a monument today. In fact, shifting street patterns around Park Square may be the only reason why more people don’t notice this unusual and controversial memorial.

Should anything be done? Does it deserve more attention than a marker out in Boston Harbor that lists the names of 13 Confederate soldiers who never set foot in the city?

What do you think?

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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14 comments… add one
  • Sarah King Jun 7, 2018 @ 8:38

    This is a really great article on this controversial statue. I have a personal interest in this story as Thomas Ball was a distant relative of mine and I too am an artist. I have been thinking about this statue and it’s impact, and how it relates and differs to the public monuments that have been taken down throughout cities across the country (ie who was funding the monuments). I keep asking what should be done with these statues?
    I too believe it should be taken down. I think it should melted down and an African American sculptor should use the material to create a new piece. Designed by an African American comittee. In a way it would honor the legacy of the freed slaves who commissioned the piece by using the original materials while simultaneously creating a more accurate representation of the reality of the contribution of African Americans continuous and on going fight for their civil rights.

  • Margaret D. Blough Sep 1, 2017 @ 4:40

    To some extent, I think the Freedman’s Memorial is a prime example of two statues that, left well enough alone, would not have been problematical. The figure of the enslaved man is pretty close to the iconic design of the Wedgewood “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” medallion for the British Abolition movement. However, putting him at Lincoln’s feet creates the impression that was rightly decried when the Freedmen’s Memorial was dedicated and now and one that I believe that Lincoln himself would have rejected.

  • P D MacGuire Aug 31, 2017 @ 17:59

    Unless the men who are mentioned to have died on the monument at Ft Warren have their own individual markers – it appears that they don’t – the monument is their grave stone. If Russians have no problem with the German military cemeteries, which continue to be opened in Russia as more remains are recovered, if indeed they can honor the German war dead, can we do any less?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2017 @ 3:54

      The men in question are not buried at Fort Warren.

  • Christopher Jun 15, 2017 @ 3:46

    These men are listed as having died at Ft. Warren but where are the buried? I know some of the NC prisoners were transferred from Governor’s Island to Ft. Warren. The prisoners who remained on GI and died while there were buried on the island and later moved to a cemetery in NJ (if memory serves me). I helped Gov. Island identify a list of deaths on the island – the graves at the time had only wooden markers and were nearly unreadable at the time of transfer to the other cemetery.
    Are these dead prisoners buried at Ft.. Warren? Somewhere in Boston? If so, would there be complaint of those graves? In NC we have several monuments to NJ, MA and CT soldiers. Seems odd to me to have such a reaction to this monument. There is a baby in that bath water.

    Really when you mentioned where it was I was thinking it might marked the famous/ infamous escape of two prisoners from Ft. Warren. That escape was a minor cause celebre of its day. I would have put even money on their being a monument to that event.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 15, 2017 @ 13:06

      Hi Chris,

      I don’t believe there any Confederates buried at Fort Warren, but I am going to have to look into it.

  • Forester Jun 11, 2017 @ 14:17

    Is the “War Between the States” actually a bad or racist term? Or is it just problematic because of the sort of people who typically use it?

    I see no reason why that phrase should be controversial, unless there is some dark history that I’m unaware of.

    • M.D. Blough Jun 12, 2017 @ 11:32

      Well, for starters, it’s grossly inaccurate. One of the two parties to the Civil War or the War of the Rebellion (As in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion) was the government of the United States of America. It was not two aggregations of states fighting each other. I’m not sure when the WBTS started being used but it became part of the rewriting of the war.

    • Christopher Jun 15, 2017 @ 3:32

      It actual denotes a particular political stance. Lincoln viewed states that passed secession ordinances as out of their proper political relation to the Federal government – hence in rebellion. Secessionists viewed their actions as legal (rebellion implies not legal) – a state’s right issue. When one uses WBTS one is often (always is such a tough word) reflecting that view of State’s Rights and causes of the war. War of the Rebellion is no less telling in reflecting a political view of the war and its’ origins.

      Oddly enough then, Civil War is a way to engage the event without taking a political perspective tied to a name.

  • Maryann Germaine Jun 10, 2017 @ 6:10

    I have to go see the original Emancipation monument, here in DC. An interesting bit below on the history of its design, in this 2012 Post article.

    I suspect had they opted back then for the alternate design, the Emancipation monument would be much less controversial today. Alas, it was decided too expensive, and no African Americans were involved in the design process, though the monument was fully funded by former slaves.

    “Though former slaves paid for the memorial, its design was overseen by an all-white committee. Its sculptor, Thomas Ball, also was white.

    “Some critics felt the statue was paternalistic, that it ignored the active role blacks played in ending slavery. An alternate proposal for the memorial depicted a statue of Lincoln as well as statues of black Union soldiers wearing uniforms and bearing rifles. That option was considered too expensive.”


  • woodrowfan Jun 10, 2017 @ 5:46

    I’ve heard the DC Monument bitterly referred to as “Shine Mister?”, that is, placing the black man in the role of a shoe-shine boy.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2017 @ 6:00

      It was the first thought from my father when I took him to the monument last weekend.

  • Louis Drew Jun 10, 2017 @ 4:44

    Looking at the monument, though I am white, I share Mr. Douglass’ concern. It seems to me that the monument reflects at the very least a paternalistic view of the relationship between the races and seems to ignore the substantial contributions African-Americans themselves made to their emancipation. Yet, the monument has great value, I think, in that it reflects the vision of Abraham Lincoln, the way in which he was venerated after his martyrdom, and the racial attitudes which prevailed at the time the monument was erected.
    By the way, Mr. Levin, thanks for a blog I very much enjoy reading…

    • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2017 @ 4:47

      You are very welcome and thanks for the comment.

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