Trying to erase history is a bad idea. If it’s erased, you can’t learn from it.
And the Confederate Rest section of Forrest Hill Cemetery on Madison’s Near West Side has important lessons to teach. That’s where about 140 Confederate soldiers who died as prisoners of war in Madison more than 150 years ago during the Civil War are buried. It’s the northernmost Confederate cemetery.
But the 4-foot-high stone monument on the site, which city officials are debating, needs to be moved — not because it honors Southern rebels, which it does. And not because the group that installed it, the Daughters of the Confederacy, has a history of defending racism, which it does.
The monument should be moved because it insults some of the young men it is supposed to honor.
The ostentatious monument was plopped front and center in the middle of the Confederate cemetery, without regard for several of the soldiers’ headstones. Not only does it upstage the simple headstones honoring the soldiers’ final resting places, but it blocks the public view of fallen soldier William Green’s headstone and partially obscures two more markers.
On the monument itself, the words “United Daughters of the Confederacy” appear much larger than any of the names of the soldiers the stone is supposed to honor. That suggests this organization was more concerned with publicizing itself in 1906, when the rectangular monument was put there, than remembering Southern soldiers who died far from their homes in the 1860s.
So Madison officials should move the Daughters of the Confederacy monument off the graves of these soldiers. They should move it to a quiet corner of the Confederate Rest so its context can be considered without dominating the site.
City officials — with help from historians, and being careful not to inject the politics of today — should erect an informational plaque explaining who these soldiers were and why they died in retched conditions at Camp Randall, which became a prison camp long before Wisconsin football teams played there. It also should note the troubling history of Confederate monuments.
In addition, the display should tell the story of Alice Whiting Waterman, the Louisiana woman who moved to Madison in 1868 to tend the graves of the soldiers at Confederate Rest and who is buried near “her boys” in the cemetery.
Last year, the city rightly removed a plaque installed in 1982 that inaccurately referred to the rebel soldiers as “unsung heroes.”
Near the Confederate Rest, in an appropriately more prominent spot, lie the Union soldiers who helped keep our nation intact and defeat slavery. They are the true heroes.
An informational display stands in front of their graves. A similar sign with historical facts should be put in front of the gravestones of the Southern soldiers, teaching visitors of this dark era of American history that should never be repeated.