Field Tripping By Kate Drabinski

Field Tripping: Monument touring

Columnist Kate Drabinski goes on a tour of the Confederate memorials in Charles Village

There's been a lot in the news about Confederate monuments in the past few months. It's exciting to see so many people talking about this stuff that structures our lives ideologically even as it fades so much into our backgrounds. At the same time, it's one of those issues about which everyone seems to have an opinion, even if most of us don't have a lot of actual knowledge backing up our impassioned feelings on the issues. I count myself in that number. Sure, I've seen all 10+ hours of Ken Burns' "The Civil War" three times, and I've read my fair share of history books and historiographies, but I have to admit that I don't know that much about Baltimore's monuments in particular.

And that's where Eli Pousson over at Baltimore Heritage comes in. Eli's the Nerd's Nerd. While my idle curiosity gets me Googling "Baltimore confederate monuments" between glances at Facebook and cat pictures, he actually does the proper research. When I heard he was doing a tour of Confederate memorials in Charles Village, I was in for the field trip, even though it started at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, which is kind of early for me because I am a princess who doesn't have kids.

We gathered at the Soldiers and Sailors memorial in Wyman Park. I've ridden my bike past this thing countless times on my way here and there, but this was actually my first time getting a close look at the thing—and learning that it's a Union monument. We're mostly talking about Confederate monuments these days, but that doesn't mean there aren't monuments to the other side, or to a whole bunch of other wars. There are memorials to the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812—heck, that one has a shrine—the Spanish American War, the Korean War, World Wars I and II. We sure love our wars around here, don't we?

About 20 of us gathered for Eli's introductory talk about the politics of all this before we headed up Charles to our next stop. A participant raised his hand before we headed on our way: "Can you tell us something about the monument itself, like, describe it?" Oh, right—some folks might want to know about the artist who made it or the materials used in casting, like, the "art history" of the thing. Nope, hadn't even occurred to me to care about that stuff, but I guess that could be interesting too.

I tuned out until we all traipsed north to check out the bust of the statue to Johns Hopkins. How is that a Confederate monument? Well, it depends on how you define things. I mean, the guy's wealth couldn't have been unrelated to slavery, right? All of this country's wealth is related to slavery in one way or another. And the Civil War was 100 percent about slavery. Sure, it was about state's rights—they aren't wrong about that—but the state's rights it was about were about the rights to own enslaved people. A fellow tour-goer pointed out that Hopkins was instrumental in getting the B&O Railroad on the side of the Union, but this stuff is more complicated than that. John Work Garrett, owner of the railroad, was a Confederate sympathizer, and though he used his trains and tracks to traffic for the Union, he also limited rail traffic in and around Harper's Ferry at the request of Confederate generals who argued night trips kept their troops awake and day travel upset training activities. But I digress.

Our next stop was the Confederate Women of Maryland Monument amid the trees on the square of grass where Charles and University Parkway meet. It's another one you can miss if you aren't paying attention. Eli pointed out that as car travel came to dominate the landscape, these memorials and monuments that are just back from the roads became more and more invisible. If the goal of these monuments is to keep folks thinking about or revere-ing these events or whatever, car culture's pretty much ruined all that. This generation's public memorials are at roadsides and slung over freeway overpasses, because that's where we see things now.

We spent a good bit of time here, Eli reading to us from letters to the editor sent in support and opposition to this monument at the time it was built. The same arguments we are hearing today were heard back then, a reminder that a little history and maybe we could start different conversations, or maybe we really do need to have these conversations over and over again.

And then we headed back the way we came, with a quick stop at the Sidney Lanier Monument. Lanier was a writer and poet who fought for the Confederacy but spent time at the infamous Point Lookout prison camp during the Civil War where he contracted the tuberculosis that would kill him. The memorial remembers Lanier, but also that prison camp and its terrors. Turns out prison camps are pretty terrible, whether they're run by Union or Confederate armies.

It got me thinking: I wonder if we could use this time of talking about Confederate monuments and what, if anything, to do with them to also talk about how we remember and what we remember about war in general. What if we remembered Lanier without the nostalgia for the Confederacy but with an eye to the lives destroyed by wars and prisons more generally? What if we etched our landscape with memories of the costs rather than the alleged glories of war, whether it's the Confederate or Union side we're talking about? What if our memorials reminded us of the costs of slavery, the reason this war was fought in the first place? We ended our tour at the Lee-Jackson monument with these and other questions, no easy answers. Now that's a good field trip.

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