Wisconsin Embraced Confederate History Throughout the 20th Century

The Confederate monument debate recently hit close to home when Paul Soglin, the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin removed one of two memorials dedicated to southern soldiers buried in Forest Hill Cemetery. These two monuments were erected approximately between 1896-1904 and 1981, respectively. The 140 Confederates died in the prison camp once located at Camp Randall (near the current UW Football Stadium). I have long known about these monuments and was curious whether they too would be targeted for removal like so many Confederate memorials around the country.

Each community has the right to choose whether to keep or take down a public monument. But what didn’t sit right with me was Mayor Soglin’s use of the term “lie” to describe how the monuments arrived in Madison. Soglin stated the Confederate monument “was installed over 60 years after the end of the Civil War. It is a slab of propaganda paid for by a racist organization on public property when our city was inattentive to both the new form of slavery propagated by the Black Codes and to the meaning of that despicable fixture honoring slavery, sedition and oppression.”

As Soglin explains it, Madison was deceived by organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and Sons of the Confederacy, which hoped to plant racist monuments under their unsuspecting, racially integrated northern noses. This sounded like an intriguing conspiracy!

Sorry, No Confederate Lies Here

Contrary to the Mayor Soglin’s belief, Madison was not deceived. First, there is some confusion when the first memorial, which lists the names of the buried Confederates,  was erected. More current newspaper articles indicate a 1931 dedication date, which is likely where the mayor derived this date. Wisconsin State Journal newspaper articles from 1922 and 1926  indicate the monument was dedicated sometime between 1896-1906. An erroneous date only begins to explain the mayor’s misguided interpretation of this cemetery’s history and these memorials.

Conf rest memorial 1922

1922 Wisconsin State Journal article on Madison’s first Confederate Memorial.

The UDC was asked by Major Frank Oakley, a Union veteran who lost his arm in battle during the Civil War, to donate $865 for this memorial. And this was after Oakley’s request for assistance from the US War Department was denied. The Major’s goal was to commemorate the life’s work of Alice Whiting Waterman who oversaw the Rebel graves for nearly 30 years up to her death in 1896.  Waterman’s efforts at Forest Hill were also publicly supported by former governors and Union generals Lucius Fairchild and Caldwallader Washburn. A 1922 article reports the local Grand Army of the Republic Post (Union army veterans) even “held services at the dedication of the monument.” Although funded by the UDC, the earliest monument is not a “slab of propaganda.” It was initiated and supported by men who fought and bled for the Union and saw it as a respectful way to commemorate Confederate dead, not further Confederate ideology. Indeed, Fairchild and Washburn even used Forest Hill to try and reunify the nation in the years after the war.

The mayor’s use of the date 1931 led me to a fascinating series of events when I searched that year for monument dedication news stories. In 1930, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) were invited to decorate Forest Hill Cemetery Confederate burials by the most distinguished people in Wisconsin! Upon their arrival at the Madison train station, the Honorary Life President-General of the UDC and President of the Alabama division of the UDC were welcomed by representatives of both state and federal governments, the University of Wisconsin president, local businessmen, women’s patriotic groups, and Madison’s ‘Southern Club.’ These southern “guests” were handed bouquets of flowers and then driven “in an Alabama decorated car” to their hotel alongside then Mayor Albert G. Schmedeman and Governor Walter J. Kohler and their wives.

Wait, Madison had a Southern Club? The mayor and the governor welcomed them and escorted them to their hotel? What does an Alabama decorated car look like? I am sorry, Mayor Soglin but your city and our state were not deceived. We rolled out the red carpet and embraced Confederate history and the UDC narrative.

The 1930 Memorial Day celebration kicked off when the UDC guests were introduced at the University of Wisconsin’s Lincoln Terrace with many of the previous mentioned dignitaries present. Later at Forest Hill Cemetery, forty finely dressed school children decorated the Confederate graves with flowers. The UDC members, local dignitaries and at least five surviving Union veterans of the war watched as small American flags were placed at both Union and Confederate graves.

Mad_Praise Treatment

1930 Newspaper Headline.

The UDC leadership were pleasantly surprised to participate in these events. They stated “this is the first time that a Northern state has issued an invitation of this sort to a southern state.” In her thank you letter to Governor Kohler, the Alabama UDC president wrote,” everything possible was done for our comfort and pleasure and this visit will long be remembered as an outstanding event in our lives. Such courtesy is bound to cement the sections of our reunited country.”

Why did 1930 Wisconsin embrace Confederate history?

Madison’s 1930 Memorial Day Committee contained an influential group of residents with with deep southern ties. University of Wisconsin Professor Rood and his wife Myrtle had Confederate ancestors. As did P.H. DeBardelaben, who was the grandson of a Lieutenant Colonel who commanded Alabama cavalry during the war. Madison’s Southern club seems to have had influential business leaders with Confederate ancestors and there was even one Madison member of the UDC.

Likely, when these southerners moved to Madison for business or to teach at the university, they were surprised to find Confederate graves there and wanted to honor them.  There appears to be no conspiracy – this was as honest and open of a celebration of Confederate heritage as a northern city could or arguably would ever embrace. In 1930, Madison did not view the war’s legacy in racial terms or acknowledge the deep seeded segregation that existed in Wisconsin and the nation. There was an entirely different interpretation of the war then, which, yes, was perpetuated by groups like the UDC but also upheld by universities and governments around the country. The 1930 Memorial Day celebration, was exceptional only in its pomp, not its content.

Were there voices of Concern/Disagreement?

At least in regards to planting Confederate flags at each southern soldier’s grave, yes there were serious concerns. One newspaper reported “the south has asked for permission to place confederate flags [at the Forest Hill Confederate] graves but in spite of the passing time the remnants of the troops that won for the north will stand for no display of confederate flags.” In addition to several pro-Confederate individuals, the planning committee also contained the commander of the local camp of the Grand Army of the Republic.  These veterans who acquiesced on the UDC’s participation at Forest Hill refused to budge on the flag issue. The GAR camp commander stated in a newspaper article when pressed about the exclusion of the Stars and Bars at the 1930 event, “It is true that Confederate flags have not been placed on these graves and why should they be? Was not the late civil strife of 1861 decided, was not the Union cemented and are we not now all live under then one flag? We do not want to see the flag which is the symbol of secession floating besides the Stars and Stripes in our city or any other city.” It is telling, this veteran did not object to the Confederate flag because it is a symbol of racism, but rather secession.

We gain added insight through a Nashville, Tennessee newspaper, which opined in 1930 that Madison disrespected the UDC when they were not allowed to plant the Confederate flag at Forest Hill. Both the UDC and Madison residents wrote letters of rebuttal. The UDC wrote the Nashville paper in defense of Wisconsin’s hospitality and stated that although Governor Kohler “gave them permission to plant Confederate flags,” the Daughters graciously decided against it. I believe this was not the UDC’s decision alone but rather more of a compromise with Madison’s surviving Union veterans. The Daughters knew they were breaking new ground with this invitation to Wisconsin and likely did not want to push their luck.

Confederates Welcomed Again in 1981

Nearly fifty years after Madison welcomed the UDC into Forest Hill Cemetery, the city was back at it on Memorial Day in 1981 when the second memorial was dedicated. Local citizen William Austin Huggins organized the gathering, which included Mayor Joel Skornicka and the President General of the UDC from Yazoo City, Mississippi. Several other UDC members participated as well as a local Rabbi and an Episcopalian priest (with Confederate ancestry) who “sprinkled holy water over each of the Confederate graves.”

Huggins Confed flag photo

William Huggins, whose father fought for the South and was a Son of Confederate Veterans member, never actually lived in the South. Born in Washington and employed most his life as a newspaper journalist in California,  he retired to Madison in 1977. Once there he was shocked to find southern soldiers laid to rest in Wisconsin and continued the the work of Alice Whiting Waterman by taking care of the graves. Huggins procured 50 new bronze cross medallions to replace those that had fallen in disrepair.

1981 priest photoOf course by 1981, the Union veterans of the war were long gone to voice concern over this ceremony. Even in 1930, the UDC thought it best to not plant Confederate flags in Forest Hill. By 1981, any concerns were swept aside as the mayor and priest consecrated the graves of the 140 tombstones and planted  Rebel flags in the cemetery. This practice of flying and planting the Confederate flag st Forest Hill  recently ended after 40 years of practice.

Huggins wrote the text on the bronze plaque mounted on a block of Georgia Granite. He said the purpose was to teach visitors “who the men were who are buried here, where they came from and the reason for their being here.” Of the two Forest Hill memorials, this one falls the most in line with the tone typically found in Lost Cause language with “valiant Confederate soldiers” and “unsung heroes.”

confed rest 1981

Recent photo of the monument before its removal.

Time to Redirect the Conversation

Current Madison Mayor Soglin continued his comments this past August:

“We will honor our history. We will respect the dead,” he said. “We make sure that our legacy is to tell the truth and to remove evidence of racist revisionism. We will use the story of these monuments to tell the truth about a century of Jim Crow, economic oppression and those like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan who spread their lies far beyond the boundaries of the rebellions states. Its time for education,” he said. “Its time for people to learn the history of this nation.” 

I couldn’t agree more but in my opinion Soglin entirely misses the point. If the mayor really wanted “to tell the truth about a century of Jim Crow, economic oppression,” in this particular case, the UDC as the target does not make sense. Wisconsin citizens created and wrote the inscriptions for both of these memorials. Yes, they were purchased with UDC money but this support was requested and celebrated by our state.  Simply put, Wisconsin governors and Madison’s mayors in 1900, 1930 and 1981 embraced Confederate history and memory.

By all accounts, Waterman and Huggins were not evil racists with a hidden agenda of spreading racist historical views “beyond the boundaries of the rebellions states.” It may be difficult for our current polarized society, which demonizes opposing political views  to acknowledge preceding generations held different perspectives on history and yes, they could have been decent people. These Wisconsin residents simply cared for Forest Hill’s southern graves and were supported wholeheartedly by their fellow citizens and several of Soglin’s predecessors. The mayor has politicized and incorrectly connected Madison’s monuments with the tragic current events concerning actual UDC sponsored and crafted Confederate monuments throughout the South. Yes, many of those monuments fit into his above description. We don’t have to agree with what Wisconsin leaders did with Madison’s Confederate memorials but simply vilifying the people misses the point and an unique opportunity.

Although a study of how Civil War memory has shifted over the past 100 years fits into this discussion, I am side-stepping that at the moment. We should use these monuments to peer into our state’s (not the UDC or KKK) treatment of African Americans during each of these three time periods and begin to ask questions.  How was Jim Crow used in Wisconsin in the early twentieth century and how does it compare nationally? What were African Americans’ experience in Madison when these monuments were dedicated? Did African American groups oppose these memorials and ceremonies? Were Wisconsin’s leaders “inattentive” to its African American citizens when they continuously embraced Confederate iconography?

I believe the 1981 memorial which was removed on Soglin’s orders should be placed back to Forest Hill. The mayor should call for a commission of historians, civil rights leaders and others to look into the state’s support for Confederate history and a new plaque should be written that will help answer any list of questions that would arise from such a gathering of concerned people. Perhaps it is by reflection at the newly interpreted memorials that we could gain insight as to why Wisconsin remains one of the most racially segregated states in the nation. And this should be done without the arrogance to assume our interpretation is the final word on this subject. Monuments and memorials typically tell more about the era in which they are erected (or removed), than the subject matter they commemorate. By simply removing these Forest Hill memorials without a meaningful discussion given the unique history of these Confederate memorials, I do not agree with message the mayor is relaying to future generations about modern day society.



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