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What IS That Dude?

A Cross-Eyed Look At Our Statue of The Civil War Soldier

He’s been blue, he’s been gray, he’s even been green when the oxidation got the better of him. He’s our bronze monument to a Civil War soldier, first presiding at the bottom of Circuit Avenue, then moved many decades ago to the triangle of park facing Vineyard Sound and the Oak Bluffs ferry terminal.

Maybe the first order of business is to consider which side of the conflict this Island joined after April 1861 when Southern troops fired on Ft. Sumter. Wait! Vineyarders? Taking sides? In our heart of hearts, we believe we’re our own nation. Remember when we tried to secede, if not from the Union, than at least from Massachusetts, in the late 70s? Hey! I’ve still got the T-shirt! (It’s a little small).

The only reason we didn’t become another Luxemburg floating in the Atlantic is that it’s hard to get Islanders to do anything drastic, like go out on a Tuesday night in February, or fight for a cause. Maybe it’s something in the water. We’re too busy writing our memoirs or logging onto the Poets Society.

Okay, so back to the Civil War. Or how ‘bout back to the Revolutionary War?! Did Vineyarders even take an active part in that? Oh, a few Islanders shuffled off to enlist, but for the most part this little rock was neutral. Oh, this one time a British warship muddled into Holmes Hole Harbor (cute old name for Vineyard Haven). Its mast was blown off and the commander sent word to town: “Give us your flagpole!” Well, that night, according to legend, three spunky teen chicks, Polly, Maria, and Darnell, rustled up gun powder and live coals from their folks’ homes. They ripped up their skirts and petticoats and fashioned a fire cracker around the flagpole. Kaboom!

(In the movie version, you’d see the three chicks blown forward).

Dissolve to the Civil War.

Vineyarders were oblivious to mainland issues. Slavery was illegal here because it was banned in Boston. But what about that poisonous Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, compelling Northerners to return escaped slaves to the South? Are you freaking kidding us? The Vineyard was a stopping off point for the Underground Railroad! Plus Islanders have always been a big social sponge, then and now, absorbing all who come here, offering some kind of refuge, be it the Wampanoags welcoming the English on the western shores, or those in Edgartown, providing the newcomers are willing to wear Kelly-green pants (granted that was back in the last century).

In 1860, more Vineyarders voted for Abraham Lincoln than did Americans anywhere else in the nation. But, you know what? He might have been pushing it -- for Islanders -- when he whistled up those dogs of war. Imagine him visiting the Campground during a lazy weekend, dangling long legs over a porch rail, pulling at his beard. “Look,” some philosopher /farmer (we specialize in those) might have argued, “We’ve only been a nation for, what, eighty-five years? We’ve got nothing in common with those folks down South. Let ‘em secede. No one’ll buy their cotton. They’ll come to their senses and free their slaves, do the right thing. Maybe for our part, we can hitch up with Canada?”

This live-and-let-live attitude endured through the Civil War. Every time a draft was called, virtually no Island boys signed up: They had old folks to look after, little kids, pig farms, no forwarding address, away at sea. Failing a good exemption, a town meeting was called to raise the $300 to get the kid out of commission: A recruiter in Boston could find a willing lad (usually just off the boat) to sign up in his place. (Often those draftees deserted and volunteered again and again) And don't blame us, Abe Lincoln got his own son a 4-F!

Flash-forward to 1891 when Oak Bluffs newspaperman Charles Strahan, veteran of the 21st Regiment of Virginia, put up a statue to honor all the fallen of the Civil War. Ever since then people refer to this monument as “The Confederate Solider” as in “I’ll meet you in front of the Confederate Soldier.” Local historians will dispute this point until they’re blue -- or gray -- in the face, and yet, if you tell someone you’ll be standing before the Confederate Soldier, that person will know where to find you.

So what the heck army does this statue represent? Today it’s painted a dark iron flinty charcoal. The guy’s cap is billed, his long jacket flares with a cape around his shoulders. He’s holding a rifle aimed through his palm towards his forehead. No wonder there were so many casualties!

The plaques on both sides state every which thing: “-- depicting a Union soldier”, “abolition of slavery”, “this chasm is closed”, and “dedicated by Union Veterans of the Civil War and Patriotic Citizens of Martha’s Vineyard in honor of Confederate Soldiers.”

As ever, Islanders are busy covering their petutties.

All we are saying is give peace a chance.

 

David Whitmon January 03, 2012 at 12:45 PM
He did some finagling after the war and was retroactively reinstated into the Union Army. It's amazing he survived the Confederate POW camp. A 2nd great grandfather, Archibald White who also fought for the North came close to loosing an arm. He receive $25.00 a month disability for the rest of his life. That was big bucks way back then.
Holly Nadler January 03, 2012 at 02:20 PM
David, there are times when $25 would STILL be big bucks. Once read that more soldiers died in Civil War POW camps than on the battlefield.
Warren Gosson January 03, 2012 at 06:10 PM
I like the flow and intent of the article as it relates to the Civil War Soldier. However, prior to the Fugitive Slave Act enslavement was very much active and a way of live on the Vineyard. And after the 'Fugitive Slave Act' racism was prevalent even in light of the growing black community. Documents from those early days are hard to produce, although some are recorded at the Probate Court. Slaves were sold and documented at the court. Some early slave owner's mentioned in the book, "Lighting the Trail" by Elaine Weintraub are the Mathew's, Bassett's, Allen's and Daggert's. Fast forward to the Whaling era and William Martin, a black whaling captain did not build his home amongst, other whaling captains. He was banished to Chappaquidick with other people of color. During the 1960's Civil Rights Movement, many people of color were employed by the white wealthy of Edgartown and elsewhere. Many of of senior citizens recall that they were not allowed to walk in the front door of these grand homes, but had to enter and exit through the rear service door. Many of our minority seniors spoke humbly and gratefully about making a living for their families from the white socio-economic upper-class. Occasionally I would hear a minority employee speak highly of their employee as they were treated like 'their-own' family and allowed to use the front door and other privileges that were not granted to other minority employees at their workplace. e C
Holly Nadler January 03, 2012 at 08:21 PM
I know, Warren, I was just emphasizing the positive that a number of fugitive slaves found refuge here, esp. in Aquinnah. And there truly wasn't a lot of fomenting for either side of the conflict here during the Civil War. That was the thrust of my story, although I think you do well to bring up the issue of social injustice in earlier decades on MV: that's a subject for another historian with more gravitas than I have. I'm sorry if I implied that all has been sweetness and light; I realize it hasn't.
David Whitmon January 04, 2012 at 12:11 PM
A number of Confederate Prison Commanders were tried and hung because of the treatment of Union POWs.

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