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Antietam: Bid to remove Robert E Lee statue thrusts old battlefield into new war

The statue of Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Antietam National Battlefield Park.

ROBERT H. REID/STARS AND STRIPES

By ROBERT H. REID | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 17, 2017

ANTIETAM NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD PARK, Md. — The rolling fields of western Maryland that saw some of the Civil War’s bloodiest fighting are now caught up in America’s latest conflict — the culture war. 

Last week three Maryland Democratic congressmen filed a bill in the House of Representatives to direct the National Park Service to remove a statue of Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee from the Antietam National Battlefield Park, scene of the bloodiest single day of the Civil War.

“Public land should not be home to symbols of hate and bigotry that memorialize leaders of the pro-slavery, traitorous Confederate South,” said one of the three co-sponsors, Rep. Anthony Brown, an Iraq War veteran and colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

The bill was submitted two days ahead of the 155th anniversary of the battle, in which Union forces turned back Lee’s first invasion of the North. With a total of 22,717 dead, wounded and missing on both sides, it was the single bloodiest day in American history.

The significance of the battle — fought on Sept. 17, 1862 — was more political than military. Five days after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Union-occupied territory in the South.

By defining the war as a campaign to end slavery, Lincoln made it politically impossible for Britain and France to side with the Confederacy since both European countries had long since done away with the institution.

Likewise, supporters of the new legislation hope to link their effort to remove the statue to the nationwide campaign to purge symbols of the Confederacy.

The campaign gained steam after the 2015 massacre of nine African-American churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., and the August clashes between white nationalists and opponents in Charlottesville, Va., in which a 32-year-old woman was killed.

But the campaign against Confederate symbols has angered many conservatives and others who see it as nothing short of a war on history.  They fear the campaign will expand to discredit any national figure — including George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson — who owned slaves.

“So this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” President Donald Trump said last month. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? … You know you really have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

The vast majority of the monuments and statues at Antietam honor the Union, which is generally considered to have won the battle. The Lee statue, which stands on the edge of the park, is well away from the main areas of fighting.

It was erected in 2003 on land bought by wealthy Marylander William F. Chaney, who included a plaque offering what many contemporary historians consider a whitewashed version of Lee’s views on slavery and secession.

“Robert E. Lee was personally against secession and slavery, but decided his duty was to fight for his home and the universal right of every person to self-determination,” the plaque reads.

Chaney later sold the land, and the statue, to the National Park Service.

Whatever the fate of the statue, park officials believe the controversy and the backlash against Confederate symbols in general will have little effect on attendance.

“No effect at all,” said Keith Snyder, chief of resource education at the park. “Our peak year was 2012 on the 125th anniversary but attendance has been building” to more than 350,000 visitors in 2016.

John Teller, an engineer who takes part in historical reenactments at the park, believes it’s important for Americans to learn about the Civil War, regardless of their views on the conflict.

On Sunday he and his team of reenactors manned a Civil War-style cannon and staged demonstration firings, using peat moss instead of deadly shells.

“We try to explain what the South did, not why the South did it,” he said.
 

The statue of Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Antietam National Battlefield Park.
ROBERT H. REID/STARS AND STRIPES

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