ST. LOUIS • More than a century ago, believers in the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy dedicated a granite monument in Forest Park. Over the years, it largely was forgotten.
Back in April, Mayor Francis Slay asked publicly whether it should be removed from the park. Then, some time overnight Tuesday, vandals defaced it with paint, including with the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” City workers cleaned the monument on Wednesday.
“Vandalism is not a productive way to confront our history,” said Eddie Roth, an assistant to Slay who is researching the history of the monument for his boss. He plans to present his report to Slay by summer’s end.
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Most everyone suspects the vandalism was inspired by renewed debate in the Deep South over public displays of the Confederate battle flag, a copy of which Dylann Storm Roof, 21, posed with some time before he allegedly murdered nine people in a church on June 17 in Charleston, S.C. The South Carolina Legislature is considering removing the flag from its capitol grounds. In Mississippi, some state officials called for removing the battle emblem from part of their own state flag.
But in Missouri, official displays of the battle flag hadn’t been news in more than a decade. In 2003, former Gov. Bob Holden had the flag removed from two state Civil War historic sites. The next governor, Matt Blunt, drew criticism two years later for allowing one to be flown for a day over the Confederate Memorial State Historic Site at Higginsville, in western Missouri, where the state once had a Confederate veterans’ home.
At Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, where 1,104 Confederate soldiers are buried, park officials allow Confederate heritage organizations to place small Confederate battle flags next to the graves only on Memorial Day, according to strict rules. (Former slaves who fought for the Union are also buried there.)
But the flag has an indelible link to Missouri — one of its 13 stars represents the state, which was violently divided during the Civil War. Less than a month after the war began, 35 people died in a clash between pro-Southern rioters and green Union soldiers on Olive Street in St. Louis. The sitting governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, schemed to move Missouri into the Confederacy and died in exile during the war. Another former governor, Sterling Price, led a major Rebel raid into the state in 1864, only seven months before the war effectively ended.
In the end, Missouri officially stayed in the Union, largely because of pro-Union sentiment and armed forces in St. Louis. But the state was torn by hundreds of small clashes.
The battle flag still can be seen in Missouri at private homes and on bumper stickers. Every now and then, a school district suspends a student for wearing a Confederate shirt or cap. Words still have power as well. In March, some parents at Kennard Classical Junior Academy asked school officials to change the name because it honors Samuel Kennard, a prominent 19th-century business leader who also had been a Confederate officer.
The flag is not displayed at the Confederate Memorial in Forest Park. Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy paid for the $23,000 monument, which was dedicated on Dec. 5, 1914, while a band played “Dixie.” A Post-Dispatch description of the ceremony says the monument depicts a young man preparing to leave his family to join the Confederate army. Its 32-foot shaft is etched with praise of the Southern cause.
Darrell Maples of Jefferson City, Missouri commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he was “disgusted and saddened” by the vandalism and called Slay partly to blame for not ordering more frequent police patrols, especially since the Charleston massacre. Maples said the city should not remove or modify the monument.
Maples said the battle flag and the Charleston murders are separate issues. “We are as horrified as anyone else by what happened,” he said. “We know there are hate groups that have used the flag, but we can’t control what every crazy individual does … We honor the valor of the (Confederate) soldiers. That’s all we believe the flag is.”
Louis Gerteis, a professor of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of two books on the Civil War in Missouri, sees the memorial as different from the battle flag issue. He said he hoped the city leaves the monument where it is. Gerteis called it a historical artifact that depicts part of Missouri’s history, and said he regularly sends students down to the monument “to learn more about what it represents.”
As for the battle flag, Missouri shouldn’t fly it, he said. “It has come to represent defiance of the federal government, opposition to equal rights for blacks,” said Gerteis. “It is a symbol of belligerence.”
Slay originally called for a commission to look into whether to move the memorial, but that didn’t materialize. Instead Roth is looking into the issue. He said he didn’t know whether he will recommend moving the park monument. But he quipped, “We have a tradition of moving monuments, and nobody should know that better than sympathizers of the Confederate cause.”
His reference goes back to the violence on Olive Street, near today’s St. Louis University. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, who had led the Union troops that day, was honored in 1928 with a statue on the site. But it was moved 32 years later to Lyon Park near the Anheuser-Busch brewery after Harriet Frost Fordyce donated $1 million to the university. Her father was Rebel Gen. Daniel Frost, who surrendered his troops to Lyon shortly before the street riot erupted. His name graces the university’s Frost Campus east of Grand Boulevard.
BLUNT, McCASKILL ON FLAG
Missouri’s two U.S. senators agree with the call by many South Carolina leaders to remove the flag from their capitol grounds. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Missouri should put its own “violent” Civil War history behind it, while understanding its lingering effect on state politics.
“I agree with the South Carolina decision, but I also believe that the people in South Carolina were the ones that needed to make that decision,” said Blunt, father of former governor Matt Blunt.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said “the flag should come down, but fighting racism needs to be an effort that extends beyond removal of a divisive flag.”
Chuck Raasch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.