Letter: Monument controversy can be solved by education

Elizabeth Duran Gessner
St Augustine, FL

Dear Historic City News editor:

Like everyone else in St Augustine, I have been following the controversy over the monuments in the Plaza. I am concerned not only by the potential loss to St Augustine’s streetscape and sense of history if they are removed, but also by the animosities being stirred up in this dispute. And, like most things, I think it can be solved by education.

I give tours of Tolomato Cemetery and discuss St. Augustine’s situation at the time of the Civil War since we have Confederate burials as well as burials of Freedmen (the U.S.C.T., U. S. Colored Troops, regiments in the Union Army after Emancipation). Sadly, I can tell you that many visitors, especially the young ones, seem to know little about the Civil War and I’m not even sure some of them know the century in which it was fought or can distinguish it from the Revolutionary War.

Perhaps the Plaza and its monuments need better curating. Rather than removing the monuments and trying to pretend that the past never happened, why not develop attractive historical plaques that could be placed near them and constitute a freedom-themed tour route through the Plaza?

We could follow the trials and tribulations of a developing nation starting with the monument to the Spanish Constitution in the center and ending with the foot soldiers, passing through the intervening centuries and perhaps learning from them.

The two monuments currently under attack, General Loring’s obelisk and the monument to the Confederate dead, are both interesting and illuminating features.

Loring was one of those brilliant 19th century military adventurers and explorers who appeared during a time when the United States was still configuring its geographical boundaries. He is a figure who gives us a glimpse into the sometimes chaotic national and international scene of the times. His service in the Confederate Army (after his years in the US Army) is only a part of his other military and non-military exploits.

Loring was a national figure. He was born in North Carolina, came to Florida just as it became a US territory in 1821, served in military campaigns in California and Mexico, not to mention Egypt in his later years. He died in New York City. A Confederate battle flag appears on one face of his marker, but he was more than that; so why not remove the battle flag, if that symbol is what is causing offense, rather than attempt to blot him and that whole historical period out of history?

The removal of the monument to the Confederate dead that has the most potential to cause animosity, since the names on the monument are almost all those of local families, does not glorify the Confederacy. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have any Confederate symbols on it, but simply commemorates the dead from this area.

It is true that the phrase on the side, “They have crossed the river and rest under the shade of the trees,” is based on the last words of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as he died, this elegiac inscription could hardly be considered a political statement or stir up thoughts of war, slavery, or hatred. Yet the monument, and by extension the names on it, are being vilified as representing all of those things.

Tying all the monuments together with an interpretive path, developed by a committee from our fine community of historians, we could provide everyone with a way to learn about and from our past. Perhaps it would even be possible to provide a guided tour once a day at peak tourist times so that people could discover and reflect on this aspect of St. Augustine.

That way our past of 150 or even 50 years ago will appear as a bench mark for our current progress rather than as an unsurmountable obstacle to our future. But, one sure way not to benefit from the past is to attempt to remove its record and pretend it never happened.


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