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Statues honored behind enemy lines

From left: This composite image shows "The Confederate

From left: This composite image shows "The Confederate Monument" in Kingstree, South Carolina, erected in 1910, which many believe is a Union soldier rather than the Rebel that was ordered, next to a photo of "The Soldiers Monument" in York, Maine, erected in 1906, which many locals believe portrays a Confederate soldier rather that the Union one that was ordered. Credit: Patrick Whittle

There is a statue in Kingstree, South Carolina, a Civil War memorial immortalizing a soldier from that bloody and nation-shaping conflict that could easily have been the target of angry citizens demanding it come down a century ago.

The residents of Kingstree call their Civil War monument, purchased for $2,500 after years of fundraising by the Daughters of the Confederacy, the “Confederate Yankee.” According to a 1952 news article, it got that nickname because when it was unveiled in 1910 the figure was so clearly a Union soldier that “One veteran when he saw the Yankee statue, threw up both hands and yelled, ‘Grant, I surrender!’ before he pitched forward on his face.”

But town residents, about two-thirds Black and one-third white and both with their reasons to object to the monument, mostly treasure the figure perched on a 32-foot column beside the county courthouse.

I think they always will, and with good reason.

He’s a soldier, not a general or politician. And the honor of good soldiers comes not from the nature of their cause but from their willingness to fight valiantly in the service of their nation. Soldiering properly is not about politics. It’s about duty.

I learned of the statue and its controversies in 1998, when I began working at the weekly Kingstree News and learned about a community besieged by poverty but rich in history. Almost everything about the statue is shrouded in mystery, and no one can agree on what exactly happened, or why, but the most common myth involves a similarly misplaced soldier in York, Maine, said to be a Confederate statue intended for a Union memorial, and an accidental switcheroo.

“We always said, ‘We captured a Yankee soldier and we weren’t giving him back,” said Frances McClary, 72, a one-time president of the Williamsburgh Historical Society. “I’ve never heard a single person talk about taking him down. But people who are serious about such things say his hair is too short and his hat is all wrong. He just doesn’t look right.”

Kingstree’s soldier has a knapsack like the Yankees carried, not a Rebel haversack. He has the short hair of a Union regular, not the long locks of the Confederate. He’s too neat and trim, too well-fed and well-equipped. The Rebels were short of equipment and desperately hungry for much of the war, and their commemorations sometimes reflect that.

Meanwhile, the statue in York has the slouch hat, long beard and haversack of a Rebel. A local there who tried to solve the mystery for decades, Rick Souza, often said the town’s statue looked “more like a skinny Colonel Sanders than a Union soldier.”

But the “switched at birth” theory doesn’t quite fit, either. York’s statue was commissioned and delivered four years earlier than Kingstree’s, and they were made by different artists. 

And why did neither town ever seriously balk at honoring the enemy?

At the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union and Confederate soldiers came together to shake hands and swap tales. On the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, last year, German and American veterans of that Belgian killing field came together to do the same.

Or as McClary put it: “I’ve traveled in New England, and seen their memorials, and I know they loved their soldiers just like we do. It’s all the same, really.” 

Most memorials aren’t of common people struggling to do the best they can in harrowing circumstances, but more ought to be. Such triumphs, of simple people doing their duty, never lose their resonance, and never merit destruction.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.