Locals defend Iowa's Confederate monuments as national debate rages
Bloomfield and Bentonsport have historic markers
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Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau
BLOOMFIELD, Iowa — Surrounded by little more than farmland, at a fork in County Road V20 five miles south of Bloomfield, population 2,600, rests a monument to what local historians say was the northernmost advance by Confederate troops during the Civil War.
The monument features three large rocks, each with a plaque, and two flags: an early, 34-star U.S. flag and a version of the Stars and Bars, the first flag of the Confederacy.
It is one of two monuments in Iowa that feature Confederate soldiers, according to a national report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The other also is in southeast Iowa, about an hour’s drive from Bloomfield, in the unincorporated town of Bentonsport. There, along the Des Moines River in an idyllic park that includes a rose garden and a gazebo, sits a large rock with a plaque that tells the story of Confederate Gen. Lawrence Ross, who was born in and spent the first year of his life in Bentonsport.
Iowa’s Confederate monuments are isolated from big cities and high-traffic roads.
And according to the people who live in Bloomfield and Bentonsport, those monuments also are — and should remain — isolated from the national debate about whether Confederate monuments should continue to stand.
“What we’re interested in is the history,” said Sherman Lundy of Waterloo, who is with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “That’s our purpose. That’s what we do. That’s our interest over there.”
On Aug. 12, white supremacists and white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the pending removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Counterprotesters also rallied, and violence ensued when the two groups mixed. A woman was killed when one protester drove his car into a crowd.
Since that day, the national debate over Confederate monuments has intensified, with more and more people calling for the removal of all such monuments from the public square.
Most are in the southeastern states that were Confederate states during the Civil War. There are more than 700 Confederate monuments on public land, 629 of which are in former Confederate states, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2016 report.
But there are dozens of monuments in Union states, even a few out West, far from where the Civil War was fought.
In Iowa, a Union state during the Civil War, both Confederate monuments are in the state’s southeast corner where there may have been, decades ago, more Confederate sympathizers than in other areas of the state. Just south of the monuments is Missouri, which was a slave state but had divided loyalties during the war.
The monument near Bloomfield marks the northernmost point of a trail marched by Confederate soldiers in 1864 during the war’s final months. According to the Davis County Civil War Guerrilla Raid Society, on Oct. 12, 1864, a dozen Missouri Partisan Rangers, dressed in Union uniforms, marched through southeast Iowa, raiding homes and killing three residents near Bloomfield.
The monument has three stones, each adorned with a plaque. The central stone provides a brief synopsis of the Confederate raid. One honors Davis County residents who fought for the Union in the war and has a 35-star Union flag; the other says the spot represents the northernmost incursion of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and has a Confederate battle flag. The Union flag and Stars and Bars Confederate flag fly near the sides of the respective rocks.
The monument was erected in 2005 with the help of two Civil War history groups — the Sons of Union Veterans and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, each of which donated plaques for their respective side. The local group raised $5,000 for the monument and other markers on the raid trail, said Nancy Clancy, president of the Davis County Historical Society.
“I’m really proud of our monument because it shows what the history of Davis County is,” Clancy said. “Our monument, it is history, and that is what we wanted to portray.”
Gen. Ross’ monument in Bentonsport is a plaque on a large rock in the riverside park. Dedicated in 2007 and donated by multiple Confederate history organizations, including Iowa and Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans, the plaque is titled “Iowa’s Confederate General” and is adorned with the Confederate battle flag and Iowa state flag. The plaque notes that Ross was born in Bentonsport in 1838 and that his family moved to Texas in 1839. It details his Civil War service and states that after the war, he served as Texas’ governor and president of Texas A&M University.
The plaque describes Ross as a “frontiersman, soldier, statesman, educator” and a native son of Iowa and adopted son of Texas.
Local residents say the calls for the removal of Confederate monuments that are echoing across the country have not reached southeast Iowa, for the most part.
Mark Meek, chairman of the Van Buren County supervisors, said the county has received “a couple of emails” from people saying they think Gen. Ross’ monument should be removed. Meek said he thinks the requests did not come from Van Buren County residents.
Back at the Bloomfield monument, Clancy said Davis County residents are not interested in removing the Confederate raid monument.
“Everybody understands and appreciates our monument in Davis County,” she said. “I’ve never heard anything negative about our monument, ever. I don’t see any reason there should be.”
For Clancy, Lundy and others, the monuments are about marking and preserving history. The monuments do not, in their minds, represent or promote white supremacy or slavery.
“It’s a little bit of Iowa history,” Lundy said. “That’s what we’re after over there. We’re not interested in trying to equate some racism with marking the Confederate markers. We understand the seriousness of the war. ...
“What they’re doing is not trying to aggrandize anything associated with slavery. It’s a nasty business, and it divides the country. We understand that.”
But others say the calls to remove Confederate monuments are not about erasing history, but removing from the public square symbols that once represented the attempt of Confederate states to secede from the nation in order to preserve slavery and white supremacy.
“This is not an attempt to erase history,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report said. “It is an effort to end the government’s endorsement of a symbol that has always represented the oppression of an entire race. These historical symbols belong in museums and other educational settings where people can see them and learn the full history of slavery, the Confederacy, the Civil War and Jim Crow.”
Kathleen Hilliard has a similar viewpoint. Hilliard is a history professor at Iowa State University whose studies focus on the South and the Civil War. She formerly lived in South Carolina.
“White supremacy is very much a part of that. You can’t separate the monuments from Jim Crow. You can’t separate the monuments from efforts to reimpose an order that white Southerners felt they lost,” she said. “I think history should be marked, and to understand how tides rise and fall. So these markers, I think are important. I’m more uncomfortable with commemorative monuments that seem to glorify the Confederacy and that misrepresent or literally whitewash the politics of the war and more importantly the politics of the postwar.”
Lawrence McDonnell, another Iowa State University history professor with a focus in Southern and Civil War studies who also once lived in South Carolina, said the Bloomfield monument is an example of how history cannot be separated from what people may believe are good intentions.
“The monument at Bloomfield, I must say, to a Civil War veteran from Iowa, say in the 1880s, would be astonishing. How in the world could someone who fought to save the country stand to see the flag of the country that broke away and tried to destroy the union? Not the battle flag, but the flag of the Confederacy, the original Confederate flag, flying over Iowa territory,” McDonnell said. “That monument commemorates the so-called invasion by roughly a dozen Confederate soldiers and paramilitary troops dressed in Union uniforms who killed civilians in Iowa. This is not what could be called a battle or a standard military service. That’s called a war crime. And the idea that there’s a monument to this that was put up by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, among other groups, with the Confederate flag flying over top.
“I won’t say my own views ... but historically Iowans would have been astonished by that. And I’m not sure that veterans of the 1870s and 1880s would have put up with a thing like that.”
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