Arundel man wants a statue for a hero

But not everyone shares his vision

February 15, 1999|By KIRSTEN SCHARNBERG | KIRSTEN SCHARNBERG,SUN STAFF

To Carter Shepherd, a hero is a hero. It is that simple.

He anticipates the controversy he may stir, dreads it even, but he doesn't shy away from it.

Whether the NAACP protests or the mail becomes unfriendly, Shepherd's mission is clear: He will build a great bronze statue to commemorate the life of a common man who fought for an unpopular principle.

"How can we justify not remembering a great hero who stood up for what he believed?" the Anne Arundel County man asks earnestly. "It is of little import whether he fought for the Union or the Confederacy."

At a time when memorials to a movement that condoned slavery are being torn down and protested as abhorrent to African-Americans, Shepherd, who is white, wants to build a new one. The life-size likeness he aims to build of little-known Confederate hero Benjamin Welch Owens would be near Prince George's County, which has a national reputation as a black middle-class enclave.

So even as Shepherd says he hopes to offend no one, the statue would likely do just that. Historical arguments noting economics and states' rights do little to comfort people who grew up hearing about great-great-grandparents who died as slaves.

"I can see nothing valiant or brave or good about those who fought for the South," says Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, who protested last year's rededication of a Confederate monument in Ellicott City.

In cities throughout the old Confederacy, activists are campaigning against monuments that they consider reminders of an ugly chapter of this nation's history.

In Franklin, Tenn., a black resident filed a federal lawsuit demanding removal of the local Confederate statue, in addition to $44 million in personal damages.

In Virginia, an outpouring of disgust led to changing the state song, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," with its lyric about "massa" and "darkies."

In South Carolina, the Confederate battle flag -- the blazing red background with the blue St. Andrew's cross -- has flown atop the state Capitol since 1962, despite continuous campaigns by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to have it removed.

And in Ellicott City, almost 100 demonstrators showed up in leg chains with signs that read "Auction for Sale," when the Sons of Confederate Veterans rededicated their 50-year-old monument in September. As one demonstrator put it: "Of course, this is more than historical. This is emotional."

In an interview at his Wayson's Corner home, Shepherd says: "Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think people will be that upset over this."

The spirit of the times and the very geography of his endeavor indicate otherwise.

Although no site for the Owens statue has been chosen, Shepherd is considering several plots in southern Anne Arundel near Prince George's, where almost two-thirds of residents are African-American.

A spokeswoman for the Prince George's chapter of the NAACP said the group has not decided how it will respond to the proposed monument, but the national organization has long decried the immortalization of men who fought for the South.

In his two-story colonial home filled with antiques, Shepherd is impassioned about his quest to memorialize Owens, a brilliant artillery leader and one of 43 men -- the only Marylander -- to be awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor.

Shepherd pulls out Owens' obituary from the Aug. 23, 1917, Annapolis Evening Capital. "Confederate Veteran of 81 Years Was Well-Known Here," the headline reads. The article notes that Owens was "intensely Southern," and on April 19, 1861, he participated in the riots of Baltimore, which resulted in the first casualties of the Civil War. The federal government indicted him for treason.

Three years into the war that bitterly divided the border state of Maryland, Owens enlisted in the Confederate army. On June 5, 1863, he was marching with his division under the orders of Gen. Edward Johnson across Valley Pike near Winchester, Va. The men encountered Union troops and began to fight.

Owens and about a dozen other men were in place atop a bridge with a cannon. Union troops under Gen. Robert Milroy fired. All the men on the bridge fell dead except Owens, who fought on, holding off the Union troops. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee later called Owens' stand the "Thermopylae of the War," referring to the Roman battle against the Seleucids which began the age of Rome's domination.

"How can you listen to stories like that and not be almost moved to tears by the selflessness of the act, by the sheer bravery, by the courage and the conviction?" Shepherd asks. "Does the color of the uniform matter so much?"

For many people -- for blacks who can never forget why the war was fought and for whites who believe the right side won -- the color of those uniforms means plenty.

"By closing our eyes and living in denial, we cannot pretend the Confederacy never existed," says Carl O. Snowden, a black activist in Annapolis who works for Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, a descendant of Benjamin Welch Owens. "But neither do we ever plan to embrace what it stood for."

Still, Snowden adds, if the monument is built on private land with private funds, complaints about the subject matter are moot.

Howell takes it further: "There is no way any rational person can support recognizing someone who defended the institution of slavery." He likens the symbol of the Confederate flag to pure hate.

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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