Battle shapes up over statue of Lee

Antietam: A group contests an Arundel man's monument to the Civil War general on the battlefield.

November 07, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

SHARPSBURG -- The bronze statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee has stood on a grassy knoll above the Antietam battlefield for several months now. But furor over the statue -- which some say is historically inaccurate -- has yet to fade, despite support from the National Park Service, which manages the nearby Civil War site.

The statue erected by Anne Arundel County millionaire William F. Chaney, who says he is a descendant of the Confederate leader, is at the center of a court battle pitting Washington County locals against the outsider with different views on historic preservation and interpretation.

"I would say it is one of the best statues up there," said Chaney, a Lothian resident who bought a chunk of the Antietam battlefield, outbidding the National Park Service, in 1999. Since then, he has turned an old farmhouse on the property into a museum. The Lee statue stands nearby. "I have had not a negative comment from anyone except for that little group."

That "little group" is the 700 or so members of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, which has retained an attorney and filed an appeal in Circuit Court to bring down the 24-foot statue. Members say Lee never stood on the hill, although he might have passed through the area before the battle Sept. 17, 1862. They are appealing on technical grounds but have a larger point to make.

Opponents, including several well-known Civil War historians, worry that the Lee statue will set a precedent of private parties erecting monuments on private lands that were part of the battlefield. Most of the land around the national park is protected by development easements, but owners have the right to build statues.

"It was one thing for the men who fought on the fields to erect monuments," said Gary W. Gallagher, a professor of history at the University of Virginia in a letter to the Washington County Board of Zoning Appeals. "It is quite another for modern groups or individuals to do so."

But D. Bruce Poole, a lawyer and former state delegate from Hagerstown who represents Chaney, said the spat about the statue has surprised some residents because the Lee monument fits in well with other statues at the battlefield.

"It's not as though it is a very gaudy statue," he said. "I have to remind people that Mr. Chaney owns that land. He is entitled to put up a Civil War statue on a Civil War battlefield."

The battle at Antietam was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, resulting in the demise of more than 5,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Today, the battlefield looks much as it did in the 1860s, with cozy farmhouses and rambling barns. The statue of Lee -- who is depicted astride his favorite mount, Traveller -- is easily visible amid the rural tableau.

"It's fanciful," said Tom Clemens, president of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation and a professor of history at Hagerstown Community College, of the representation of Lee and his horse. Clemens said Lee did not ride on horseback much while in the Sharpsburg area because he had recently broken one wrist and sprained the other.

Clemens takes issue with Chaney -- a proud Confederate son who helped develop the Old South Country Club in Anne Arundel County and erected a statue of Confederate soldier Benjamin Welch Owens in Lothian in 1999. The professor said Chaney is trying to recast history by placing the statue in an area of the battlefield that was controlled by the Union during the clash.

"Clearly there is an agenda here," Clemens said.

A tour of Chaney's Newcomer House Civil War Museum makes it clear where the investor's sympathies lie. The museum is divided into two rooms, one for each army. The Confederate side includes a lock of Lee's hair and a letter he wrote to the people of Maryland before his troops crossed into the state -- and the bookstore includes Confederate flag key chains, T-shirts and commemorative plates.

Leo Caradori, a self-described Yankee from New York state whom Chaney hired to manage the museum and bookstore for him, said most of those who visit the Newcomer House go to the Confederate side first. He reminds visitors that the Union side is also interesting, especially because it contains one of a small batch of verified original copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Most Washington County locals acknowledge that Chaney has done a good job of restoring the farmhouse, which was built in the 1790s.

Chaney said he spent about $500,000 to renovate the structure, which he bought several years ago for $300,000, outbidding the park service. One of his partners in the venture is David M. Sheehan, a lawyer and the husband of Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, who grew up with Chaney.

"He has done a fabulous job," said John W. Howard, superintendent of the Antietam National Battlefield. "We would not have gotten to it as quickly as he did if we had bought it. It would not have been high on our to-do list. We have other buildings that are more significant to the core of the battlefield."

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