Note: This is a repost of my opinion letter printed in the June 10, 2020, Courier Press. The memorial sits in a federal cemetery managed by the National Cemetery Administration, which opposes any modification to Confederate symbols on its property. More information on the memorial is available from the Historical Marker Database and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Since the murder of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd on May 25, Americans across the nation have marched to protest the United States’ long history of institutional racism — from Black slavery and segregation to present disparities in policing and incarceration. In Prairie du Chien, one relic of this white supremacist history endures in the stone and bronze plaque memorializing Confederate President Jefferson Davis at the Fort Crawford Military Cemetery. Lately, cities including Birmingham, Alabama, and Richmond, Virginia, have begun to remove Confederate monuments in an effort to overcome histories of racial violence. Madison, Wisconsin, removed its Confederate Soldiers’ Memorial from Forest Hill Cemetery in 2017. Prairie du Chien should follow the example of these cities by replacing its own small Confederate plaque with historic markers that better represent local history.
A common objection to the removal of Confederate monuments is that taking them down erases history. The American Historical Association disagrees, noting that “To remove such monuments is neither to ‘change’ history nor ‘erase’ it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor.” Jefferson Davis briefly stayed at Fort Crawford during the 1830s as a U.S. Army Lieutenant. His time there should continue to be examined in exhibits at the Fort Crawford Museum and books at the library, for we can learn from history only by recognizing both successes and failures, good and evil. That said, the community does not need to preserve a memorial for Davis at the entrance to the cemetery simply because of his brief time here. Prairie du Chien gives no comparable public honor to any other military officer who served at Fort Crawford.
As a historian, I encourage anyone worried about the erasure of history to ask why the plaque to Jefferson Davis already erases so much:
- Why does the plaque praise Davis for military “distinction” and call him a “hero,” but leave out his advocacy for expanding slavery in new-conquered territories?
- Why does the memorial make no mention of James Pemberton, the Black man whom Davis personally kept enslaved at Fort Crawford in open violation of laws that forbid slavery in Wisconsin (then part of Michigan Territory)?
- Why does the memorial fail to note the disgraceful end of Davis’s political career, when he attempted to flee the defeated Confederacy in 1865 only to be captured into U.S. custody by the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry?
- Why does the cemetery feature a memorial to a Confederate, rather than a memorial to the fallen U.S. Troops buried there, many of whom gave their lives to put down the treasonous slaveholder rebellion that Davis led?
This memorial to a rebel president, installed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1953, desecrates the graves of Wisconsin’s loyal Civil War veterans. As an artifact of the segregation era, it proclaims a whitewashed history designed to resuscitate Davis’s reputation as a patriot of the Confederate “lost cause.”
Prairie du Chien can do better to commemorate its past. It is time for the city to formally request that the National Cemetery Administration remove the Jefferson Davis memorial from the Fort Crawford Cemetery. In its place, the city and local museums can acknowledge the local connection to Davis while working to better memorialize the Black men and women who faced illegal enslavement at Fort Crawford and the Wisconsin Civil War veterans who died to give the United States a new birth of freedom. Making space for Prairie’s fuller, diverse history can help overcome present inequalities and lay the ground for a more just future.