VIENNA, Va, August 23, 2011 — The President, during his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, is studying briefing books on Libya and Hurricane Irene, playing rounds of golf, and going to quaint bookstores with his daughters, but I recommend that he take the time to head over to the quaint Vineyard town of Oak Bluffs to see a unique monument not far from its town square.
It shows what one man can do to win over an opposing side and make peace with them and the town.
Erected to honor the Union Soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1891, it was the brainchild of Charles A. Strahan, the then editor of the local paper who led the fund raising effort.
A veteran of the Civil War, Strahan served with Company B, 21st Virginia Infantry. Yes, a former Confederate soldier was the moving force behind a monument to honor his enemies, those who fought for the Union. And therein lies the story.
Strahan was born in Baltimore, MD on November 10, 1840 and enlisted in the 21st Virginia Infantry Regiment in Richmond, Virginia in May of 1861. Maryland was one of the few slave states that refused to secede, so its Southern sympathizers frequently went to Virginia to join with the Confederacy. Strahan transferred to Major Alden Weston’s Battalion of the Maryland Guards, which would ultimately become Company B of the 21st Virginia Infantry Regiment.
His official war record is slim, although biographical information states that he was wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines near Richmond, and in later speeches to GAR groups, he stated he would always “carry the mark of a Federal bullet on my body.”
Strahan’s obituary also states that after his recovery, he was on the staff of Gen. Isaac R. Trimble and participated in the fighting at Gettysburg. While the compiled military service records cannot verify all of Strahan’s service, this is not unique given the strange situation of Maryland resident-soldiers, who frequently affiliated with whatever group needed their services at the time.
After the war, Strahan went to Louisiana and worked as a coffee importer with Levering, Strahan and Co. It seems that ill health caused him to retire in 1884, and for unknown reasons, the family moved to Martha’s Vineyard. The area of Cottage City, as Oak Bluffs was then called, attracted many summer residents and he may have been one of them who visited and decided to stay.
Strahan threw himself into the small community’s life, promptly purchasing the Cottage City Star, a weekly newspaper. The resort area usually published a paper only in the summer when tourists were plentiful, but Strahan increased its publication to year-around, soon surpassing the Vineyard Gazette, an older publication. He then changed its name to the Martha’s Vineyard Herald.
Unwelcome at Memorial Day Service
However, his former affiliation with the Confederacy rankled the local veterans, and when a Memorial Day program was proposed in 1887, the locals sent word that if Strahan, a former Confederate, attended, they would not be present. Strahan gracefully bowed out and sent a reporter to cover the event.
His feelings were made public when an item in his paper carried a letter from Sidney S. Hicks, also a Civil War veteran, with a headline reading, “Why I Did Not Turn Out.” Hicks was quoted as saying, “I belong to that class that can hold forth the hand to the man who fired the gun that did me harm.”
Surely, Hicks wrote, if a wounded man could forgive, “It strikes me that some of our so-called Grand Army men who certainly have no visible scars to parade, exhibited but a meager part of the brave corporal’s praiseworthy magnanimity when they threatened to leave the ranks if a certain long-ago Confederate officer (now a worthy, law-abiding resident of our Island city) was invited or presumed to participate in the soldiers’ memorial service.”
And thus the seeds of reconciliation would be sown.
Strahan felt that he needed to ingratiate himself with the local men of the GAR and to find a way for the former Rebel to “belong” on the Vineyard.
The Monument Project Begins
And so he came up with an unusual project for a former Confederate, proposing that his newspaper raise money to erect a monument in the town square, honoring the Grand Army of the Republic. He even pledged that all of the new two-dollar subscriptions for the year would be turned over as seed money for the project.
The idea was enthusiastically received by the local GAR post, which unanimously approved “the generous offer of our local paper…to erect a Soldiers’ Memorial in Cottage City.” The ice having been broken, he was invited by the GAR’s Henry Clay Wade Post to speak at its first Memorial Day in 1891.
Their introduction was: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have with us today an ex-Confederate soldier, one who wore the gray. He has made his home and cast his lot with us; has proven his loyalty to Martha’s Vineyard, and especially his loyalty to our Post, to which every member can testify….”
Strahan responded with a gracious message: “The mists of prejudice which have hung like a cloud over me, in this, my adopted home, are fast disappearing under the sunlight of your affectionate and brotherly hearts.…”
Within two months, he had raised $700 of the $2000 needed for the monument. Every issue of the Herald contained a plea for additional funds, and by the middle of summer, he only lacked $500 to meet his goal, which he apparently contributed personally.
The statue was made of zinc on a cast-iron base by J.W. Fiske Iron Works of New York and designed by Henry Jackson Ellicott (1848-1901), based on an actual soldier.
Today the monument is quite ornate, with four flowing “fountains” shaped like lion heads. One provided water for a horse trough, another included a faucet for humans to drink from, and there were even two lower troughs for dogs. Strahan had thought of everything.
At one time the statue was repainted in gray, giving rise to the apocryphal story that it actually was a Confederate soldier and the gray paint represented the Confederacy’s colors. When one looks closely at the figure, however, his cartridge box and belt buckle clearly read “U.S.” He is a Union soldier.
Dedication Is Held
The formal dedication of the monument took place before a large crowd in August of 1891 with five-year-old Louise Strahan, the editor’s daughter, pulling off a large flag, which covered the statue. Referring to the soldier depicted on the monument, Strahan brought “a message of peace and fraternity; a message in bronze, that speaks more eloquently than words.”
Lest anyone be unaware of the provenance of this statue, Strahan added, “That this [my comments] comes from one who once wore gray, I trust will add significance to the fact that we are once more a union of Americans; a union which endears with equal honor the citizen of Georgia with the citizen of Maine; that Massachusetts and South Carolina are again brothers; and that there is no North nor South, no East nor West, but one undivided, indivisible Union.
“That, as your fathers and mine stood shoulder to shoulder at Valley Forge and Yorktown, and stood by their guns on the decks of the Constitution and Chesapeake, so the sons of the Gray will stand with the sons of the Blue, should any foe, domestic or foreign, dare attack that flag.”
One Plaque Is Left Empty
At the time, one plaque was left blank, but Charles Strahan had a plan for its completion and he did not intrude upon the unveiling to make his ideas known. In an editorial shortly afterwards, the former Confederate soldier used some of the words of General T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson” to express his feelings:
“It will be remarked that the tablets on three sides are filled and one left blank. Who knows but that, as the Grand Army of the Republic becomes smaller, and the passions of war are lost in forgetfulness, these few remaining veterans may yet inscribe on the blank tablet a token of respect to their old foes in the field, who have passed over to the other side of the river and are resting under the trees, thus lifting up and keeping the American name and nation the brightest and most magnanimous in the galaxy of nations.”
It would be three decades before hostile feelings abated enough for Strahan’s dream to be realized, and in 1925 the blank fourth panel was filled and displayed at a rededication of the monument. The newly inscribed panel memorialized his gray-clad compatriots with these words,borrowed from Strahan’s own words, “The Chasm Is Closed.”
This Tablet is Dedicated
By Veterans of
Henry Clay Wade Post 201
And Relief Corps
In Honor of the
At the same time, the local people had decided that it was time that the sponsor of their beloved monument should be suitably recognized. No one knew how long the elderly man would live. In order to recognize his contribution, one of the original tablets was changed to read:
In Honor of
The Grand Army of the Republic
Co. B., 21st Virginia Regt.
Strahan at 86 was unable to attend the dedication. However, the thoughts of Sydna Eldridge, past President of the Woman’s Relief Corps of Martha’s Vineyard, who proposed the panel’s wording, said, “Our ex-Confederate soldier…who was so great-hearted…was not honored as he should have been. But the time has now come.”
Charles Strahan died on March 24, 1931 at the age of 91and was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery on the Vineyard with his second wife Emma, a son, and two other family members.
The statue stood in the town square until 1930, when automobile traffic increased to the point that a change had to be made. The Union soldier was then moved to a plot which overlooks Nantucket Sound, at the head of the Oak Bluffs wharf.
Charles Strahan’s mortal life may have ended on Martha’s Vineyard, but the statue he worked to be erected as a testament to the Union soldier remains for all time, the gift of one from the Gray to his brothers in Blue.
Perhaps President Obama will have time to stop by and see the see Oak Bluff statue and take heart.
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