In the days following the Charlottesville, Virginia, demonstrations, as towns and cities discussed removing statues of Confederate soldiers, there was some buzz on social media about the statue in the center of York Village. An age-old rumor resurfaced: Isn’t he a Confederate soldier?
It’s an urban myth that has dogged the poor fellow in the years since the statue was erected in 1906. And it drives Mike Dow nuts.
To be clear, the soldier is not Confederate, never has been.
“People in their 80s and beyond were told that misinformation, as I have. We have all been told that,” said Dow, a York resident and Vietnam veteran who has studied the history of all the war monuments in York. “It is far easier for people to tell people stories than it is to go to the little effort to find out the truth.”
The story long in circulation was that some enterprising company was making statues of both Union and Confederate soldiers in the years after the war. Due to a mixup, York got the Confederate statue meant for a town in the south and vice versa, and the town didn’t return it. Dow said he recently talked with a lifelong elderly York resident who told him he thought there was a “CSA” (Confederate States of America) belt buckle on York’s soldier.
“And this was somebody I’ve known my whole life,” said Dow. “I’ve had people tell me for years that it’s a Confederate soldier. This stuff is rabid.”
The statue, said Dow, was erected 40 years after the end of the war, by a committee of people who belonged to an organization called the York Veterans and Sons of Veterans of the Civil War. From among its members, the York Maine Soldiers Monument Committee was formed. That committee, said Dow, kept “a fairly intricate diary,” now in the possession of the Museums of Old York, about the steps taken to secure the statue.
“The war had ended 40 years prior. They were probably feeling a little sheepish that the town didn’t have a memorial to the Civil War. Say they were 18-20 years old at the time of the war, now they were 60. They were also probably feeling their mortality, so they decided it was time for a monument to those people who fought that war for the preservation of the union,” he said.
The statue was created by a British-born sculptor who lived in Quincy, Massachusetts, named Fred Barnicoat. “He did many of these kinds of statues at that time, and he did excellent work. Our soldier’s monument probably came out of his catalogue, although we can’t prove that,” he said.
Barnicoat was making statues not to commemorate the long-ended Civil War, but rather of a generic soldier of the time, said Dow. And the war that was being fought then was the Spanish American War. In fact, Old York has a document written by a Defense Department historian, said Dow, stating that the statue has characteristics of that turn-of-the-century time period — such as a bedroll and canteen — that would not be depicted on a Civil War-era statue.
Dow said the idea that a group of Union veterans would allow a Confederate soldier to be erected is ludicrous.
“They knew what a Confederate soldier looked like,” he said. “What are the chances that these guys would allow a Confederate soldier to be put up in town? About a snowball’s chance in hell.”
Add to this, he said, when the monument was dedicated in May, 1906, the keynote speaker was none other than Joshua Chamberlain, a Civil War hero and four-time governor of Maine. “Do you think they would invite the hero of Little Roundtop (in the Battle of Gettysburg) to dedicate a Confederate soldier?”
In any event, the myth took hold in the years after the monument was erected and stays active to this day. Board of Selectman Chairman Todd Frederick said in the days after Charlottesville, he heard from people who knew the correct history of the statue but were “concerned for its safety.” They worried that people who didn’t know the history might protest for its removal, he said.
To date, no such protest activity has been forthcoming, although police were alerted and keep an eye out for any issues, said Lt. Owen Davis.