Dennis Baxley is a Republican state representative from Ocala. A few days ago, he participated in and condoned a public meeting that saw some of the most offensive imaginable insults hurled at the memory of United States soldiers killed in action fighting for our country. It disgusted me. Over on my Florida History site, Blood and Oranges, I’ve written Baxley an open letter. I’m reprinting it here. I’m also calling on our local legislators, Rep. Seth McKeel and Rep. Neil Combee, and state Sen. Kelli Stargel, to condemn Baxley behavior and the wanton slander of the memory of brave American soldiers. Here’s is Baxley’s email. I hope you’ll drop him a brief line, too.
Dear Rep. Baxley:
You sat by without objection as ruffians called these veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom and our country “rapists.” You uttered not a peep as someone said, “Putting a Union monument at Olustee would be like placing a memorial to Jane Fonda at the entrance to the Vietnam memorial.”
And at the end of the meeting, you took the side of the desecrators.
“There is a sacred trust that’s being violated when you go in and change an historic site from the way it was commemorated by those who established (it),” Baxley said.
He suggested getting the matter “off the table” by means of a bill that he would sponsor. “I can do a very simple proposal to the Legislature that we protect all monument sites,” Baxley said to cheers and applause.
Here is a simple fact, Rep. Baxley:
There’s a Confederate monument at Olustee (also known as Ocean Pond), Florida’s most significant Civil War battlefield. Here’s a picture.
The monument inscription reads:
“Here was fought on February 20, 1864 the Battle of Ocean Pond under the immediate command of General Alfred Holt Colquitt, ‘Hero of Olustee’. The decisive engagement prevented a Sherman-like invasion of Georgia from the South. Erected April 20, 1936 by the Alfred Holt Colquitt Chapter, United Daughters of the Confederacy, GA Div.”
There is no counterpart commemorating our country’s point-of-view of the battle or war. There never has been. As a distant relative of Robert E. Lee, a fifth-generation Floridian, one who grew up in Palatka, not far from your Ocala home, let me say that I have come to revere Gen. Sherman, the Patton of the Civil War.
He ruthlessly and brilliantly deployed American power in the service of individual freedom and the realization of American values. He and other Union generals and soldiers made the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the United States Constitution possible. I do not appreciate that the state of Florida today continues to use General Sherman’s name as an epithet on a civil war battlefield monument.
However, I also understand the horror and brutality of the war he waged under the orders of Abraham Lincoln, our finest president. I am fine with the Confederate monument remaining as a reminder of Confederate point-of-view, although I profoundly disagree with it because I am an American, not a Confederate. I am what your unruly allies would call a scalawag — a white son of the South who prizes my country and the values of its foundational documents more highly than the customs and heritage of the land where I happened to be born and grow up and still call home.
As distasteful as the ongoing denigration of General Sherman is, it cannot compare to your contempt for United States soldiers. Many of these soldiers were black men literally fighting for their freedom while knowing they’d be murdered by Confederates if wounded or captured. Perhaps you have the seen the movie Glory. Movies seem to be the only means by which politicians get history. If you did see the film, I feel certain you found yourself rooting for Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher and their depictions of the men of the 54th.
That makes it all the more difficult to accept that you would tolerate and even support the desecration of the memory of the actual men of the 54th. Many of them fought and died at Olustee. Many were murdered as they lay wounded on the field of battle after fighting for our country. By Confederates. Perhaps by the ancestors of your allies in that public meeting.
If you take even a moment to look at the Battle of Olustee website, you’ll find a host of letters and documents written at the time of the battle by soldiers or witnesses. Here are a few excerpts:
“A word about the terrible defeat in Florida … The rebels allowed us to penetrate, and then with ten to our one, cut us off, meaning to `bag’ us. And had it not been for the glorious Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, the whole brigade would have been captured or annihilated. This was the only regiment that rallied, broke the rebel ranks, and saved us. The 8th United States Colored lost their flag twice, and the Fifty-fourth recaptured it each time. They have lost in killed and missing about 350. They would not retreat when ordered, but charged on them with the most fearful desperation … If this regiment has not won glory enough to have shoulder straps, where is there one that ever did.”
I cannot fail to contrast this treatment which rebels receive at the hands of our authorities, with that meted out to the negro soldiers by the rebel authorities. A flag of truce was sent out to the rebels the other day, and when asked about the negro prisoners and officers, the reply was: “We will hand every d–d negro officer we catch.”
We can learn nothing of the colored prisoners. It is reported that they were killed on the field. When shall this weakness and folly on the part of our authorities cease? And when shall these atrocities be met with that vengeance and retaliation they so justly merit? Where are the colored prisoners captured on James Island, July 16th, 1863, and those captured at Fort Wagner, July 18th? And, lastly, where are those captured at the Battle of Olustee, February 20th, 1864? Can any escaped prisoner answer? Can any Federal spy answer? Can any one in authority answer? Can any man answer this question? If, while we are pampering and petting rebel prisoners, Federal prisoners are hung and enslaved, we are exchanging smiles for kicks – paying gold and honor for dross and dishonor.
The simple fact is that however honorably and skillfully the Confederate Army fought at Olustee, it dishonored itself acutely with its atrocities afterward. And yet the state of Florida still commemorates Olustee’s Confederate soldiers and spurns the men of the 54th and the other American soldiers. These American soldiers fought under orders issued by their commander-in-chief as surely as our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan did.
That you would encourage this historical insult and seek to codify it through legislation is the most despicable act of statesmanship I’ve had the misfortune of encountering.
T.D. Allman, in his controversial and critical book about Florida, wrote this about annual re-enactment of Olustee:
Every year the Confederates advance gloriously. Everyone whoops and hollers as the United States gets defeated. Neither the organizers’s promotional literature nor their websites mention the words massacre, colored, black, or Negro. None of the participants reenacts white Confederates murdering wounded black soldiers.
As I wrote in my review of Allman’s book, the part of this passage concerning literature is demonstrably untrue. And in my experience, from attending the 2011 re-enactment, the whooping and hollering did not happen. In fact, the idea for a Union monument seems to have emerged from re-enactors themselves. That is consistent with my experience of Olustee.
But what you and your rabble have done vindicates Allman’s description of Olustee as an unreconstructed haven of Lost Cause fantasy. That same fantasy underpinned Jim Crow America in the 20th century. To indulge it today is not just awful history but a sickening display of ignorance and dishonor. You and your rabble have no more right to Olustee than I do — or my father or grandfather, both American soldiers, not Confederates, who fought in the uniform of our country.
If you cannot simply add a monument to our state’s most sanctified battlefield acknowledging that US soldiers died and were murdered there while fighting for their freedom and the values of the United States of America, you need to remove the Confederate monument. And it’s time to start removing the monuments to the slave power that still tower over most town squares and courthouses in this state.