SHARPSBURG, Md. — During the presidential campaign last year, Donald Trump said he wouldn’t accept a salary if elected. In April, the White House said he would donate his first quarter salary to the National Park Service. And in July, the agency announced some of those funds would be used to restore a historic home at Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland.
Work is scheduled to begin next summer on property that includes a 24-foot statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee astride his horse, Traveller. The statue, built by a Confederate enthusiast in 2003, sits on a bluff about 250 feet from the Newcomer House that will benefit from Trump’s donation.
The $78,333 donation was made before Trump called for the preservation of Confederate memorials following deadly violence in Charlottesville, where white supremacists protested the planned removal of a statue depicting Lee from a downtown park.
Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior, said the National Park Service, not Trump, selected the property, and that his donation will not be used to restore the statue. She said funds used to benefit the historic home adjacent to the statue should not be interpreted as a provocation of those who criticize Confederate imagery, calling any attempt to connect them “absolutely ridiculous.”
The president has framed his support for Confederate statues in historical terms, delighting his supporters and signaling his embrace of a racially charged cause.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” he tweeted Aug. 17. “You . . . can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?”
Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) called for the Antietam statue’s removal in the days after the Charlottesville attack. Other Maryland lawmakers have made statements critical of Confederate monuments without singling out the Antietam statue.
“I don’t believe that statues and monuments meant to glorify the Confederate cause and Confederate leadership belong on federal land and they should be taken down unless they serve the clear purpose of educating people about American history and are placed by historians in the proper context,” Delaney, who’s running for president in 2020, said in a statement.
When Trump’s donation to the Antietam National Battlefield was announced in April, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president would give his first-quarter salary to “a government entity.” After lawyers gave the president options, he chose the National Park Service, Spicer said at the time.
“It’s a decision he made,” Spicer said. “. . . He believed . . . some great work is being done there, especially work being done to restore our great battlegrounds.”
Swift said Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke thought a donation to the Park Service “would be a good way to show support for the military and veterans throughout our history.” Trump has donated his quarterly salary since his inauguration, giving $100,000 in July to the Education Department for a science camp.
The Department of the Interior and the Park Service worked with two nonprofit groups, the Civil War Trust and the National Park Foundation, “to identify historic battlefields that had deferred maintenance projects that would benefit from the president’s donation and matching funds,” Swift said.
The Park Service identified the Newcomer House, a mill used by the Union Army to care for soldiers wounded during the Battle of Antietam in 1862, as one of those projects. The National Park Service purchased that property in 2005 with the Lee statue on it.
Work on the house is expected to begin next summer, while another part of the donation will be spent on repairing a fence at the battleground.
“The project selection was based solely on need and historic importance,” Antietam National Battlefield Superintendent Susan Trail said in a statement.
The Lee statue was built on the property two years before it was sold to the Park Service by William F. Chaney, an investor and the heir to a concrete fortune who claimed Lee as an ancestor. It sits directly across from a sign marking the entrance to Antietam on Route 34. A small Confederate flag was recently left at the statue’s base.
Noting Union memorials outnumbered Confederate memorials at Antietam before the statue was built, Chaney said he sought to “even that up a little bit,” according to the Hagerstown, Md.,-based Herald-Mail. A dedication on the statue defends Lee’s legacy.
“Although hoping for a decisive victory Lee had to settle for a military draw,” the text of the Lee statue reads. “Robert E. Lee was personally against secession and slavery, but decided his duty was to fight for his home and the universal right of every people to self-determination.”
Chaney could not be reached for comment.
Confederate memorials are few and far between at Antietam. There are 96 monuments at the battlefield, according to its website. Five represent Confederate companies, but besides Lee, just one other Confederate leader has his own memorial.
Antietam marked a turning point in the Civil War. Lee retreated to Virginia after the battle, but both sides combined lost about 23,000 men. Weeks later, President Abraham Lincoln fired Gen. George McClellan for his failure to pursue the Confederate general.
In the wake of Charlottesville, which has prompted the removal of several Confederate statues across the country, the Park Service has been questioned about such monuments on federal land as well. At the Antietam, Gettysburg and Manassas national battlefields, the Park Service has said no statues will come down, short of legislation.
John Howard, who was superintendent of Antietam for 17 years before he retired in 2010, said the battlefield has hundreds of projects that require maintenance at any time. Antietam would be quick to accommodate a White House willing to fund a project, Howard said.
“I think they were giving money to something that made him look good,” Howard said of Trump’s donation to the Park Service. “It could have just as well have been Acadia.”