TANEYTOWN, Md. — It would seem an unthinkable proposal right now, what this small and quaint town in rural Maryland is considering.
Because while the rest of the nation is having a deep reckoning with the statues and monuments of the Civil War, this picture-perfect town is thinking of building a new one.
A big one. One officials hope will attract buses and tourists and bring prosperity to their small town.
Except what they get may be notoriety.
The proposed memorial — imagined by a sculptor who is on the let-the-Confederate-battle-flag-fly side of the argument — could be the only one in the nation to include both a president and his assassin.
“To think you’d put a portrait of John Wilkes Booth that’s the same size as Lincoln, as Grant here,” Taneytown City Council member Bradley Wantz said. “I just can’t support that. Booth’s family didn’t even want to mark his grave.”
Gary Casteel, the sculptor behind the proposed memorial, is also the organizer of a combative 2016 rally held in Pennsylvania to honor the Confederate flag, and Wantz is dumbstruck that his fellow residents think this is a good idea.
The rest of the council has backed Casteel’s idea, especially after a recent visit to his studio in Gettysburg, where they raved about his work.
“It’s rare that I’m the lone opposition to something,” Wantz said. “And I’ve gotten some heat by voicing my opinion.”
Casteel, who has been going from city to city, trying to find some willing municipality to let him build his masterpiece for almost two decades, has a good sales pitch.
He has the storytelling charm of a Samuel Clemens impersonator. Silver-haired, charming and feisty, he begins his tale with the unlikely love for the Italian masters he found amid his humble beginnings in West Virginia.
After being turned down by places that said his proposed memorial was too big or had reasons they didn’t want to talk about with Wantz when he called them, Casteel is now asking Taneytown to consider him.
Taneytown is 15 miles from Gettysburg, where Casteel now works and lives. It has a tangential connection to the war, serving as Union Gen. George Meade’s headquarters before the Battle of Gettysburg.
But the more delightful story of Taneytown is about President George Washington’s overnight stay there on the way to Philadelphia in 1791. He read the oddly spaced sign above the Adam Good Tavern as “A Dam Good Tavern.” And declared it a “damn fine place to stay.”
Casteel believes this town will be a damn fine place for his memorial.
He is 72, and in his twilight years, he is stridently pursuing his Pieta, his Sistine Chapel, his greatest work. He believes he’ll be able to raise money for the project and is asking the town to help him get the land.
The vision is a 90-foot-wide, coliseum-looking commemoration of the Civil War, with 17 giant bronze sculptures, 20 sculpted panels depicting the timeline from 1861 to 1865 and 32 portraits of key people — from Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Tubman and, yes, Booth.
Casteel sees this as a sweeping story depicting both sides of the war. Not just a guy on a horse. And the residents I talked to — from the retired CPA to the tattooed florist who just moved to Taneytown from New York City — like that.
“Not monuments to traitors, not the flags of traitors,” said Beth Lee, the retired CPA who now owns the local vintage shop and is opposed to the Confederate-memorials-and-flags side of the national debate.
“But I wouldn’t be opposed to something that tells the whole history; that could be nice,” she said.
Of course, we have that at the National Civil War Museum in nearby Harrisburg, Pa.
But Casteel said it’s not the same as his memorial.
“Vietnam has a memorial. World War I and World War II have memorials,” he said. “But you know what’s shocking? There is no national memorial to the Civil War.”
But there are at least 13,000 memorials, monuments, statues and markers in America dedicated to this war, the most commemorated war in our land, according to the Historical Marker Database.
“This war has been memorialized in many different ways around the country,” said Wantz, who is exasperated with the idea that his fellow residents are dreaming of the riches that Casteel is promising. And that he is the only member of the council opposing the memorial.
“Taneytown can’t handle buses,” he said, pointing to traffic woes that at least 7,000 residents battle daily.
But it’s more than a simple planning issue. Wantz — who is also the only member of the City Council born and raised in the town — has issues with the memorial and Casteel.
“First of all, John Wilkes Booth,” he said. And there was that rally in Pennsylvania.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans Confederate flag rally that Casteel organized in March 2016 in Gettysburg was a precursor to the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
The chief ranger of Gettysburg National Military Park told the (Hanover, Pa.) Evening Sun that he hadn’t encountered a similar situation since a Ku Klux Klan rally at the park in June 2014, when counterprotesters assembled and the scene grew tense.
Taneytown has been trying to move beyond its connection to U.S. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who it is believed gave the town its name. Taney is author of what is widely acknowledged as the Supreme Court’s worst ruling ever, the Dred Scott decision, saying African Americans could never be U.S. citizens. His statues were recently removed.
Taneytown’s actual eponymous founder is Raphael Taney, who happens to be kin to the judge.
There’s too much that could go wrong here, Taneytown.
I’d suggest y’all stay with the George Washington angle and keep your charming town a “dam” fine place. Without the controversy of yet another Civil War battle.
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