BRANDENBURG, Ky. — The leaders in this small town said they wanted history to be preserved, not erased, so they piled into a car last summer for what they considered an important mission: to save a Confederate monument from possible destruction. The monument had stood in Louisville for 121 years — 70 feet tall, more than 100 tons of granite. But Louisville wanted it removed and called a public meeting to help determine its relocation. One speaker said the structure should be “obliterated.” Another said he would gladly help drop it into the river. And then, one by one, up to the microphone came the people from Brandenburg.
“I think it would be well-received by the county and the residents,” the county judge executive said.
“Brandenburg has a rich Civil War history,” the local historian said.
“We’re proposing to put this monument right here,” the mayor said, holding up a photo of a riverfront park, and soon the largest Confederate monument in Kentucky was disassembled and placed on flatbed trucks, rebuilt 45 miles away in a place certain about the history it wanted on display.
But in recent days, the country’s symbols of Confederate history have become even more complicated than before. In Charlottesville, white supremacists used a statue of Robert E. Lee as a gathering point for a deadly rally. In Durham, N.C., protesters slung a rope around the statue of a Confederate soldier and pulled it down in a headfirst dive. Cities across the country are hastily removing monuments that stood for decades.
In Brandenburg, a monument that was planted into the ground just nine months ago has already taken on a new meaning: symbolizing not just a 152-year-old war but, in the eyes of many here, a stand in a present-day culture war against a part of America growing too sensitive and politically cautious.
“Anybody else who wants to throw out their statues, we’ll take those, too,” said Diane Reichle, 66, who lives a quarter-mile from the monument. “I hope we get all of them.”
Since the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Brandenburg’s decision to relocate the Confederate monument has felt more charged, some residents say. In Facebook posts, people with strong opinions have returned to the matter, emboldened that they were right. Most tend to agree with the sentiments of President Trump, who received 71 percent of the vote in Meade County, which includes Brandenburg. Trump said Thursday on Twitter that the “history and culture of our great country” was being “ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”
“People who want these statues removed, they’re a bunch of whiny babies,” said Johnnie Hayes, 48, who was at the riverfront park last week. “If you’re offended, don’t go look at it. I didn’t like President Obama, but I didn’t go out and riot and protest.”
The monument stands along the Ohio River, perched on a hillside, surrounded by lights and monitored with a security camera. It is adorned with three generic Confederate soldiers holding ramrods, rifles and swords. “Tribute to the rank and file of the Armies of the South,” an inscription reads, mentioning the year in which it was first erected, 1895. The county is planning to add several more informational placards, but for now the monument looks much as it did a century ago, albeit mounted in 80 cubic yards of new concrete, with a foundation deep enough to touch the bedrock.
“To me, the people that want to move their monuments, it’s just a lot of drama,” said Gerry Lynn, the judge executive in Meade County. “There are a lot of small, peaceful communities that wouldn’t mind having a tribute to veterans from the war.”
The monument, at its beginning, was among hundreds built across the South after Reconstruction as African Americans battled, often unsuccessfully, for new rights. Funded by a group of Confederate wives and widows, the monument survived in Louisville amid decades of problems and concerns: growing traffic issues, the encroachment of the expanding University of Louisville campus and years of occasional college protests.
What brought the monument down was a quick series of events. The 2015 Charleston, S.C., church shooting by a white supremacist who had posed with a Confederate flag. Changes across Southern capitals and universities about how they displayed markers of the Civil War. An opinion column from a well-known University of Louisville professor who called the city’s monument an “eyesore glorifying the nadir of America’s past.” And, soon after, a decision in April 2016 by the university president and Louisville’s mayor to uproot the structure.
“[It] has no place in a compassionate, forward leaning city,” Louisville’s mayor, Greg Fischer, said at the time.
At his home in the farmland outside of Brandenburg, historian Gerry Fischer heard about the decision and thought it was shameful. “You study your history to learn from it,” he said. “The bad parts, too.” So he decided to find the monument a safe haven.
Few places seemed willing to volunteer. The Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, in Louisville, said the approval process would take years, Fischer recalled hearing. A Kentucky town near a historic battle site showed little interest. Talks with another Confederate cemetery hit a dead end. Fischer then tried one more spot: the county in which he lived. He sent an email to Lynn and Ronnie Joyner, the Brandenburg mayor. Soon they were in the car to Louisville, along with Debra Masterson, an assistant at the Meade County Chamber of Commerce.
As they saw it, there was no reason Brandenburg shouldn’t have the monument. Maybe some parts of the United States had grown too sensitive for this kind of history, but not theirs. “There is not one person alive who owned a slave,” Lynn said in an interview. The town had hosted a biennial Civil War reenactment commemorating the 1863 raid of Confederate general John Hunt Morgan, in which he crossed the Ohio River. The town also had other statues — much smaller ones — along the river, recognizing Native Americans and the Underground Railroad. With a high-profile monument, maybe some tourists would pull off the highway and explore the area.
Though it was a slave slate, Kentucky maintained neutrality at the outset of the Civil War before eventually joining the Union. Still, soldiers from the state fought for both sides. Today, Kentucky has at least 40 Confederate monuments, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In Louisville, as the monument was coming out of the ground, some African American residents cried while standing at the excavation site, said David James, a Louisville City Council member. “Just a feeling of relief,” James said. The University of Louisville so badly wanted to remove the monument that a school foundation shouldered almost all of the six-figure costs.
In Meade County, where blacks comprise just 3 percent of the population, the feeling was different. Brandenburg held a rededication ceremony on Memorial Day. More than 400 people showed up, including 10 people holding signs of protest. Musicians played Dixie music. Speeches were made about honoring soldiers who fought for both the North and the South. Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans passed out stickers reading, “I support Confederate heritage.”
“I must have given away 200 or 300 stickers,” said Fred Wilhite, an SCV member who drove from Calhoun, Ky. “I don’t think I had but one person reject it. Some said, ‘I’m going to take some home to my kids.’ ”
The musicians went home, the bunting was removed, and for many days in the next months, the new monument was all but forgotten. The riverfront was sleepy. A few people posed for photos with the statues at sunset. Mothers pushed strollers along the walking path. Some of the monument visitors were just locals waiting for a table at a nearby pizza restaurant.
The events in Charlottesville and elsewhere haven’t brought more foot traffic to the monument. But the changes have intensified conversations about the symbol, and for at least one person who helped bring the monument to Brandenburg — Carole Logsdon, director of the Meade County Chamber of Commerce — a sense of dread has set in. Logsdon had been encouraging to Fischer, the historian, when he first pitched the idea, but now she couldn’t shake what she was hearing more and more on the radio — that the monuments were seen by many as symbols of hate. And, in some places, they had become rallying points for those on the extreme right and left.
“I’d thought the monument would be great,” Logsdon said Friday morning at work, as she talked with Masterson, her colleague who helped petition Louisville.
“You are kind of second-guessing, huh?” Masterson said.
“Yes,” Logsdon said.
“You’re thinking, ‘What if people are talking about Brandenburg as KKK, as racists?’ ” Masterson said. “Well, I don’t know any racists!”
“I am anxious about it, I guess,” Logsdon said. “We weren’t looking at it other than, we just didn’t think it should go into the trash.”
“We just knew we had the most perfect place ever for that monument.” Masterson said, and then they thought about what was actually happening in Brandenburg.
The people who visit the monument tend to be older, quiet. They walk into the chamber office and grab a small pamphlet that explained the monument’s history. The inscriptions. The size of the soldiers. The name of the sculptor. “Maybe we didn’t open up a can of worms,” Logsdon said.
“It’ll blow over,” Masterson said, because that was another part of fast-moving America: controversies come and go.
“I don’t want to cause hurt to anybody,” Logsdon said.
“I don’t either,” Masterson said. “But it’s here, and it’s going to stay here.”
Lynn, the county judge executive, said he has heard little objection from residents this week, other than a call from Mildred Brown, 89.
Brown is an African American who has lived in the county for 50 years. For decades, she worked as a seamstress, fitting soldiers for uniforms at nearby Fort Knox. When she initially moved here, she sent her children to a segregated school. In the 1970s, she said, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on her yard. Now she was watching MSNBC, seeing a younger generation of white supremacists. She called Lynn.
“What if they come down here, too?” she asked him.
She recalled telling him that having the monument was a mistake. It was a symbol of dark times — dark enough that she no longer went to the riverfront.
“It doesn’t unify us,” she said. “It separates us.”
He recalled telling her: “Don’t worry, we’re not going to let people come down there and throw a fit and have Confederate flags and call names.” He also said the monument was about preserving a part of history with a lot of nuance.
“It had a whole lot more to it than slavery,” he said.