When former Vice President Joe Biden called for the removal of Confederate monuments from public view last week, he likely didn’t think that the issue of public memorials to the secessionist South would be causing headaches in his home state of Delaware—after all, the state fought with the Union.
But on a quiet country road in southern Delaware, roughly five days by horseback from what was once the Confederate border, the state’s first and only monument dedicated to those who joined the rebellion has been causing consternation for years.
The 12-foot granite obelisk, etched with the names of Delawareans who fought for or gave aid to the Confederate States of America, sits between two banners: the colonial-blue state flag of Delaware, and the Confederate battle flag, emblazoned with 13 stars for each of the states that sought to leave the Union during the Civil War.
That none of those stars represent Delaware is of little concern to the Georgetown Historical Society, which operates a small carriage museum in Sussex County on whose property the monument has sat since it was unveiled in 2007.
“I just tend to defend it on the fact that it’s a historical fact and not a symbol of hatred,” Jim Bowden, president of the historical society and a longstanding defender of the monument and the accompanying flag, told the Delaware News Journal. “But also understanding that there are people that are hurt by the symbols that it’s been used for.”
Such monuments are understandably rare in Delaware, which, despite being a slave state, never left the Union or even bordered the Confederacy. But from baseball caps to bumpers stickers in highly conservative Sussex County, where Republicans hold every seat on the county council and where President Donald Trump won by more than 22 percentage points in 2016, the Confederate battle flag flying over the monument is far from lonely.
The monument sits on museum property but is maintained by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Delaware, also known as the Delaware Grays, a neo-Confederate organization whose website automatically downloads an audio file playing “Dixie” to visitors’ computers and instructs readers in a salute to the Confederate battle flag: “I salute the Confederate Flag with affection, reverence and undying devotion to the Cause for which it stands.”
The Grays first unveiled the monument in May 2007 at an event featuring speeches, a 21-gun salute, and a wreath-laying ceremony.
“There are monuments honoring those Delawareans who joined the Federal armies at Gettysburg and Antietam Battlefields, as well as other places, but none… recognizing the sacrifices of Delawareans who supported the cause of independence and the efforts of the Confederate States of America,” the Grays said in a statement accompanying the monument’s unveiling.
Ever since, the monument and flag have been a source of frustration for some Delawareans who see them as painful reminders of the state’s slave-holding history—though Delaware remained in the Union, slavery remained legal throughout the duration of the Civil War—as well as its refusal to ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery.
“Sadly, because the the flag and monument are on the museum’s property, there really is nothing that the state can do to force the museum to remove it,” said State Sen. Trey Paradee, who last year succeeded in blocking the Georgetown Historical Society from receiving a share of roughly $52 million in annual funds distributed to nonprofits by the state over the monument’s continued display.
Paradee told The Daily Beast that he had been “disgusted” by the sight of the Confederate battle flag flying alongside the state’s own banner.
“As long as I serve in the Delaware Senate, I will fight to make sure that damn museum does not receive a dime of taxpayer money as long as they continue to fly that treasonous symbol of racism and celebrate the traitors who fought to destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery,” Paradee said.
The Biden campaign told The Daily Beast that both the Confederate flag and monuments to the Confederacy—including the one in Georgetown—represent “some of the most agonizing chapters of American history,” and said that the nation could use more officials like Paradee.
“Vice President Biden has spoken out regarding how Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag itself represent systemic racism and some of the most agonizing chapters of American history,” said Andrew Bates, the Biden campaign’s director of rapid response. “While this is not on public land, be encourages the owners to remove the statue. He commends State Sen. Paradee on his efforts to withdraw state funding from the site as long as the monument stands.”
The national movement calling for the removal of Confederate monuments and flags from public display gained new momentum following widespread protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in late May. Last week, Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, joined the growing chorus of politicians across the political spectrum who have called for the removal of such monuments, urging the peaceful removal of statues, memorials, and flags as the appropriate response “anger and anguish” such monuments imbue in Black people who see them.
“I can understand the anger and anguish that people feel having for years and years being under the statue of Robert E. Lee if you’re an African American. It’s always better to do it peacefully, but… don’t be surprised if someone pulls down the statue of Jefferson Davis,” Biden said during a press conference on June 30, when asked about his stance on the continued display of Confederate statues, flags, and emblems. “The idea of comparing whether or not George Washington owned slaves or Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and somebody who was in rebellion committing treason trying to take down a union to keep slavery, I think there’s a distinction there.”
President Donald Trump has recently bet his re-election on the issue of public displays of statues, memorials, and U.S. military bases commemorating Confederate leaders, hoping that the issue will be red meat for his base as his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic fallout has put him far behind Biden in national and battleground polls. In a fiery speech on the eve of Independence Day, Trump framed the election as a battle between those who cherish America and “bad, evil people” whose goal is to “end America.”
“Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders,” Trump said. “They think the American people are weak, and soft, and submissive.”
On Monday, Trump explicitly defended the display of Confederate flags at NASCAR rallies, and Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, told The Daily Beast that Trump, unlike Biden, will “not stand” for the “violent faction” of critics who seek to “delegitimize America’s very existence.”
“By contrast, the first instinct of Joe Biden and his party is to agree with the agitators that there is something fundamentally wrong with America and that there always has been.”
Bates responded that the only “violent faction” was the Confederacy whose legacy of sedition and slavery, he said, Trump is defending.
“Instead of working to bring the American people together and heal the wounds of centuries of systemic racism, they are going so far out of their way to tether themselves to the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments that they can’t tell the difference between the values our Union stands for and what it fought against and resoundingly defeated,” Bates said. “Joe Biden is right that we are in a battle for the soul of this nation, and he is fighting on the side of our highest ideals. Donald Trump is not.”