Driving by the graveyard, it is almost impossible not to notice a 60-foot-tall obelisk that dominates a grassy hillside dotted with worn, moss-covered tombstones. It is by far the tallest structure within the peaceful environs of Mount Hope Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson — and on a cool, misty day, it seems to pierce the heavens.
For more than a century, the obelisk existed as an oddity. Except for local history buffs, curious passersby, and descendants of the dead, few people took the trouble to discern the mystery behind the obelisk — that it was built to celebrate the valor of Confederate veterans who settled in the region after the Civil War. Forty-five Rebel graves surround the obelisk, but you wouldn’t know it unless you looked carefully at the words chiseled in granite. There are no grand statues of generals to be found anywhere.
Because it is a memorial conceived by and dedicated to the Confederate, it was inevitable that the obelisk would be sucked into the continuing debate of this politically sensitive age — as to whether monuments possessing even the slightest hint of nostalgia or sympathy toward the Old South are anything more than racist symbols. The debate grew heated after the violence in Charlottesville, VA, where white supremacists staged a protest ostensibly over the mothballing of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
The hunt for suspect symbols in Southern public squares was one thing. But in the North, it took on an Orwellian dimension, when, for example, a tile display on the wall of a city subway station was called into question because it inadvertently resembled the stars and bars of the Confederate flag. Actually, it was designed to celebrate Times Square as the crossroads of the world.
In the wake of Charlottesville, Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, a longtime Democratic gadfly, publicly raised concerns over the Mount Hope obelisk. Despite the fact that it sat on private property and was privately maintained, he suggested that it be torn down.
This got him a headline in the press, as well as one very profanity-laced email from an anonymous anti-Semite, who concluded his note with a threat: “You better run and hide you stupid (expletive) Jew…. We are coming for you and your family.” (It might shock the email’s author that one of the interred Confederates was a Jewish artilleryman.)
Feiner brushed the email off for what it was — noise from a squalid corner of the Internet. But he also changed his mind about the obelisk after talking with Hastings Mayor Peter Swiderski.
Swiderski convinced Feiner that the obelisk should be considered in its proper historical context: When the monument was dedicated on May 22, 1897, it was hailed as part of the postwar healing process. In attendance at the ceremony were Union veterans — “once called the enemy, but now known by the sweet name of brothers,” as one Southern expatriate put it. A band played a “medley of Confederate and Union airs,” wrote a New York Times reporter covering the event.
“Speeches were given, which were all about reconciliation and peace,” Swiderski recently told me. “The inscription on the monument itself mentions the cost of war and loss of life.”
The graves, Swiderksi noted, are voluntarily maintained by descendants of Union veterans, who rescued many of the headstones that over time had sunk into the ground.
To be sure, the monument pays nothing to the suffering of black Americans, who in 1897 were practically invisible — even in the North. Nevertheless, the obelisk’s creation and the sentiment behind it represented one step in a long and laborious journey toward bringing a divided nation together.
The obelisk wasn’t about affirming bondage; it was about binding “the nation’s wounds,” to borrow from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. He asked for peace, healing, and “malice toward none.”
It’s a hard promise to keep. We are still binding our wounds, but the sutures are barely holding.
And malice is everywhere.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think: email firstname.lastname@example.org.