Don’t destroy monument in Indy

By James H. Johnson

It’s not a good time to be a statue or monument, especially in the southern United States.

Many Confederates have fallen out of favor, and some of their statues have fallen, too.

Indiana has few such monuments on the suspect list.

However, there is a big one on the southside that is facing some pushback.

On the hot spot now is an imposing granite memorial in Garfield Park which honors Confederate soldiers. At first glance, one might wonder why it is there. After all, Indiana was a Union State. Hoosiers by the thousands volunteered when President Abraham Lincoln put out the call in 1861.

So, why there is a tribute to Confederate soldiers in Indiana’s capital city?

The answer takes us to an area near downtown now called the Herron-Morton neighborhood, north of 16th Street between Talbot Street and Central Avenue. In the middle of the 19th century, the 30-acre plot was the site of the state fairgrounds. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the land was turned into a training camp for men going into battle. It was named Camp Morton, in honor of then-governor Oliver P. Morton.

Within a year the facility did a complete turnaround. It became a prison camp for Confederate soldiers. During the next three years, Camp Morton’s population rose to about 4,000, as trainloads of captured soldiers were brought from southern states. The commandant was Colonel Richard Owen from New Harmony. During his tenure, prisoners at Camp Morton received care and compassion. They appreciated that.

Fifty years after the war, when survivors of Camp Morton were old men, they gathered for a reunion where they remembered their old warden’s courtesy and kindness. They collected funds to commission a magnificent bronze bust of Colonel Owen, which after a century still stands at the Indiana Statehouse.

Unfortunately, Owen’s time at the prison camp was short. He and his regiment were sent into battle. Subsequent commanders of Camp Morton were much less benevolent. Soon, the Indianapolis camp became as bad as any of the Civil War prisons.

More than 1,600 died at Camp Morton, primarily from typhoid fever and dysentery. Bodies were taken to Greenlawn Cemetery, the city burial ground on the west side near White River. Greenlawn was nearly full with already nearly Union soldiers there. In 1866, their bodies were moved to the new and expansive Crown Hill Cemetery.

The Confederate dead were left at Greenlawn in unmarked graves. In 1911, the federal government voted to spend $6,000 to build a tall granite monument in their honor, inscribed with the names of all 1,616 buried there.

Even with the impressive memorial, the old cemetery was left untended during the next decade. In the 1920s, a citizen group advocated moving the monument from its isolated location to a more suitable site. After much debate, Garfield Park was chosen. The transfer could not have been easy. The granite memorial is 35 feet tall and weighs tons. The job was done, however, and on a rainy day in May 1929, a small ceremony dedicated the new location at the south edge of the park.

Meanwhile, the bodies of the Confederate soldiers were still at the deserted Greenlawn Cemetery.

Two years later, the United States government moved the remains to the federal cemetery plot at Crown Hill. At that time, there was a discussion about transferring the granite memorial to Crown Hill, but residents of the Garfield Park area lobbied to keep it in their neighborhood. And there it stands today.

This monument is essentially a burial marker for many unfortunate southern boys, who, for the most part, did not own slaves. Many did not even choose to be in the army. They were draftees. Their lives were caught up, and cut short, by a national tragedy we thought ended in 1865, but now, 152 years later, still simmers.

The Indianapolis Parks Department is working with the city-county council to decide the monument’s fate. It should certainly not be destroyed. At the least, it should be maintained with appropriate respect where it stands in Garfield Park.

Better yet, it should be moved to Crown Hill Cemetery, where those the memorial honors have rested for more than 80 years.

James H. Johnson is a retired teacher who lives in Greenwood. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.