The memorials honored Confederate vets in local cemeteries, but should they remain?

The fervor sweeping the country to remove Confederate memorials reached Fresno.

One of two small monuments – one at Bethel Cemetery in Sanger and the other at Mountain View Cemetery in Fresno – that celebrated Confederate veterans buried there and elsewhere in California was in place until Friday.

The monuments are roughly 4 feet high, about 4 feet wide and built of stone. They were erected by the local chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group established in 1896 to preserve the legacy of those who fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War.

The push to remove Confederate memorials has grown for many years. It got red-hot last weekend with violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, where city leaders planned to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. A group filled with white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters. One woman was killed during the confrontations, and two state troopers who were monitoring the melees died when their helicopter crashed.

After Charlottesville, a Confederate monument in Arizona was tarred and feathered by vandals. And a Confederate monument at a cemetery in Hollywood was removed after threats of vandalism, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In Fresno, as in other places, opinions are mixed about what should be done with Confederate memorials.

In the wake of Charlottesville, the Sons of Confederate Veterans headquartered in Columbia, Tennessee issued a statement declaring that it had no connection to the violent protests there.

“We  mourn the loss of life and repudiate in the strongest terms attempts by any group that advocates hatred, bigotry or violence towards others to use our symbols, or to otherwise undertake to tarnish the good and glorious name of the Confederate soldier,” the statement said.

The group specializes in genealogy – members must be a male descendent of a Confederate veteran – and Civil War history.

Tom Bolton of Visalia is commander of Camp 1804, General Tyree Harris Bell chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Bell is buried at Bethel Cemetery, where the chapter installed a monument about eight years ago. The Mountain View monument was installed last year.

Many Confederate veterans moved west after the war and Bell, who farmed in the Sanger area, was one of them, Bolton said. There are about 20 Confederate veterans buried at Bethel, and many older cemeteries in the Valley have the graves of Confederate and Union veterans.

The monument at Bethel states, “In Memoriam. California’s veterans who sacrificed all in the struggle for independence & the constitutional right of self-government,” and nearly identical wording is on the monument that until Friday was at Mountain View Cemetery on West Belmont Avenue.

The Mountain View monument has a second face that honors Union soldiers. The words on that side state, “Struggle to preserve the Union” and “In Memoriam. California’s Union veterans.”

Bolton said members of Camp 1804 honor all veterans, not just those who fought for the Confederacy. He said the members specialize in locating unmarked graves of Confederate soldiers and getting proper headstones for them.

He could not be reached for comment Friday after the monument at Mountain View was removed.

But on Thursday, Bolton told The Bee that his biggest fear after Charlottesville was that publicity about the monuments in Fresno and Sanger might prompt someone to deface them.

Monuments honoring Civil War figures are deeply troubling to those whose ancestors endured slavery, said Rev. Dr. Floyd D. Harris of Fresno, who organized a vigil Friday evening protesting white nationalists and showing solidarity with the Charlottesville community.

It’s time to remove such monuments from public places, he said.

“Four hundred years of oppression is enough,” he said. “To have statues of folks who have hurt people shows the world that we just don’t get it. It allows the past to be the present.”

But Christopher St. John of Fresno, who arranges worship music for black churches, said he does not support a wholesale removal of every reminder of the Civil War and slavery.

“We need to remember the good and the bad,” he said. “If we take it away, it may creep up again.”

During the Civil War, the largest city in the southern San Joaquin Valley was Visalia because Fresno was not yet an incorporated city. Secessionist sentiment was strong in the area.

Visalia had a secessionist newspaper, and Union troops were dispatched to shut it down and keep the area under control, said Patrick Fontes, an adjunct history professor at Fresno City College and California State University, Fresno.

Civil war re-enactor Gavin Iacano of Mariposa is president of the American Civil War Association that partners with the Fresno Historical Society to present the annual Civil War re-enactment at Kearney Park.

So far, the controversy about Confederate monuments has not affected re-enactment events in California that he has participated in, he said.

“The biggest part of what we do is education,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about that part of history and what we do is try to correct that. There was so much more about it than slavery.”

But it’s true that extremist groups have co-opted the Confederate flag, he said.

“The last thing I want anyone to think is that re-enactors would support” extremists, he said.

Statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate notables were installed mostly in the South between 1890 and the 1920s and during the civil rights era of the 1950s and ’60s, said Civil War history professor Ethan Kytle at Fresno State.

Historians “don’t think of them as Civil War statues, they are actually of the Jim Crow era,” he said. “They don’t tell us anything valuable about the Civil War.” Jim Crow laws were enacted in southern states and towns starting in the 1880s to legalize segregation between blacks and whites.

The protests in Charlottesville showed the country that white nationalist groups are rallying around them as “totems of white supremacy,” he said.

Society is now debating what to do about them, he said.

“What we can’t do is do nothing,” he said.

Some argue they should be put in museums, others say putting historically accurate plaques on them is the right way to go, and some even suggest they should be destroyed, he said.

“I’m somewhere between properly contextualizing them and taking them down,” he said.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold