Oak Bluffs Civil War Statue Rededicated
By JOSHUA SABATINI
The Soldiers’ Memorial Fountain at Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs was rededicated Friday afternoon in ceremonies celebrating the completion of an ambitious two-year restoration project.
Bagpipes, played by Tony Peak, began in the distance and came nearer as the Massachusetts 54th re-enactors and members of American Legion Post 257 marched to the foot of the memorial.
Clouds began to roll in, blocking the splendor of the sun but not the glory of the celebration.
The Rev. John P. Streit, dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston, delivered an invocation that set the stage upon which the heart and mind should interpret the memorial that was unveiled in the town 110 years ago.
In August of 1891, Charles Strahan, a former Confederate soldier and publisher of the Martha’s Vineyard Herald, erected the memorial in honor of Union Civil War veterans. Mr. Strahan raised the needed $2,000 through the sale of newspaper subscriptions.
The structure came from the catalogue of J.W. Fiske and Co., a provider of garden and stable ornaments.
The steamer Manhattan transported the base, cast in York, Pa., to the Island on July 21. Several days later, the soldier statue, built of zinc, landed on the Vineyard.
The memorial was set up at the bottom of Circuit avenue where its fountain was a water source for animals — horses and dogs — as well as for passersby.
In 1930, the structure was moved to where it stands today. Just a few weeks after the move, in September, the statue toppled to the ground, causing damage to the figure’s head, hand, part of the torso and the gun.
Local plumber Benjamin Amaral took the hurt soldier to a family shop, made the necessary repairs, and reattached it to the pedestal.
Two years ago, the color of the statue caught David Wilson’s eye. Mr. Wilson thought the color was wrong and sought a hue with more historical accuracy. In his pursuit, he learned the memorial was in dire need of restoration. Thus began the effort to bring the monument back to its present condition.
“This monument was proposed,” said Mr. Streit, “not as an attempt to justify or rationalize the cause many in the South fought for. We should be clear from the beginning that this monument is not about excusing or explaining the grotesque and inhuman system of slavery. This monument was conceived and built as an icon of healing — as a testament to our nation’s need to come together again in spite of all the killing, all the casualties, all the destruction that both sides endured.”
Said Mr. Streit, “This monument is as relevant today as it was 110 years ago and speaks forcefully not to just our nation but many other nations and locales as well.”
James Brown Sr., treasurer of the restoration committee, said the restoration was a major undertaking. A new hand and gun were needed. The town of North Kingston, R.I., allowed the restoration committee to recast the two items from an identical statue in the town’s square. A missing bayonet scabbard was recast from an original in committee member William Nicholson’s private collection. The platform was in such bad shape that on its transport to Mark Rabinowitz of Conservation and Sculpture Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y., it fell apart. A new casting was made from the zinc alloys found in the original platform.
Mr. Brown quoted David McCullough, a supporter of the restoration project, who three weeks ago urged his audience at the Tabernacle, “Get involved in history. It is a way to enrich our lives. Find some historic thing or person or place that interests you and pursue it.”
Six descendants of Charles Strahan traveled from Maryland to attend the ceremony. As Barbara Lipke read the Gettysburg Address accompanied by bagpipes, the descendants placed a wreath at the foot of the platform.
Matthew Stackpole, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, said, “History isn’t important if it is something you just look back at. History is only important if it applies to today and tomorrow. This statue is a way to remember our history and move ahead.”
Michael Dutton, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, illustrated in his remarks how the statue’s historical significance can have value for the future. Mr. Dutton said, “From now on as I go by this statue on a regular basis, I will remember what this statue means to me. It represents a town that is open and willing to harbor anybody of any race, of any ethnicity, of any social or economic status.”
Representing the descendants of Charles Strahan was Dr. William Strahan. Dr. Strahan said the family was deeply divided in the Civil War. Dr. Strahan’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side was a lieutenant in the Union Army; his great Uncle Charlie on his father’s side was a lieutenant in the Confederate army, and they both fought at Gettysberg. That uncle was the Charles Strahan who erected the statue. “With the rededication of the statue today the division in the family has come to a conclusion. I think the wound has healed and the chasm has closed,” said Dr. Strahan.
Charles Strahan’s daughter performed the unveiling in 1891, and the youngest family descendant, a young girl named Maya, walked out to the statue and unveiled it Friday. The 54th regiment raised their guns in the air and fired shots out toward the sea. The Vineyard Classic Brass Quintet struck up a patriotic melody.
The restoration committee has established a sustaining fund to maintain the statue in the years to come.
“Let this monument be to those who encounter it a powerful example of healing and reconciliation and help us all to be freed from the imprisoning effects of past hurts and wrongs, whether political, social or familial,” Mr. Streit said in his prayer.