- The Washington Times - Friday, July 22, 2005

The quaint Martha’s Vineyard town of Oak Bluffs features a unique monument near its town square. Erected to honor the “Union Soldier of the Grand Army of the Republic,” it was envisioned by the editor of the local newspaper, Charles A. Strahan, who led the fundraising effort. Of interest is his background.

Charles Strahan was a veteran of the Civil War, during which he served with Company B, 21st Virginia Infantry. Yes, a former Confederate soldier was the moving force behind a monument to honor his enemies — those who fought for the Union. Therein lies the story.

A Marylander

Strahan was born in Baltimore on Nov. 10, 1840, one of five boys. He enlisted in the 21st Virginia Infantry Regiment at Richmond in May 1861. Maryland was one of the few slave states that did not secede, and its Southern sympathizers frequently went to Virginia to join the Confederacy.

Strahan transferred to Weston’s Battalion of the Maryland Guards, which ultimately would again become Company B of the 21st Virginia Infantry Regiment. He was described as5-foot-10½-inches tall, with brown hair and blue eyes.



Wounded in battle

Strahan’s official war record is slim. The local historical society in Martha’s Vineyard states that he was wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines near Richmond. In later speeches to members of the Grand Army of the Republic — the fraternal organization of Union veterans — he said he would always “carry the mark of a Federal bullet on my body.”

Strahan, in a note he wrote to Confederate Veteran magazine, said he was hospitalized at St. Luke’s Hospital in Richmond for two months before he received a medical discharge in October 1861. The discharge is the last official record of his service. According to later sources, however, that was not the end of it.

At this point, one must go to Maryland-related publications as secondary sources to find any record of his service. Both W.W. Goldsborough’s “Maryland Line” and Daniel Hartzler’s “Marylanders in the Confederacy” record his later service with the rank of lieutenant. The caveat remains that these are postwar books compiled from other than military sources, and their accuracy cannot be verified.

Strahan’s obituary states that after his recovery, he was on the staff of Gen. Isaac R. Trimble and participated in the fighting at Gettysburg. Trimble was seriously wounded at Gettysburg, and it may be that Strahan simply went to another unit after Trimble’s injury and subsequent imprisonment.

That Strahan’s service cannot be verified by the military service records is not unique given the strange situation of Maryland soldiers, who frequently affiliated with whatever unit needed their services.

Strahan’s next verified appearance is as the head of the Bureau of Conscription under Gen. John Smith Preston. Strahan remained in this position until the end of the war.

A new home

Strahan went to Louisiana after the war and worked as a coffee importer with Levering, Strahan and Co. It seems that ill health caused him to retire in 1884, and for unknown reasons, the family moved to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. The area of Cottage City, as it was called then, attracted many summer residents, and Strahan may have been one of them who visited and decided to stay.

So, at Oak Bluff on the Vineyard, Strahan threw himself into the small community’s life, promptly purchasing the Cottage City Star, a weekly newspaper.

Newspapers in the resort area usually published only in the summer, when tourists were plentiful. Strahan, however, decided to publish year-round, soon surpassing the Vineyard Gazette, an older publication. Strahan then changed his paper’s name to the Martha’s Vineyard Herald.

An outsider

Strahan’s former affiliation with the Confederacy seemed to rankle the local veterans, and when a Memorial Day program was proposed in 1887, the locals sent word to Strahan that if he attended, they would not be present.

Strahan gracefully bowed out and sent a reporter to cover the event. His feelings were made public when the newspaper carried a letter from Sidney S. Hicks, a Civil War veteran, with a headline saying, “Why I Did Not Turn Out.”

Hicks wrote of a Union corporal who had lost both feet in the war, quoting the man as saying, “I belong to that class that can hold forth the hand to the man who fired the gun that did me harm.”

Surely, Hicks wrote, if that maimed man could forgive, “it strikes me that some of our so-called Grand Army men (?) who certainly have no visible scars to parade, exhibited but a meager part of the brave corporal’s praiseworthy magnanimity when they threatened to leave the ranks if a certain long-ago Confederate officer (now a worthy, law-abiding resident of our Island city) was invited or presumed to participate in the soldiers’ memorial service.”

So the seeds of reconciliation would be sown.

The idea

Strahan felt he needed to ingratiate himself with the local men of the GAR, to find a way for the former Rebel to “belong” on the Vineyard.

He came up with an unusual project. The former member of Virginia’s 21st Infantry Regiment proposed that his newspaper raise money to erect a monument in the town square to honor the Grand Army of the Republic. He even pledged that all of the new $2 subscriptions for the year would be turned over as seed money for the project.

The idea was received enthusiastically by the local GAR post, which unanimously approved “the generous offer of our local paper … to erect a Soldiers’ Memorial in Cottage City.”

The ice having been broken, Strahan was invited by the GAR’s Henry Clay Wade Post to speak at its first Memorial Day in 1891, according to a February 1996 article by Judith Shively in the Duke’s County Intelligencer, a publication of the county historical society. The article describes his introduction:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have with us today an ex-Confederate soldier, one who wore the gray. He has made his home and cast his lot with us; has proven his loyalty to Martha’s Vineyard, and especially his loyalty to our Post, to which every member can testify.”

Strahan spoke of his participation in the war, his life thereafter and how “the mists of prejudice which have hung like a cloud over me, in this, my adopted home, are fast disappearing under the sunlight of your affectionate and brotherly hearts.”

The monument

Within two months, he had raised $700 of the $2,000 needed for the monument. Every issue of the Herald contained a plea for additional funds, and by the middle of summer, he lacked only $500, which, it appears, he contributed personally. Strahan’s permit for the monument stated that “the expense of erecting said fountain and monument [was] to be paid by him.”

The monument is ornate, with water flowing from two lion heads. One provided water for a horse trough; another included a faucet for humans to drink from, and there even were two lower troughs for dogs. Strahan had thought of everything.

The construction of the monument itself is interesting. It was made of zinc on a cast-iron base. Letters in the collection of the J.W. Fiske Iron Works of New York, examined by garden ornamental iron expert Barbara Israel, indicate that the modeler was Henry Jackson Ellicott (1848-1901), who would have made the actual soldier figure.

A patternmaker would take the completed statue and divide its surface into several dozen pattern pieces that would fit over the original statue. At that point, the molten metal could be poured into it and allowed to harden. A second method entailed using the zinc pattern pieces to make a replica and then joining the various pieces into a statue.

Mrs. Israel points out that “if a large zinc statue wasn’t made around an armature, it could easily fall apart.”

The zinc foundry that did the casting appears to have been M.H. Seelig & Co. of New York, which also supplied bronze forms for other statuary.

Layers of paint

When employees of Mrs. Israel’s firm began the conservation and rehabilitation of the statue some time ago, they found that at least 20 layers of paint had been applied through the years. J.W. Fiske Iron Works offered a limited number of colors, and the piece originally was completed with a “bronzed finish.”

At one time, the statue was repainted in gray, giving rise to the apocryphal story that it actually was a Confederate soldier and the gray paint represented the Confederacy’s colors. When one looks closely at the figure, however, his cartridge box and belt buckle clearly say “U.S.” He is a Union soldier.

Fiske’s identifying name is found on one tablet on the base, and the initials “F. G. and L.” on another — origin and meaning unknown. There was a plaque or tablet that originally read “Erected in Honor of The Grand Army of the Republic,” and another identified the local GAR Post.

The big day

The formal dedication of the monument took place before a large crowd in August 1891, with 5-year-old Louise Strahan, the editor’s daughter, pulling off a large American flag that covered the statue. Referring to the soldier depicted on the monument, Strahan brought “a message of peace and fraternity; a message in bronze, that speaks more eloquently than words.”

Lest anyone be unaware of the provenance of the statue, Strahan added: “That this comes from one who once wore gray, I trust will add significance to the fact that we are once more a union of Americans; a union which endears with equal honor the citizen of Georgia with the citizen of Maine; that Massachusetts and South Carolina are again brothers; and that there is no North nor South, no East nor West, but one undivided, indivisible Union.

“That, as your fathers and mine stood shoulder to shoulder at Valley Forge and Yorktown, and stood by their guns on the decks of the Constitution and Chesapeake, so the sons of the Gray will stand with the sons of the Blue, should any foe, domestic or foreign, dare attack that flag.”

The last panel

One plaque was left blank, but Charles Strahan had a plan for its completion. He did not intrude upon the unveiling to make his ideas known, but in an editorial shortly thereafter, the former Confederate soldier used some of the words of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, as he expressed his feelings:

“It will be remarked that the tablets on three sides are filled and one left blank. Who knows but that, as the Grand Army of the Republic becomes smaller, and the passions of war are lost in forgetfulness, these few remaining veterans may yet inscribe on the blank tablet a token of respect to their old foes in the field, who have passed over to the other side of the river and are resting under the trees, thus lifting up and keeping the American name and nation the brightest and most magnanimous in the galaxy of nations.”

It would be three decades before hostile feelings would abate enough for Strahan’s dream to be realized, and in 1925, the blank fourth panel was filled. It was displayed at a rededication of the monument when the newly inscribed panel memorialized his gray-clad compatriots with these words, borrowed from Strahan’s own:

“The Chasm Is Closed”

In Memory

This Tablet is Dedicated

By Veterans of

Henry Clay Wade Post 201

And Relief Corps

In Honor of the

Confederate Soldiers

At the same time, the local people decided it was time for the sponsor of their beloved monument to be suitably recognized. No one knew how long the elderly man would live. In order to recognize his contribution, one of the original tablets was changed to read:

Erected

In Honor of

The Grand Army of the Republic

by Charles Strahan

Co. B., 21st Virginia Regt.

Strahan, at age 86, was unable to attend the dedication. However, Sydna Eldridge, who proposed the panel’s wording, said, “I consider Mr. Strahan’s act one of the finest in all my experience on the Vineyard. … Strange as it may seem, that [1891 unveiling] was the last time he assisted at Memorial Day exercises. …Our ex-Confederate soldier … who was so great-hearted … was not honored as he should have been. But the time has now come.”

Mrs. Eldridge was the past president of the Woman’s Relief Corps of Martha’s Vineyard. A representative of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was present and was introduced along with two Confederate veterans, Nat Poyntz and E.C. Brush.

A soldier’s legacy

Charles Strahan died on March 24, 1931, at the age of 91. He was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery on the Vineyard, where he lies today with his second wife, Emma, a son and two other family members.

The statue stood in the town square until 1930, when automobile traffic increased to the point that a change had to be made. The Union soldier was moved to a plot that overlooks Nantucket Sound, at the head of the Oak Bluffs wharf.

Charles Strahan’s mortal life may have ended on Martha’s Vineyard, but the statue he caused to be erected as a testament to the Union soldier remains for all time, the gift of a man who wore gray to his brothers in blue.

• Martha M. Boltz is a writer in Northern Virginia and a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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