By Bryan Woolston
BRANDENBURG, Kentucky (Reuters) – A small Kentucky town gave a formal welcome on Monday to a monument to the Confederate soldiers of the American Civil War, rededicating the controversial structure after the University of Louisville removed it as an unwelcome symbol of slavery.
About 400 people, some dressed in grey replica uniforms and many holding small Confederate battle flags, gathered for the Memorial Day ceremony on a bluff above the Ohio River in Brandenburg, about 40 miles (64 km) southwest of Louisville.
The town embraced the tower at a time when Confederate symbols are being removed across the South as reminders of a legacy of slavery and the racism that underpinned it.
“The way I look at it, it’s part of our history,” Brandenburg Mayor Ronnie Joyner said at the dedication, which included the firing of a Civil War-era cannon. “We need to preserve our history.”
Brandenburg says the riverfront park where it holds a biennial Civil War reenactment was an appropriate setting for what some see as a respectful homage to Kentucky’s fallen.
The monument’s new home is near the spot where a Confederate general in 1863 launched a raid on neighboring Indiana, and Brandenburg hopes the addition will bring more tourists to the town.
“The Civil War is not a popular part of people’s past, but you can’t wipe it out,” said Charles Harper of Louisville, who came to the dedication dressed in Confederate uniform. “Just because you wiped out a reference to the Civil War doesn’t mean you’ve wiped out slavery, doesn’t mean you wipe out racism.”
The 70-foot-tall concrete plinth features an oversized statue of a rebel soldier at its crown, representing one of thousands of Kentuckians who fought with breakaway Southern states in the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history.
Monday’s ceremony, watched by a crowd that was almost exclusively white, marked the end to a year-long saga that began in April 2016 when the University of Louisville announced it would dismantle the monument, erected in 1895.
Students and faculty had long criticized the memorial as a tacit tribute to Confederate cause during the 1861-65 conflict, fought primarily over the issue of slavery.
Last May, a state judge ruled against some Louisville residents and descendants of Confederate soldiers who sued to keep the monument from being moved.
Kentucky was neutral during the Civil War and never joined the Confederacy. But slavery was legal in the commonwealth and many Kentuckians sympathized with the rebel cause and fought on its side.
The drive to remove Confederate statues in the South and elsewhere accelerated after the 2015 murder of nine African-Americans by an avowed white supremacist at an historic South Carolina church. The murders stirred national soul-searching about racism and its symbols.
Soon after the killings, the Confederate battle flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol.
Last week New Orleans dismantled the last of four Confederate statues that stood in the city for decades. The mayor of Baltimore said on Monday that her city was considering following the lead of New Orleans by removing its monuments.
(Additional reporting and writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Andrew Hay)