The nascent effort toward removing a bust of Confederate Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart from the grounds of the Hamilton County Courthouse for racial motives is an irony, indeed, because of the Tennessean's role in the peacemaking creation of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
The Chattanooga chapter of the NAACP has begun an endeavor to engineer that removal, building off similar undertakings that have occurred in other Southern cities because of what have been called painful memories for blacks of the United States Civil War more than 150 years ago.
Stewart, who was not a notable battlefield figure but did lead a Confederate division against the Union at the Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 19-20, 1863, later returned to Chattanooga after legislation was passed creating the national military park in Chickamauga. By that time, he had been an insurance company employee in St. Louis, mathematics professor at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tenn., and chancellor at the University of Mississippi.
The former soldier, his Chattanooga biographer Sam Davis Elliott told the Times Free Press in 2011, "supervised in a lot of ways the startup of the battlefield [park]."
For those who don't bother to study history before attempting to remove it, the creation of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park was set in motion with an 1889 barbecue on the Chickamauga battlefield to which veterans of the North and South were invited.
"Chattanooga welcomes the Blue and Gray to a barbecue to be given on Veterans Day, on Chickamauga Battlefield, where they will smoke the pipe of peace and bid each thought of conflict cease," the invitation read.
A year earlier, Union veterans Henry Boynton and Ferdinand Van Derveer had conceived the concept of a national military park while riding through the battlefield. This concept, they hoped, would involve the federal government, where previous battlefield preservation efforts had been private — as in Gettysburg, Pa. — and did not allow for Southern participation.
At the 1889 barbecue, 12,000 veterans from both sides — including Stewart — heard the park plans and enthusiastically supported them. Side by side, at the end of the meal the next day, they actually smoked commemorative peace pipes. One attendee, according to a 2014 Times Free Press history article by local Civil War expert Dr. Anthony Hodges, said, "Men embraced. Old veterans cried like infants as they clasped the hands" of former comrades and enemies.
Congress officially established the military park the next year, the oldest and largest in the country.
In accordance with the congressional act, according to Elliott, two of the commissioners of the park were to be appointed from civilian life, both veterans of the local battles. Although the measure didn't specify it, one was a Union veteran and the other a Confederate veteran, who was Stewart.
Stewart, as resident commissioner, "spent a great deal of time in the park, supervising road construction, the erection of towers and bridges, and the general engineering work of the park ."
Though past 70, he, according to Elliott, "learned to ride a bicycle, and by that means or on horseback traveled all about the park." His biographer said he continued to have spirited conversations about the war with friends on both sides and, to a New York writer, noted in his conclusion on what transpired "that Providence had a great deal to do with the affairs of men, and that human efforts, even those of men who were considered great, had very little to do with great achievements."
Stewart, who never owned slaves, didn't believe in slavery, opposed Tennessee secession and garnered the nickname "Old Straight," probably for his moral uprightness, wistfully concluded at the death of a friend, "It will not be long until the Confederate soldier will be a dream of the past, but his name will live in history, in story, in song and in tradition while the world stands."
Nevertheless, the Chattanooga chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy renamed its chapter for Stewart in 1904. The former park commissioner died in 1908, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy unveiled the now tarnished bronze bust on a marble base of him in 1919. The bust stands beside the walkway to the front doors of the courthouse, which are locked. So few people even pass the bust, whose subject was probably known to less than 1 percent of Hamilton County residents until the NAACP sought to remove it.
However, the bust stands not as a relic of the Jim Crow era or as glorification of the Confederacy, as the NAACP maintains. If it did, it would likely depict Gen. Braxton Bragg, Confederate victor at Chickamauga, Gen. Robert E. Lee, the best known Confederate hero of the war, or Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Tennessee native who was an early member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Stewart, on the other hand, was memorialized, at least in part, for his devoted role to the unification effort that resulted in the nation's first national military park. His was a uniting effort rather than the divisive one that attempts to remove him.