Putnam's multiracial WWI dead silently mock the "chivalry" of their Confederate intruder
My great aunt Susie Lee Walton championed Putnam County's Confederate Art project in 1924. But 2021's spiteful Confederates also betray the "inspiration" of her imaginary "heroes."
Which of these two “monuments” on the Putnam Courthouse lawn came first? The stubby little one off to the side in the foreground? Or the tall fella atop the pedestal that guards the entry to the halls of official state justice in 2021 and commands everyone’s attention?
It’s the stubby one, of course — the actual historical monument to the actual Putnam County citizen soldiers of the U.S. Military who died serving the World War I effort of 1917-1919.
Palatka winter resident James R. Mellon, of the famous Pittsburgh Mellons, donated the monument in 1921—just as he later donated land for a new high school and built Palatka’s library.
It became the first monument to populate the lawn of the Putnam County courthouse. It’s quite simple and striking even today, with the names of the war dead “cast in immutable letters” into the bronze, as a 1921 newspaper account of its unveiling put it.
Here are the real names of the real dead men. There are 29 names on the bronze plaque. I’ve identified 14 as white and 13 as black. I couldn’t identify a race for two names. But these 29 men are thoroughly integrated in bronze commemoration of real war death.
I’m going to tell you how each of them died in a moment. Each has an actual historical record.
The Confederate Art Project
But first, can you point out the name of the Confederate soldier — or any confederate soldier — commemorated in the “historical monument” erected in 1924 — three years after the WWI monument? I’ll wait. (Don’t even bother asking about loyal, United States Civil War Union soldiers, many of whom are actually buried in Palatka’s Westview cemetery, a mile or so from the courthouse.)
Can you point out a battle? Can you identify any actual veteran named here, much less a “hero?” Can you point to a single iota of history commemorated by this tower of stone and bronze? Nope, you can’t.
Because there isn't one.
Indeed, the “monument” that dominates the entryway into the Putnam County Courthouse isn’t really a monument at all.
It’s a privately-funded, now publicly maintained, art project.
In any honest reading of law or history, as a public art project, Putnam County’s “monument” isn’t even subject to the stupid ordinance Putnam County Commissioners pretended to “debate” recently — as if they care about any of this beyond the basest instinct of “owning the libs” or whomever.
Of course, no one should expect any honest reading of law or history by government officials in this state. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is no history to commemorate on Palatka’s Confederate Art Project, beyond the history of the “United Daughters of the Confederacy” themselves. This public art project most explicitly and prominently memorializes them.
It’s true that the Art Project talks about “the glory of the men who wore the gray in the sixties” and there’s a statue of a guy who never existed on top of it. But “glory” is an abstract term of worship, not historical commemoration. Indeed, the generic Johnny Reb statues were to Civil War history what La Pieta is to the death of Christ.
They’re glorification art — but mass produced. (Michelangelo they are not.) And the inscription carved into the Putnam Confederate Art Project isn’t historical account or commemoration, it’s a sort of scripture/devotional:
Erected AD 1924 by Patton Anderson Chapter United Daughters of the Confederacy with the assistance of William Ivers C.S.A. and other friends as a memorial to the heroism fortitude and glory of the men who wore the gray in the sixties with the hope that their love of country, devotion to principle, and fidelity to the cause they believed was right may be an inspiration to people of every age.
The explicit goal, in its own words, is not commemoration of the past. It is “inspiration” for every age, including this one. Art always exists for the present — not the past.
If you doubt me on this question of art versus history, there’s a poem on the front of the Putnam Confederate Art Project:
Although the flag they died to save
Floats not o’er any land or sea
Thoughout eternal years shall wave
the banner of their chivalry.
1861 — Our Confederate Heroes — 1865
Keep that “banner of their chivalry” line in your head. We’ll come back to it.
What an actual historical monument looks like
Now let’s compare all the abstract hope for inspiring “people of every age” on the Confederate Art Project to the terse, concrete history of the World War I monument.
Erected to perpetuate the honored memory of these citizens of Putnam County, Fla. who gave their lives in the World War.
That’s it. And then it’s just names.
Using WWI soldier ID cards, I went quite a bit further in my book Age of Barbarity. What follows is a thumbnail listing of the war record for all 29 men. You can scroll through as fast or slow as you want.
I’ll have more to say about the Confederate Art Project on the other side. But reading through these names in sequence tells a number of stories about 1917-1919. Perhaps most striking is that only four men died from enemy action. Eighteen men died from some form of “pneumonia,” during the teeth of 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic. Thus, this World War I monument, like any WWI monument, commemorates the global flu pandemic as much — or more — than World War I combat.
Just serving in a unit in close contact with other men was more lethal than combat. Accordingly, you’ll notice that the dying, like the war effort, persisted well after the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918. And every man inducted almost certainly knew the health risk he faced. The “revisionist” Confederate Art Project revised these real U.S. veterans’ names and experiences right out of their rightful place in Putnam County’s common historical memory.
My book Age of Barbarity took a deep deep on the lives and world of the men on this bronze plate; and you can read my previous article about their extraordinary collective experience here: “The expendable soldiers of the 1918 pandemic call out to the expendable soldiers of 2020.”
But here are the thumbnails of their service and death, organized chronologically by date of death — and identified with their race (W/B), final unit, cause of death, and age.
Dec. 28, 1917
Edward Abraham (W), Johnson —106th Engineers — inducted Sept. 19, 1917, did not serve overseas — pneumonia (25)
March 21, 1918
Clifford Nesby (B), Huntington Post Office — 368th Infantry — inducted Oct. 16, 1917; did not serve overseas, died of pneumonia (24)
July 15, 2018
Herbert Williams (B), Palatka — 153rd Depot Brigade — inducted June 21, 1918; did not serve overseas, died of pneumonia (26)
August 10, 1918
Henry “Bert” Hodge (W), Palatka — 47th Infantry — inducted April 3, 1918, served overseas exactly three months until killed in battle by a shell near the Vesle River in France (26)
Sept. 16, 1918
Alphonse Joseph Rinck (W), Crescent City — unit unclear — induction date unclear; news reports say killed in battle, but few specifics or card record. (25)
Sept. 20, 1918
Lucius Campbell (B), Palatka — 807th Pioneer Infantry — inducted Aug. 3, 1918; served overseas 6 days, from 9/4/18 until death from pneumonia. (25)
Sept. 25, 1918
Clemon Robinson (B), Palatka — 151st Depot Brigade — inducted Aug. 3, 1918; did not serve overseas, died of lobar pneumonia. (26)
Oct. 5, 1918
John S. Caine (W), Palatka/Jacksonville — HQ Co 316 — inducted June 27, 1918; served overseas about 6 weeks, from 8/15/18 until death from pneumonia. (29)
Oct. 6, 1918
Burroughs Blackmon (W), Pomona — 3rd Co. CAC — inducted August 12, 1917; died in sinking of the Otranto troop transport ship on way to Europe. (18)
Oct. 8, 1918
Andrew Reid (B), East Palatka — 41st Reception Company Camp Johnston — inducted Sept. 26, 1918; was in the Army 2 weeks before his death from influenza and broncho pneumonia. (30)
Oct. 9, 1918
Eugene Russell (B), East Palatka — 40th Reception Company Camp Johnston — inducted Sept. 26, 1918; was in the Army 2 weeks before death influenza and broncho pneumonia. (21) (This is NOT a duplicate of the previous entry)
Oct. 14, 1918
Willie George (B), Pomona — 546th Engineer Service Battalion — inducted Aug. 3. 1918; served overseas about 3 weeks until death from pneumonia. (25)
Oct. 16, 1918
Josei Weston (W), Crescent City — Sgt. Major General of Camp Moultrie — enlisted Nov. 6, 1916; served overseas for just less than 8 months, until his death from lobar pneumonia. (33)
Oct. 21, 1918
Fernando Meyer (W), Palatka — 6th Infantry — inducted July 8, 1917; served overseas more than six months until killed in combat. (21)
October 28, 1918
Amos Mack (B), Palatka — 546th Engineer Service Battalion — inducted Aug. 3, 1918; served just over a month overseas until death from pneumonia. (28)
Nov. 18, 1918
DeLoss Nelson (B), Florahome — 546th Engineer Service Battalion — inducted Aug. 3, 1918; served overseas 7 weeks until death from pneumonia. (22)
Dec. 2, 1918
Frederick Bailey (W), Palatka — officer training school — inducted June 15, 1918; did not serve overseas, died of pneumonia. (32)
Nov. 29, 1918
Randale C. Holton (W), Orange Mound — 71st Battery 18th anti-aircraft sector — inducted Oct. 22, 1918; did not serve overseas, died of erysipelas (bacterial infection) at Fort Dade, Florida. (21)
Dec. 1, 1918
Frank Shuman (B), Palatka — Dev Battalion #2 Camp Humphreys, Va. — inducted Aug. 22, 1918; did not serve overseas, died of lobar pneumonia. (22)
Dec. 14, 1918
Alvin M. Johnson (W), Welaka — 130th MC battalion — inducted April 14, 1917 served overseas nine weeks until killed when struck by a train. (21)
Dec. 21, 1918
Essa Griffen (B), Rodman — 161st Depot Brigade — inducted April 1, 1918; unclear if served overseas; died from tuberculosis and pneumonia. (28)
Jan. 27, 1919
Stewart Ramsaur (W), Jacksonville/Palatka — Advanced Field Medical Support Company 4 — inducted March 30, 1918; served overseas roughly 6 months until death from pneumonia. (23)
Fred Weston (B), Palatka — 427th Reserve Labor Battalion — inducted April 26, 1918; did not serve overseas, died of broncho pneumonia. (24)
March 2, 1919
John D. LeVain (B), Palatka — 546th Engineer Service — inducted Aug. 3, 1918; served more than five months overseas until death from lobar pneumonia. (29)
April 18, 1919
Joseph Norris (W), Jacksonville/East Palatka — MD Group 16 Camp Johnston — inducted April 29, 1918; did not serve overseas; died of tuberculosis. (28)
Date of death, unit, and cause of death unknown
Felix Haymart (W), Lake Como
Edgar Baker (W), Interlachen
Eugene Jones (race unknown)
Charles Wiggins (race unknown)
What I just did is a monument. It can’t be done for the Confederate Art Project.
“A long-cherished dream”
Let’s take a moment to think through how these two monoliths of stone and bronze ended up positioned as they did.
In January 1924, the Palatka Times-Herald published a history of Palatka’s “Patton Anderson” chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. My great aunt Susie Lee Walton wrote this history and read it aloud at the chapter’s first 1924 meeting. Her mother, (my great great grandmother) Kate Vertrees Walton, would have been part of the audience. Kate helped found the chapter, which she and other charter members named “Patton Anderson” after the Confederate general whose widow served as president for a number of years.
Susie Lee wrote:
It has been said that ‘the surest safeguard of the future is a knowledge of the past’, and certainly nothing can be a greater incentive to continued interest in an organization than the memory of good work well done.
Patton Anderson Chapter hopes to see this year the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream, in the erection of our Confederate monument on the Court House Square. As we approach this task of love, however, it is well for us to pause and review the history of our Chapter, since the quiet steady work accomplished through the passing years is truly the foundation upon which this monument may worthily rest.
It seems clear to me that Susie Lee and the UDC had their eyes on the center of the courthouse square for their Confederate Art Project for a very long time. In fact, Palatka was one of the last towns to build a Confederate Art Project. The reality of World War I and actual American soldiers dying and Mr. Mellon’s Yankee money inconveniently emerged to complicate and perhaps further delay this “long cherished dream.”
Susie Lee’s brother Bill Walton went into the war as an elite shot and soldier and flower of Palatka manhood, celebrated in local newspapers. He was wounded severely and came out of the war broken and lived out the rest of his life as a somewhat reclusive alcoholic. So I can’t imagine the UDC had any objection to the WWI monument.
But I would bet a ton of money that the UDC ladies and benefactors had meetings or discussions with Mellon and local officials about how and where to dedicate the WWI monument. I have no record of any such meeting; but I imagine Susie Lee saying something like this:
We love all the poor, brave soldiers. My own dear brother suffered so terribly. They deserve a place of honor. But, can’t we keep the front of the courthouse for our Confederate monument. How will its chivalry inspire future generations if no one walks past it?
The UDC were still the wives and daughters and sisters of the owners of their society in 1924. But modernity was starting to creep in troubling and violent and disorienting and vaguely racially integrated ways. (The UDC ladies could now vote, for one example.) Their vivid memories of their immediate forebears were fading. The World War I and post-World War I era was a particularly violent, ugly, brutal, and unchivalrous time in American history — across society and race.
So the Daughters elevated culture and rite and nostalgia for a lost society few of them ever saw into a form of sacred art, willfully misinterpreted — or exploited — decades later as history.
Like all art, religious or otherwise, the meaning of Putnam County’s Johnny Reb impressionism is defined by the feeling it creates in its consumers. And a monument to feelings is not a monument to history.
That does not mean my aunt and the UDC set out to insult or diminish the flesh and blood humans on the WWI monument. But they had a very different mission than Mr. Mellon. They wanted their feelings for a fantasy Confederate past that never existed to inspire the age in which they lived 60 years later. I don’t think they would have seen that as competing with the actual commemoration of the WWI soldiers — even though that’s how it turned out.
In 1924, most owners of southern society — in Putnam County and elsewhere — thought this sacred Confederate art radiated a kind of love. They thought it culturally unifying because no one had standing to object in their society. They did not bother to think what the people who didn’t own southern society thought about their monument to confederate chivalry because they didn’t have to. Their legal and cultural and social dominance was so taken for granted that I seriously doubt they even thought of the Confederate Art Project as a willful expression of dominance. Dominance always feels like peace and harmony to the dominant.
Indeed, many of the 20s-era Confederate nostalgists dreamed of erecting monuments to the “black mammies” who had cared for and nursed them as slaves when they were children. I am deadly serious about that and can show you the newspaper stories.
So in the name of worship and “inspiration” — not commemoration — Palatka’s UDC imposed a thoroughly revisionist conception of historical memory on the Putnam courthouse space. And over time, the feeling of love they hoped to create hardened into an expression of raw, spiteful power — not inspiration. It hardened into this.
And now everyone has to walk past that raw spiteful power on the way to receive official state justice from official state power.
A question of ownership
Today, for all our problems, American society is far more broadly owned than in 1924, much to the chagrin of Confederatism. Above all things, Confederatism was and is about sharply limiting ownership of American society and way of life.
Shhh, don’t tell anybody, but American crony and inheritance-based capitalism is about the exact same thing, but with capital. So it’s not surprising that Confederatism and inheritance-based American crony capitalism have allied quite often over the last 150 years.
But capital ownership in 2021 is much narrower than social ownership. One might argue it’s narrower than it was in 1924, much to the detriment of the “white working class” that Confederatism appeals to most. So the actual people of Confederatism have very little to show for their alliance of narrow ownership for society and capital — mostly spiked suicide rates and opioid crises and mounting unvaccinated COVID death.
And yet, ownership is why the MAGA mob tried — and failed — to lynch Congress. Today’s Congress represents much broader American political ownership than MAGA can bring itself to engage productively as citizens. It would rather stage a national murder-suicide attempt, which is the essence of this social and political era.
MAGA-federates would rather try to lynch Congress than accept broad social and political ownership of America and work collaboratively with fellow citizens for broad capital ownership.
The broadness American social and political ownership, both in voting and in who had the righteous state power to fire a gun, managed to repulse and survive MAGA in November 2020 and then again on Jan. 6, 2021. See my articles about that here and here and here. We’ll see what happens next.
“The banner of their chivalry”
Let’s look again at the Putnam’s Confederate Art Project itself. Susie Lee Walton may well have written this poem chiseled into the Confederate stone. She definitely signed off on it:
Although the flag they died to save
Floats not o’er any land or sea
Thoughout eternal years shall wave
the banner of their chivalry.
1861 — Our Confederate Heroes — 1865
Do you think the author of that poem would cheer for the Capitol Lynch Mob because it carried the flag of beloved nostalgia? What do you think Susie Lee would say about this dude’s banner of chivalry?
We don’t really have to speculate.
Susie Lee Walton’s other brother — my great grandfather Judge Vertrees (J.V.) Walton — led the white parts of the multi-racial civilian resistance to the 1920s-era equivalent of the January 6th Capitol Lynch Mob in Putnam County and Florida. During that time Klan and Klan-related mobs terrorized the slowly emerging forces of broad American ownership in Putnam County — women, drinkers, blacks, whites.
These mobs carried out as many as 80 floggings — non-fatal lynchings — between 1924 and 1928. The mob murder of two black men trying to rescue their brutalized mother/aunt in 1926 led Gov. John Martin to intervene after much prodding by J.V. Walton and others.
AP reporter Jason Dearen’s recent investigation into the modern Florida Ku Klux Klan’s ties to Florida prison guards and thwarted murder-for-hire of a Palatka man, made direct reference to this 1920s era Battle for Palatka.
When Williams got out of prison a few months after his fight with Driver, the klan was not among his worries. Images of burning crosses and klansmen targeting Black people for violence seemed anachronistic.
But the symbols of the group’s reign in his hometown of Palatka, Florida, endure. Each time Williams met with his probation officer, he passed the statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the Putnam County courthouse.
In 1925, the KKK controlled Putnam County. A klansman named R.J. Hancock was elected sheriff and he helped unleash a reign of terror, where lynch mobs dominated civic life. To stop it, Florida’s governor threatened to declare martial law in 1926.
But the klan and its ilk have endured. Today it’s just one group in a decentralized white supremacy movement.
“It’s surprising that we’re even having a conversation about something that was prevalent in the 1920s, taking place 100 years later,” said Terrill Hill, Williams’ attorney and Palatka’s mayor. “It’s frustrating. It’s angering.”
Susie Lee Walton’s brother fought that 1920s battle openly, publicly against a much more formidable and popular Ku Klux Klan than today’s underground MAGA-federate yokels.
And here are a few paragraphs from my book Age of Barbarity about the complex role of Confederatism on both sides of the Battle for Palatka.
Much of that violence came from nightriders claiming to imitate forefathers who had fought for the Confederacy and then “Redeemed” the southern states through terror and murder. And those nightriders had the active support of pastors, like J.D. Sibert of St. James Methodist Church, where Susie Lee and Kate worshiped faithfully.
J.V. Walton, for a very long time, stood in very public opposition to those nightriders and their supporters. These stands turned him against large portions of the community, and I see strong hints—in grand jury records and guest lists at parties—that they turned him against elements of his own extended family, at least for a time.
Through it all, each faction—from the revival Klan to J.V. and his allies—would have imagined itself acting in the spirit of General Lee and the men who followed him …
… The white men and women who joined the Klan, or openly supported it, accepted the nobility of the Lost Cause as sacred truth. But so did the southern white men and women who fought the Klan and mobs and lynchings; and the power of that myth may well have fed their resistance …
.. Although I doubt any of them recognized it as this at the time, the emergence of the revival Klan—and the post World War I violence—triggered a struggle among white southerners over what it meant to honor and emulate the men who fought for the Lost Cause and then Redeemed it. This struggle, over what it meant to be a white southern American, pervaded the battles of Florida between World War I and the Depression.
I have no evidence Susie Lee Walton or J.V.’s immediate family objected to his fight against the Klan or took the other side.
And I know that Susie Lee excised Klan-supporting Pastor J.D. Sibert’s era completely from a long church history of St. James she wrote later in life. That’s how much he embarrassed her.
The mayor and me
Palatka Mayor Terrill Hill, who is black, and I are lifelong friends, competitors, and teammates. We graduated Palatka High School together in 1990. We took the same AP English class from Peggy Cole. We talked sometimes-racialized trash to each other in ferocious one-on-one basketball games in my driveway, like brothers trying to get the best of each other.
I don’t see Terrill much these days; but we know and love and enjoy each other deeply, like only childhood friends really can. A couple of times in the last couple years, Terrill has gone out of his way to be very kind to me personally, from afar, in difficult moments for me.
I always smile to see Terrill quoted, as he was in Dearen’s story. He gives good sound — something else we share as public figures.
Terrill and I played together on the 1990 Palatka High District champion baseball team in the beautiful old Azalea Bowl stadium. Babe Ruth once roamed there.
And it still has a section of bleachers set apart from the main bleachers — a ruin of the segregation era I never even perceived until I was done playing. Note the circle.
The Klan of the 1920s held public induction ceremonies at 2nd base. Here’s one from June 7, 1922, as told in the Palatka Daily News.
Ku Klux Klansman from Hastings, St. Augustine, Bunnell, East Palatka, and Deland joined with the local Klan No. 13 in a public installation at the ball park last night when about twenty candidates were initiated into the order before one of the largest crowds ever assembled in Palatka. The big grand stand and bleachers were filled to overflowing, and hundreds could not even secure a place to stand along the sidelines.
Previously, a fiery cross had been installed at the second base position on the diamond, and another carried by one of the Klansmen at the head of the marching column. There were over 200 men in robes and when they formed a square around the fiery torch it was an impressive sight.
The ceremony occupied more than an hour, but the vast audience remained intensely interested throughout. While the Klansmen were marching around the park some of them bore banners on which were inscribed “White Supremacy,” “Have Your Congressman Vote for the Towner-Sterling School Bill,” “We Stand For High Grade Teachers and a Full School Term,” [and] “One Hundred Percent Americanism, One Country, One Flag.
Note the popularity and the crowd. The underground feral goober Klan of today isn’t filling municipal stadiums to overflowing capacity. (Of course, we know who is … )
Again, Susie Lee Walton’s brother — and many other Palatkans of all races — fought that and won — even after it became systematically violent and murderous.
I didn’t know about any of this growing up in Palatka — other than Babe Ruth and a few vague family legends.
The history had not been preserved for me. I had to go find it.
So would Susie Lee want it moved?
The setting and history and reality of the relationship Terrill Hill and I share embody the broader, shared ownership of America that MAGA-federates would lynch Congress to reverse.
Susie Lee’s Confederate Art Project has become a spiteful symbol for these same MAGA-federates who object to sharing society.
To intentionally spite someone is likely the opposite of inspiring them. And Susie Lee Walton was not a spiteful woman. I feel very comfortable saying that.
Here’s a short blurb I wrote about Susie Lee Walton in Age of Barbarity:
Many of my relatives remember Susie Lee Walton quite well, as do various Palatka acquaintances. All of them, without exception, describe her as unfailingly kind and loving. Never married, Susie Lee lived with her mother in a lovely riverfront house for most of Kate’s very long life as a widow…
… Hardly a Palatka civic organization existed that did not benefit endlessly from [Susie Lee’s] time and effort. She was forever organizing schoolchildren to sing some program or to comfort some group of the afflicted. She’s in many ways the mother of the Palatka Public Library and often donated books to the library on the occasion of a friend or relative’s death. The last one she gave before her death, “Encyclopedia of Roses,” contained “421 glorious color illustrations,” according to a eulogy that appeared in one of the papers.
Susie Lee died in 1963 in a car crash as she drove away from visiting my grandmother Lois Walton Townsend’s newborn youngest child—my aunt Lois Ann, J.V. Walton’s youngest grandchild.
I never knew Susie Lee Walton.
But all evidence suggests she believed in life and beauty and inspiration. She happened to see it, wrongly, in Confederate mythology. But she saw it in many other things, too, like books and roses and her nieces and nephews.
I can’t tell you with certainty she would want her Confederate Art Project moved from its place of dominance today. But I can imagine her walking into the 2021 Putnam County Commission and realizing a choice between inspiration and spite.
On one hand, she’d see the “chivalry” of County Commissioner Jeff Rawls and the MAGA-federates twisting her love into a weapon in an ongoing national murder-suicide attempt.
On the other, she’d see the stubborn, patient, silent, forgotten, integrated names of the World War I dead; she’d see Terrill and me and the overwhelmingly will of her nieces and nephews; she’d see the “inspiration” of young people like Tevel Adams and DarNesha Leonard leading the calls for a truly shared Putnam County. All of that is moving in the same general direction — toward a truly shared American future.
And then she’d see this, carved into her beloved devotional stone …
… in the hope that their love of country, devotion to principle, and fidelity to the cause they believed was right may be an inspiration to people of every age.
You tell me who Susie Lee Walton would think that describes in 2021 — and who it does not.