Pennsylvania revises Confederate markers, recasts forces as 'enemy' soldiers

Colin Deppen
Spotlight PA
A state-owned marker in McConnellsburg, Fulton County that was revised during an official review focused on "outdated cultural references" in Pennsylvania's historical marker system.

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After removing a trio of Confederate historical markers an hour west of Gettysburg, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has replaced two with significant revisions that view Confederate milestones through a more critical lens.

The McConnellsburg, Fulton County, markers and plaques commemorate the first deaths of Confederate soldiers in Pennsylvania and the site of the Southern army’s last encampment here. The state removed them in September of 2020, capping a review initiated by the state historical commission and Gov. Tom Wolf’s office following deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, three years prior.

Two of the items have been revised to position the Union army more centrally in the historical narrative and to depict the Confederates as a destructive invading force. The items were reinstalled in May, said Howard Pollman of the commission, which oversees the state’s historical marker program.

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The third item — a bronze plaque dedicated by a neo-Confederate group before the commission gained oversight — will not be replaced.

“The administration recognizes that some markers may contain outdated cultural references that must be addressed,” Wolf’s office explained in an email to Spotlight PA, adding, “These decisions are not made lightly or hastily.”

The McConnellsburg changes are as follows:

  • A plaque commemorating the final Confederate encampment in Pennsylvania will no longer be displayed by the state, having been “accessioned into PHMC’s collection for interpretive purposes.” The plaque was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a neo-Confederate group widely known for venerating the Southern army and whitewashing Civil War history.
  • A historical marker with similar text and the same subject has been updated to include mention of the Union “routing” that followed for “the last Confederates to camp on Pennsylvania soil.”
  • A historical marker commemorating the first Confederate deaths in Pennsylvania has been edited to emphasize Confederate raids and property thefts. It also now mentions the Confederate Army’s “invasion of Pennsylvania” and describes the Confederates as “enemy” soldiers. A prior version mentioned only a neutral-sounding “skirmish.” The marker’s title has been changed from “Confederate Dead” to “Gettysburg Campaign.” (A 6-foot-tall roadside monument to the Confederate dead — erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy nearby — is not property of the state historical commission and was not part of the commission’s review, Pollman said.)

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the commission took down a United Daughters of the Confederacy-backed plaque it inherited, the removal coming roughly 90 years after the piece was first erected. The plaque recognized a 19th-century penitentiary that housed the city’s “only Confederate prisoners of war.”

The Incline reported the plaque was placed by the United Daughters in 1931 and later surrounded by the National Aviary. It spent its final years in a cage with a bald eagle, a symbol of the United States since 1787 and one adopted by Union troops.

Pollman said the aviary asked that the plaque be removed “due to continual public inquiries expressing concern.” The state historical commission plans to relocate it to a nearby park with updated text.

Some critics questioned the sensitivity around what is at face value a neutral historical acknowledgement, but Kirk Savage, a University of Pittsburgh art history professor and expert on Confederate monuments, told The Incline: “If the UDC is behind it, they thought of it as honorific.”

The commission review of the state’s aging historical markers and plaques overlapped with a roiling national debate about the need for careful framing of Civil War and Confederate history.

In an open letter published earlier this year, state Rep. Parke Wentling, R-Crawford, a commission appointee, said revisions and removals of state historical markers, such as those in McConnellsburg and Pittsburgh, were being “driven by woke cancel culture,” adding: “Not all history needs to be celebrated, but it needs to be remembered.”

Wentling continued: “The problem dates back to 2018 when PHMC began an effort to instill Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access (DEIA) efforts into the internal operations of the commission, which bled over into a revisionist historical review of markers through the ideological DEIA lens, rather than one dedicated merely to historical significance.”

Wentling’s office referred back to the letter when reached for additional comment by Spotlight PA.

In 2017, weeks after the planned removal of a towering monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee touched off the deadly far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Public Opinion newspaper in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, talked to area residents and found little to no clamor over the markers or the Confederate monument in Fulton County.

Three years later, the commission’s announced review prompted an impassioned July 2020 town hall with local residents and lawmakers.

“We’re working very hard to make sure that these monuments are staying right where they’re supposed to stay and that’s right here,” Republican state Sen. Judy Ward, whose district includes McConnellsburg, told the crowd.

State Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, was also in attendance, and offered similar assurances.

Reached by Spotlight PA, Topper called the state’s review of historical markers a solution in search of a problem. Topper said he appreciated that local input was involved in the process but added he was disappointed in the end result.

“I just get concerned when bureaucracies step in and decide that they’re going to be the ultimate determinant of what is and what is not acceptable in terms of presenting history,” he explained by phone.

Topper said he doesn’t take issue with the accuracy of the marker updates but rather that the updates are happening at all. Ward’s office declined comment.

A search of Pennsylvania’s historical marker database shows dozens of markers with references to the Confederacy. According to Pollman, none of the others are being considered for retirement or replacement at this time.

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