Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida’s general who? Time to replace obscure Confederate honoree

Statue of Edmund Kirby Smith, Confederate general, in the U.S. Capitol
Statue of Edmund Kirby Smith, Confederate general, in the U.S. Capitol

Thinking of great Floridians, Edmund Kirby Smith hardly comes to mind.

Yet there he is, or at least a bronze likeness of the old general, standing in for Florida at the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

Smith’s an anomaly on several counts. In an exhibit representing men and women, but mostly men, chosen by their home states as “illustrious for their historic renown,” Florida’s guy rates no better than a middling renown. And that mostly among Civil War scholars.

And while Smith was born in St. Augustine (1824), he spent most of his adult life elsewhere — fighting in Mexico, Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, Arkansas, teaching in Tennessee.

More bothersome is this notion of a Confederate general representing the least Confederate of the Old South states. His statue is as much of an anachronism in context of modern Florida as that Confederate battle flag that Marion County flies in front of the county government complex up in Ocala.

But there he is, in all his obscurity, sharing the same exalted historic status as George Washington, Ethan Allen, William Jennings Bryan, Sam Adams, Helen Keller, John C. Calhoun, Will Rogers, Dwight Eisenhower, Sam Houston, Brigham Young, Andrew Jackson, Robert Fulton, Sakakawea, Ronald Reagan, Roger Williams. All of them apt to pop up on a middle school history quiz. All but Edmund Kirby Smith.

Smith’s not the only Confederate honored in the Capitol. Florida’s fellow secessionist states have erected statutes to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Gen. Joe Wheeler, Alexander Stephens. South Carolina honors the deplorable racist Wade Hampton, who headed up the murderous Red Shirts after the Civil War, a paramilitary terrorist outfit dedicated to undoing the democratic rights afforded blacks during Reconstruction.

But of all the southern states, Florida has the least reason to wallow in its Confederate heritage. There’s just not much to it. When the state joined the secessionists, Florida’s population was barely 140,000. More than 60,000 of those residents were slaves, whose modern day ancestors, I suspect, are not particularly thrilled to be represented by a Confederate general who brought a household slave to war to serve as his personal valet.

Each state is allotted two historic figures to be honored in the National Statuary Hall. In a sense, our other home boy in the Capitol, Dr. John Gorrie, was the guy responsible for undoing Florida’s former status as a sleepy Old South backwater. The Apalachicola doctor invented a device that created both air conditioning and manufactured ice.

Gorrie built his patented revolutionary cooling mechanism in 1851, though it wouldn’t catch on until the 1890s. But when it did, air conditioning and icy beverages made Florida bearable to a mighty deluge of folks moving down from the Yankee north. Gorrie’s creation made his fellow honoree even more of an anachronism.

A statute of the old general has been standing in the hall since 1914 (a marble likeness which was replaced by a bronze in 1922), chosen when the state’s population was barely a million, back when Florida was a defiant, segregated bastion of the Old South. But 101 years later, this isn’t the same Florida. It’s time for Smith’s statue to be trucked down from Washington to the Edmund Kirby Smith Museum in St. Augustine.

There’s a fitting campaign, led by Lynette Long, a Miami Beach psychologist, and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa to replace the general with a statue of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Miami’s great environmentalist.

Long pitched the idea to the Miami-Dade Commission for Women last week, pointing out that replacing an Confederate general with the champion of the Everglades would be a small step toward redressing yet another bigoted peculiarity in the National Statuary Hall — only nine women are honored among those Americans deemed “illustrious for their historic renown.” The commission voted unanimously to endorse her proposal.

Edmund Kirby Smith might even have approved of Marjory Stone Douglas. After the war and after a failed career in the telegraph business, Smith spent the balance of his life in academia, teaching at the University of the South in Tennessee.

In his later years, he was known as a passionate botanist and a collector of plant specimens. Edmund and Marjory would have gotten along swimmingly.

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