Commissioners deny request to remove plaque
CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Commission voted unanimously on Sept. 7 to leave in place a plaque honoring Confederate soldiers from Jefferson County on the courthouse wall.
The plaque reads: “In Honor and Memory of the Confederate Soldiers of Jefferson County who served in the War Between the States.” It was placed on the wall in 1986 and was funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy. No one currently serving on the County Commission was in office at the time, so details of how the plaque came to be placed in its current location were not readily available.
Three other memorial plaques on the courthouse recognize Charles Washington, founder of Charles Town; local World War II service members; and John Yates, the person who started the first public schools in the county.
A request for removal of the plaque came initially in the form of a letter claiming to be from members of the Marshall-Holley-Mason American Legion Auxiliary Unit #102 in Shepherdstown. The letter was signed by six women, who later confirmed that they were not speaking on behalf of the Auxiliary Unit, but rather themselves.
The women, led by speaker Linda Downing Ballard, made an impassioned plea to have the plaque removed because of its location at the courthouse.
“We are in no way suggesting others don’t have the right to honor and preserve the memory of whom they wish, but why is it on the courthouse wall,” Ballard asked. “Our children are taunted when they enter the courthouse by this plaque. We are hopeful that in memory of those enslaved here in Jefferson County and those who fought for the Union that the plaque will be removed. There are over 100 African-American men from Jefferson County who had served in the Civil War. There’s no plaque on the courthouse to honor those men.”
Many who spoke during last Thursday’s public comment session of the Commission meeting spoke to the fact that the American Legion supports all veterans and that Confederate veterans were named as veterans of the United States.
Brian Tolstyka, a Gulf War veteran, said taking down the plaque for Confederate soldiers disrespects all American war veterans.
“These people who are honored by this plaque are veterans,” he said. “They earned respect. They’ve been recognized by the United States government as veterans.”
Jack Hefestay, a resident of Kearneysville, voiced his opinion and support of the plaque.
“It is not inflammatory. It’s a statement and that’s all it is. It doesn’t emblazon Confederate flags and doesn’t include anything disrespectful to anyone,” Hefestay said.
Bill Arnicar pointed out that the plaque is about the war dead, not what they may have fought for.
“I wouldn’t want to be in a government position to have to deal with people’s personal feelings or the changing pop culture to determine which monument should stay or go,” Arnicar said.
Gary Dungan, of Harpers Ferry, said he had two great-grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy. He believes that many of those who fought in the Civil War, including his ancestors, were not fighting for slavery.
He pointed out that the move nationwide to remove anything recognizing the sacrifice or service of Confederate soldiers is what many call a movement by a “radical minority,” with an aim to divide the nation and to attempt to hide or change history.
“What we’re seeing today is a deliberate attempt to divide us,” Dungan said. “If they get their way with this little plaque, they will be back. They’ll be back looking for something bigger, and it will never end unless you end it here today.”
Commissioner Josh Compton agreed, and led the vote to leave the plaque.
“Where does it stop? Our county is Jefferson, named after Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner. Are we soon going to face changing the name of the county? These plaques tell a story,” Compton said. “Tearing them down is an attempt to hide history. I will not support the removal of any plaque or marker in Jefferson County.”
Commissioner Patsy Noland stated that the plaque represents the county’s history, which needs to be preserved.
“We need more history to be told, not less,” she said. “Removing the plaque won’t cure the ills of today. We need to not dwell on the past, but educate ourselves and move forward.”
Caleb Hudson, a veteran serving on the commission, said that many other courthouses have similar plaques honoring the veterans of their counties.
Commissioner Jane Tabb voted along with her colleagues to have the plaque remain, however, she said she would support adding an additional plaque or marker honoring Union soldiers or those who were enslaved in Jefferson County. She also indicated her support of moving all of the plaques at the courthouse to a central location.
Commission President Peter Onoszko clearly stated that any additional plaques would be looked at favorably by the Commission, but they should come from the people and not the government.