Bowdoin College moves plaque honoring Confederate alumni

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BRUNSWICK — Bowdoin College last weekend removed a theater lobby plaque that honors the names of 19 alumni who fought for the Confederacy, joining the wave of towns and institutions taking down memorials to those who fought to preserve slavery.

Instead, the plaque now resides on the third floor of a college library.

The move came a week after white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the planned removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee. The demonstration was met by counter-protesters, and resulted in the death of a 32-year-old woman after a 20-year-old Ohio man drove a car into the crowd.

Bowdoin President Clayton Rose said the change was in direct response to the previous weekend’s events, which intensified a national debate over the moral implications of taking down – or preserving – Confederate monuments.

“What occurred in Charlottesville and the subsequent national conversation have led us to conclude that historical artifacts like this that are directly tied to the leadership of a horrible ideology are not meant for a place designed to honor courage, principle, and freedom,” Rose said in an online statement.

The student newspaper, The Bowdoin Orient, reported the action also came three days after at least one alumnus called on the college in an Aug. 16 tweet to remove the plaque. By that time, college spokesman Scott Hood told the paper, plans were already in the works to take it down.

Bowdoin’s plaque, Rose said, was originally hung to commemorate history. It was installed in 1965 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Confederate Army’s formal surrender to the Union – a moment that was presided over by college alumnus, and future Bowdoin president, Col. Joshua Chamberlain.

But the college’s current president said in his statement that the plaque is “incongruous” with where it is on display in the lobby of Pickard Theater, which serves among things as the summer home of Maine State Music Theatre.

On Saturday morning, Aug. 19, it was moved to what Rose called a more appropriate place: the college’s library of Special Collections & Archives.

“Critically, this move explicitly preserves and acknowledges our history, our unusual relationship with (Confederate President Jefferson) Davis, and the fact that there were those at the college who did not support the preservation of the Union or the causes of freedom and human dignity,” Rose said.

Davis, then the U.S. secretary of war, received an honorary degree from the college while on a trip to Maine prior to the Civil War. He was an ardent advocate for slavery, and according to the college archives the honor embarrassed Bowdoin officials. When Davis was elected president of the Confederacy two years later, the college received demands that the degree be revoked.

It declined then, and spokesmen Scott Hood told the Orient that the college will not rescind the degree in light of recent events, either.

Rose’s statement mirrored comments from other cities and institutions that have sanctioned similar measures, a wave that has gained momentum – and criticism – since the city of New Orleans removed its Confederate monuments last April.

The trends spurred an increasingly tense and violent debate. While some have argued that the removals are attempts to erase history, others counter that the memorials glorify a racist past, pointing to the fact that present-day hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan have adopted the Confederate battle flag to symbolize their cause.

The college said it intends to replace the plaque with a panel describing the plaque, explaining its history, why it was moved, and how it can be viewed in its new location.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

A monument to Union Army hero Col. Joshua Chamberlain stands at the edge of the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick, with Pickard Theater visible in the background. In the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12, the college moved a plaque that hung in the theater in honor of 19 alumni who fought for the Confederate Army.

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or