FRANKLIN (AP) — Robert E. Lee never fought a battle in Ohio during the Civil War. But he’s part of one now.
A roadside marker honoring the Confederate general has swept a small city into the heated conflict over Confederate monuments, in the aftermath of the deadly violence triggered by a white supremacist rally this month called to protest the planned removal of a Lee statue in his home state.
“It’s going on all over the country,” said Larry Etter, shutting down his riding mower to chat. “Half the people didn’t even know it was here. But now little Franklin, Ohio, is in it because of what happened in Virginia.”
A movement in recent years to remove Confederate monuments and flags from public places as symbols of national division and black oppression has accelerated since the Aug. 12 rally in which a counter-protester was killed by a car driven into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia.
It brought sudden attention to Franklin’s 90-year-old rock marker, depicting Lee astride his horse, Traveller, and situated aside the “Dixie Highway,” a roads network running from Miami to Michigan. Local news stories, an online petition and demonstrations raised debate over its continued display.
Franklin Township officials declared the monument wouldn’t be moved. Then they announced they learned it was on property now controlled by the city of Franklin. A Franklin official then said the city wanted to give it back to Franklin Township.
The confusion seemed understandable since the monument — too small to be easily noticed by passing motorists and lacking a parking area — hadn’t been in the news since someone accidentally drove into it in 1981.
By the morning of Aug. 17, when President Donald Trump made a series of tweets bemoaning the loss of history from the removal of “our beautiful statues and monuments,” the Lee marker had been gone for hours, removed by workers overnight.
Residents were outraged, calling it tampering with history. The mainly blue-collar city of nearly 12,000 people was Trump country in the 2016 election, and residents echoed him.
“If every time someone says something like that is offensive and you take it down, where does history go?” asked Jo Ann Powell, who owns the Take-A-Look hair salon across the road from the monument site. “I think they’re (city officials) falling into the trap.”
At a heated meeting Aug. 21, City Manager Sonny Lewis stood by the decision.
“Call me a coward if you want to,” Lewis told an overflow audience. “I would rather be called a coward than be standing up there two days later lighting candles at the memorial for somebody who’s gotten hurt or killed.”
Besides potentially drawing violent protests, the monument could have been defaced, as has happened to Confederate monuments elsewhere, officials said.
At a meeting three days later, township officials said they want to return the monument to public view, but aren’t sure where yet.
Dan Darragh, a longtime Franklin journalist and historic preservationist, said he never heard any complaints about the monument before.
According to local history, a Franklin businessman with Southern roots admired Lee and supported the monument, dedicated “in loving memory” of Lee by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Otherwise, the region’s closest tie to Lee might be nearby Dayton’s native Martin Sheen’s portrayal of him in the 1993 movie “Gettysburg.”
University of Cincinnati history professor Christopher Phillips said a Confederate monument in a small Northern city reflects feelings more complex than North vs. South. Besides its demographics — Franklin’s population is about 95 percent white — it’s an area where many people feel left behind economically and distrustful of Washington.
Phillips said the passions aroused by such monuments are more about current political realities than historical figures and events.
“I think the Franklin monument is a perfect example of this, because it stands so apart from the war narrative,” Phillips said.
At least 20 Franklin natives died in the Civil War, some fighting Lee-led troops in battles such as Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
Darragh recalled little local interest in the dedication a few years ago at Woodhill Cemetery of a historical marker honoring contributions to the Union effort.
“All of the sudden, people are concerned about history,” he said with a smile.
Etter has been cutting grass around the marker site for five decades, and he’s volunteered to put it on his property nearby. He said he’s not a fan of waving Confederate flags around, but believes the monument should be displayed again.
“That’s history,” Etter said.
Follow Dan Sewell at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell. For some of his other recent stories: https://apnews.com/search/dan%20and%20sewell.