Submitted by Nancy Morris
The family of a Confederate Civil War captain whose great grandfather’s bronze bust stands on a pedestal in Confederate Park wants to reclaim the bust and remove it from the park if the Memphis City Council follows through with renaming the park.
Capt. J. Harvey Mathes, who worked as a war correspondent and lost a leg in the Battle of Atlanta, also wrote a biography of his friend Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. It was Forrest, whose granite marker was removed by the city from Forrest Park, that ignited the naming controversy and led to a planned March 30 rally by the Ku Klux Klan on the steps of the Shelby County Courthouse.
The Tennessee legislature later passed a “heritage” bill to restrict name changes to historic properties, but the Council passed its own name changes before the legislature could bring its bill to a vote. Forrest Park was renamed “Health Sciences Park,” while Confederate Park was renamed “Memphis Park” and Jefferson Davis Park was renamed “Mississippi River Park.” The Council then formed a renaming committee to recommend other possible names for the three parks.
“It’s so tragic that people are so afraid of our past,” said Rev. Ben Mathes of Dawsonville Ga., great grandson of Capt. J. Harvey Mathes.
J. Harvey Mathes wrote battle stories as he fought with the 37th Regiment of the Confederate forces. Some of those stories appeared in The Memphis Daily Appeal, a predecessor of The Commercial Appeal. The Army captain later became editor of The Memphis Evening Ledger.
His great grandson Rev. Mathes, left Memphis 35 years ago after attending Rhodes College and enrolling in seminary. Mathes is founder and past executive director of the Christian ministry Rivers of the World. “To my knowledge, my family was not part of the Klan,” he said.
Forrest’s role as a former imperial wizard of the Klan set off the controversy when the Sons of Confederate Veterans added a granite marker with his name on the Union Avenue side of Forrest Park. With no warning, Memphis Chief Administrative Officer George Little sent a city crane to remove the $10,400 marker with a concrete base and place it in storage. An imposing statue of Forrest on horseback remains as the centerpiece of the park.
The centerpiece of Confederate Park is a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Just south of Davis, Capt. Mathes rests on his pedestal, tarnished by the weather into a greenish hue.
The park commemorates the 1862 Battle of Memphis in which Memphis was captured in one day by Union soldiers in what became the biggest inland naval battle in U.S. history.
“I don’t know why they want to rename the park,” said Aurelian Carrigan of Memphis who was photographing the park’s landmarks, including the bust of Mathes, during a visit to meet friends Downtown. “It’s been that way so long. It’s history,” he said.
Rev. Mathes agreed. He said his family has enjoyed photographing each other alongside his great grandfather’s bust for 60 years. Mathes said he tried calling Memphis Park Services and received no response, then tried City Hall and could find no one with any idea how to arrange to move the bust.
Bobby White, chief of staff for Mayor A C Wharton, said the city is not sure yet about the process to remove a historic statute.
Lee Millar, past president of the Shelby County Historical Commission and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said there is no other appropriate park for the bust, and Rev. Mathes said he would prefer that if the name change remains permanent the bust be moved to his great grandfather’s gravesite at Elmwood Cemetery, donated to the Rendezvous restaurant or that it be placed “in my backyard in Georgia.” Otherwise, he said, it could end up “melted down or turned into scrap metal.”