Column: He supported slavery and now Greenport has a marker with his name on it

Last week, the Long Island Press Club erected a historic marker in Greenport that, by its presence, honors a man named Henry Reeves, who was the editor and publisher of the Republican Watchman newspaper in the mid-19th century and a Southold Town supervisor.

It was pointed out to the press club that Mr. Reeves was, in his time, against the abolition of slavery, believed that granting rights enshrined in our Constitution to black men and women presented a grave threat to the white man, and was himself a cheerleader for the Confederacy during the Civil War. In response, the club said the marker was meant to support Mr. Reeves’ right to say what he wanted free of government censorship.

That was the noble reasoning behind the marker — and that’s quite a stretch. They supported Mr. Reeves because he had opinions, but without considering what those opinions were and what they represented at the time, let alone what they sound like today. Without historical context, placing this marker in Greenport was a blunder. With its rich past, Greenport deserved better.

In protest, former Newsday reporter John McDonald returned previous awards he’d won from the press club. He said if the club takes down the marker, he’d like his awards back.

If you want to talk about free speech, you have to talk about what was said and written in the context of the time. This is where the press club went wrong. Leaving out what Mr. Reeves wrote and said is glossing over the part of the story that made him a federal prisoner, a critic of the Emancipation Proclamation, a vocal opponent of President Lincoln and a supporter of the Southern states seceding from the Union so they could keep their slaves.

It’s not as if slavery was widely accepted and seen as something good in Mr. Reeves’ time, and became bad only in ours. His well-publicized views rubbed up against popular opinion in the North that the Southern insurrection should be put down.

Beyond that, however, his words were an insult to the Southold and Riverhead men who enlisted to fight for the North and died on the battlefield. You can see their names on the Civil War memorial in front of the American Legion Hall in Southold. There are Civil War memorials elsewhere, including Greenport Village.

As a northern Democrat, Mr. Reeves was anti-Republican, anti-abolition and opposed to Lincoln and everything he stood for. His political views were well formed by his racial views. Here is an example: “This is a white man’s country and the people mean to keep it that way.”

When President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing more than 3 million slaves, Mr. Reeves characterized it in an editorial as “monstrous” and wrote that it imperiled “the liberty of white men” and was against the Constitution.

We argue a lot over history and its meaning in this country these days. We can’t agree on who are the good people. The debate over the Reeves marker is a microcosm of the ugly fight over monuments honoring prominent Confederate figures, such Gen. Robert E. Lee.

In August 2017, protesters representing Unite the Right — some carrying tiki torches and swastika flags — rallied and rioted in Charlottesville, Va., over plans to take down a statue of Lee, one of their heroes. On a summer day in America, Nazi flags and Confederate history somehow merged.

To be clear, the Civil War was fought over the institution of slavery. When Lee’s army invaded Pennsylvania in the buildup to the Battle of Gettysburg, he allowed his troops to go on what historians have called a “slave hunt” — the kidnapping of black residents who were brought to Virginia and sold as slaves. That’s not something any of us ever learned in high school social studies classes.

The South’s “Lost Cause” was, to paraphrase Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the “worst cause” a soldier could die for. He said that in memoirs written a generation after the war’s end. 

The roughly 650,000 soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865 represented a broad swath of the population then. That’s quite a bloodbath — all so that the slave-owning elite could continue what they were doing and, in order to hold political power in Congress, expand slavery west as new states joined the union.

That’s the cause Mr. Reeves supported. And now he has a marker in Greenport that doesn’t tell the full story. It needed two or three more lines to explain that part of his life.

As Southold town historian Amy Folk points out, some 206 local men served in Northern units; 26 were killed. Here are the names of just three killed in action: George E. Latham of Orient; Sidney Petty, also of Orient; and Edward Huntting of Southold. Any of those surnames sound familiar?

What did Mr. Reeves, after the war was over and he looked back over his earlier writings, think those men died for? In the parlance of the day, Mr. Reeves was a copperhead, a Northern supporter of the Southern cause — a traitor to his country and its Constitution.

He doesn’t deserve a marker.

It has been said before in this column that history is not what you want it to be. It is not Silly Putty to be twisted into whatever shape you want, in service of whatever point you want to make. Nor is it a blunt instrument, or a torch waved around on a summer night by people screaming “The Jews will not replace us.”

That Mr. Reeves, at least at the start of fighting, but also in 1863 with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, supported the Southern cause shows that he was on the wrong side of history. The marker needed to tell a more complete story.

The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected]