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Proposed Taneytown Civil War Memorial: John Wilkes Booth, sculptor's Confederate ties, and more things to know

A renowned historical sculptor approached the Taneytown Mayor and Town Council in October, proposing that the city be home to his masterpiece: a National Civil War Memorial.

Taneytown elected officials have mostly raved about the proposal — which aims to honor all aspects of the war — during a time when Confederate monuments have been removed in Maryland and across the United States.

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The memorial, sculptor Gary Casteel has repeatedly said, is not a Confederate monument, although Casteel himself is “commander" of the Gettysburg “camp” of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and one member of the Taneytown City Council recently denounced the project for its planned inclusion of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

Here are five things you should know about the sculptor, the project and what the city thinks about it:

1. Who is Gary Casteel and why does he want a National Civil War Memorial in Taneytown?

Casteel, a 72-year-old sculptor based in Gettysburg, is a self-proclaimed history lover. He’s crafted and erected many sculptures relating to the Civil War, including Confederate generals.

The sculptor is also the “commander" of the Gettysburg “camp” of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “preserving the history and legacy of these heroes so that future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause,” according to the national website.

Casteel told the Carroll County Times on Feb. 7 that he’s also a member of the Sons of Union Veterans and that he’s a part of each of the organizations exclusively “to honor their ancestors, period.”

He was key in organizing a contentious Confederate Flag Day in Gettysburg in 2016. Counter-protesters rallied against Casteel’s event and a Gettysburg National Military Park ranger likened the scene to that of a Ku Klux Klan rally held at the park in 2014.

Casteel has been determined for some time to erect a National Civil War Memorial akin to those that honor World War I or II veterans. He said he sees the monument as an all-encompassing monument, including prominent historical figures from both sides of the war.

“There is no national Civil War memorial,” Casteel told a group of elected officials from Taneytown at his studio in October. “If it doesn’t happen [now], it will never happen if it’s past our generation.”

2. The proposed memorial: From Harriet Tubman to Abraham Lincoln … and his assassin.

Casteel has designed and proposed a circular monument measuring 90 feet in diameter and would tell the story of the war from 1861 to 1865 — a balanced educational tool, he said.

Casteel sought input from 30 top American historians, tasking them with selecting the 16 most influential military leaders and 16 civilians to be featured.

They chose Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Union Gen. George G. Meade, among other military leaders; President Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, among other political figures; while Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Mary Chestnut and Harriet Tubman headline the 16 influential civilians. Also among the civilians would be John Wilkes Booth, who shot and killed Lincoln.

“These were the individuals chosen by the historians,” Casteel said, “not Gary the sculptor.”

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It would feature 10-foot-tall granite walls; north, east, south and west entrances; a symbolic representation of the Mason-Dixon Line and the American Flag flying above Union and Confederate flags. Each of the four entrances would be flanked by two life-sized bronze figures of infantry, artillery, cavalry and naval — the units and branches of the military at the time, he said. Casteel said he plans to surround the complex with the flags of all the states and territories of 1865.

Columns on the outside of the facility would feature one of 16 bronze portraits, about 24 inches in diameter, of civilians who helped to inform future generations about the war and its effect on those who did not fight by leaving behind accounts of what happened, he said.

Inside the facility, similar portraits are planned of 16 military leaders — nine Union, seven Confederate — and in between the military leaders will be 20 event panels illustrating some of the key moments of the war, Casteel said.

3. City Council’s support and the potential economic boon most of the body envisions.

Taneytown’s Mayor and Council have been largely supportive of Casteel’s proposal. From the day the Gettysburg sculptor first presented to the lawmakers at an early October council meeting many of the city’s elected officials have lauded the idea, citing the economic boon it could bring the town with a population of just under 7,000, according to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimate.

Mayor James McCarron told the Carroll County Times in October that in his more than three decades of involvement with the town elected officials have been trying to find a way to capitalize on the town’s proximity to Gettysburg.

Taneytown is about 15 miles south of the the hallowed grounds of the famous Civil War battleground. The small Maryland city is also where Union Gen. Meade set up camp before the Battle of Gettysburg — which could’ve gone down in history as the Battle of Taneytown, had things have gone according to Meade’s plan, a historian told The Baltimore Sun in 2013.

The memorial would be funded through donations collected and grants garnered by the nonprofit National Civil War Memorial Commission.

“I just think it would be a great destination stop on the way to Gettysburg,” Councilwoman Diane Foster, the Mayor Pro Tem, said in October. “It’d fit right in.”

McCarron has also said repeatedly that he sees this memorial as the city’s best chance to garner state funds for a traffic bypass.

4. Councilman Bradley Wantz “wholly” opposed

The elected officials of Taneytown had been unanimous in their public support of the proposal until Councilman Bradley Wantz firmly denounced the idea earlier this month.

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“I am wholly opposed to this memorial in Taneytown,” Wantz announced at the Mayor and Council workshop meeting Feb. 6.

Wantz questioned the whether the proposed memorial would have a significant positive impact on the city and objected to the inclusion of a portrait of Booth.

“When we went to visit the studio to see what was involved, what he was planning, the one thing that stuck out to me is a portrait of John Wilkes Booth being included, without context or anything,” Wantz told the Times after the Feb. 6 workshop meeting.

“Essentially to me, you’re memorializing a presidential assassin,” Wantz said of Booth’s inclusion via a portrait the same size as those of all other historical figures included in the memorial.

Wantz also rejected Mayor James McCarron’s belief that the proposed memorial would catch the state’s eye and lead to bypass funding.

“We’re going to inconvenience 7,000 residents in hopes that one day we’re finally going to convince the state to put in a bypass,” Wantz said. “That’s extremely unreasonable to do. And I think it’s unfair to the citizens that that’s even being considered as a push play to make this happen.”

5. What’s next?

McCarron at the Feb. 6 mayor and council meeting announced that he was seeking nominations for a committee that would delve into the details of the proposed memorial.

The committee “would examine the preliminary aspects of whether or not this is a worthy project that we should move forward with,” McCarron said.

He also announced that a resident tentatively agreed to donate property adjacent to the downtown that could accommodate the sizable structure — which Casteel has said would require at least 5 acres.

Once officials and Casteel have locked down their site, the project would presumably enter the planning process like any other development.

While Casteel has already sculpted many of the portraits and statues that would be featured in the proposed memorial, construction plans would need to be approved by the city’s planning commission and council.

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