When a group of residents asked to add a monument to Union soldiers at the site of the largest Civil War battle in Florida, neither they nor park officials thought it would be an issue -- after all, there are already three memorials to Confederate soldiers on the grounds at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park near Lake City.
But Florida state Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) responded to the idea by filing a bill that would strip park system administrators of the authority to approve historical markers and put that power instead in the hands of the Florida legislature.
As Michael Van Sickler pointed out in the Tampa Bay Times, the bill seems to "contradict" conservative principles by wedging in an extra layer of government to determine local affairs.
"I think it's a sad day," Lloyd Monroe, president of the Olustee Monument Commission for the Florida chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans, told the Ocala Star-Banner when the bill was filed. "It's unfortunate that [Baxley] wants the legislature to micromanage an executive department ... The park belongs to all the people of Florida. It doesn't belong to a particular sub-set of people."
The issue first arose last February, when members of the Sons of Union Veterans, dissatisfied with a mass grave marker that many felt was too far removed from a main battlefield, put in a request for an obelisk memorial at Olustee. Like a large Confederate memorial nearby, it would be visible from the battlefield during events.
"There were twice as many Union casualties there as Confederate," Union memorial supporter Charles Custer told The New York Times. "They fought. They bled. And they are really not recognized anywhere."
Among the Union casualties at Olustee were three black regiments, including the famed Massachusetts 54th. After the battle ended, some wounded black soldiers were shot and clubbed to death by Confederate soldiers.
At a December meeting in Lake City for public input on where to put the memorial, supporters found themselves outnumbered -- and opposition ran hot.
"They were waving the Confederate flag and singing 'Dixie'," one Sons of Union Veterans member told the Tampa Bay Times. "Baxley was at the meeting. He ... told the parks staff at the meeting that if they don't deny [the request for a Union memorial], he would get the state legislature to put an end to this. That got a big cheer. All of it was shocking."
One attendee told the News Service of Florida that "putting a Union monument at Olustee would be like placing a memorial to Jane Fonda at the entrance to the Vietnam memorial."
Baxley's move has upset at least one fellow Republican, state Rep. Elizabeth Porter of Lake City, who helped oversee the public input process.
"The process worked in my district. We had meetings. We discussed it. And everyone had their side heard. It’s funny how people will say, 'local control, local control, local control,' until they don't get things happening the way they want, and then they want the state to come in and mandate that it be otherwise," Porter told the Tampa Bay Times.
Baxley has said that his opposition to changes at Olustee stems from the fact that the land on which the Union memorial was to be erected was originally given to the state by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
"It's offending a lot of people who thought this was a preserved site," he told the Star-Banner.
Baxley has stirred controversy on racially sensitive issues in the past. He supported the creation of a Confederate flag "heritage" license plate and has argued against removing racially insensitive language from the state song, which contains a reference to "darkies."
"We're in a multicultural area and everyone's culture is celebrated but mine," Baxley said at the time.
A funeral home director and former leader of the Christian Coalition of Florida, Baxley is a force often found behind some of the state's most conservative legislation. He was the chief sponsor of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, backed limitations on voting in order to keep college students from the polls, moved to add more guns in schools in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting and once likened lesbian mothers to drug abusers.
His historical markers bill still needs to make its way through several more committees -- and a companion bill needs to move through the Florida Senate -- before it becomes law.
"I'm fifth generation Florida Cracker," Baxley told reporters this week, according to The Florida Current. "Isn't there some little sliver of place in diversity for us descendant families that were here just to memorialize where we stood?"