The Problem of Confederate Statues on U.S. Public Lands
Southern Civil War symbols have been a flash point in towns and cities for years, but at places like the Gettysburg battlefield and Arlington National Cemetery—which are run by the Park Service and the Pentagon—there's a new, escalating conflict over monuments that honor the Lost Cause
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Let’s do a mental exercise about Confederate monuments in public spaces: I’ll describe one that doesn’t exist, and you tell me whether you’d find it offensive if it did.
It sits near a major city, on a scenic patch of federally owned land, in what used to be a Confederate state. It was placed in 1914 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a group of elite Southern white women who were highly influential back then and whose main purpose was to push Lost Cause myths about the origins and legacy of the Civil War. Two favorites were that slavery wasn’t the war’s main cause and that human bondage wasn’t all that bad anyway—in fact, it was a largely benevolent institution that rarely involved cruelty. Another was that the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization that arose to restore white supremacy during Reconstruction, was good.
The finished product, sculpted by a Confederate veteran and unveiled with the blessing of President Woodrow Wilson—a Virginia native who wrote a popular history of the United States that described slavery in terms similar to the UDC—features a goddess-like female symbolizing the South, standing on a huge pedestal decorated with shields representing the Confederate states, along with life-sized figures that show mythological beings mingling with Southern soldiers and civilians. In one spot, an enslaved female is holding the child of a white officer. In another, an enslaved man is dutifully following his master off to war.
Sounds bad. And as you may have guessed, I’ve been playing a trick: the monument exists. Known as the Confederate Memorial, it stands in Arlington National Cemetery, and it rises over the graves of several hundred Confederate soldiers, some of whom were brought in for reburial during an era when Northern politicians, including presidents, were keen on public demonstrations of North-South reconciliation. Celebrating this idea mainly involved white people—Black people and their views of the conflict weren’t part of the process—and the mood among Southerners was notably defiant. Speaking at the monument’s unveiling on June 4, 1914, Bennett H. Young, commander-in-chief of the United Confederate Veterans, insisted that the South’s cause was just in every way.
“The sword said the South was wrong, but the sword is not necessarily guided by conscience and reason,” he said. “The power of numbers and the longest guns cannot destroy principle nor obliterate truth. Right lives forever.”
Why is the Confederate Memorial still there in an era when the Black Lives Matter movement has led to widespread statue-toppling? If it were standing in the middle of Richmond, Atlanta, or New Orleans, it might still be up—pending the outcome of a political or courtroom battle to take it down—but it would be so disfigured by graffiti that it would look like a 1970s New York subway car.
The monument is being reviewed by the Army, as reported last summer in The Washington Post, and it’s currently inaccessible to close public viewing. Many would like to see it go away, including descendants of the sculptor, Moses Jacob Ezekiel. But you can probably count on it getting strong support from President Trump, who has vigorously defended military installations named after Confederate generals like Braxton Bragg, Henry L. Benning, and John Bell Hood, a view opposed by Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Trump is also a big fan of Robert E. Lee and thinks statues of him should be left alone. During a rally in Minnesota on September 18, he said Lee was a “great general,” called statue removal the work of “thugs,” and said Lee would have won the Civil War, “except for Gettysburg.”