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Arlington’s Last Confederate Monument – The Atlantic

Arlington’s Last Confederate Monument – The Atlantic
Arlington’s Last Confederate Monument – The Atlantic

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The wind washed over the rows of white tombstones and carried the last leaves of autumn on its breath. I held the map of Arlington National Cemetery up to my face, clinging to its edges as its corners fluttered. I looked up, and saw the statue I was searching for in the distance, encircled by tall steel fencing that caught and held the light from the afternoon sun. Inside the fence, concentric circles of tombstones surrounded the memorial—gravestones of the more than 200 Confederate soldiers buried beneath. Workers in white construction hats and highlighter-yellow vests moved about while security officers in dark sunglasses and black uniforms stood along the fence’s edge. To my left was a massive yellow crane whose engine rumbled steadily as it sat staring at the bronze memorial before it.

I had come to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington on Monday in anticipation of the statue’s removal. Following a review from the Department of Defense’s Naming Commission, the memorial had been scheduled to come down this week, but as I arrived, I received an alert on my phone that a federal judge had just issued a temporary restraining order at the request of a group named Defend Arlington. The group argued that the decision to take down the monument had been too hurried, that it would damage the surrounding tombstones, and that the DOD had failed to comply with federal law by not preparing an environmental-impact statement. What would happen next was unclear.

The limbo of the situation was evident in the bodies of the workers. Many of them stood in conversation or sat on the ground, leaning back against the fence. I walked over to a group of them chatting around a large stack of wooden planks. I asked when they thought the statue would be coming down. They turned to one another, exchanging skeptical glances, before one of them looked at me and said, “To be determined.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, as of April 2023, nearly 500 Confederate symbols have been removed, renamed, or relocated since Dylann Roof massacred nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015. The Confederate memorial here, in one of the nation’s largest cemeteries, surrounded by the graves of some 400,000 people, is perhaps the most significant to face the possibility of removal.

The statue was paid for and erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group of southern white women who were the wives, widows, and descendants of Confederate soldiers. The organization was responsible for erecting hundreds of Confederate monuments across the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was built by the sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a former soldier in the Confederate army, and unveiled by President Woodrow Wilson on June 4, 1914, which was the day after the 106th anniversary of the birth of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The statue’s most dominant image is of a woman—symbolizing the South itself—who wears an olive wreath atop her head. The monument also features depictions of two Black people that reify the subservient positions they occupied under slavery and the Confederacy. Arlington National Cemetery acknowledges:

Two of these figures are portrayed as African American: an enslaved woman depicted as a “Mammy,” holding the infant child of a white officer, and an enslaved man following his owner to war. An inscription of the Latin phrase “Victrix causa diis placuit sed victa Caton” (“The victorious cause was pleasing to the gods, but the lost cause to Cato”) construes the South’s secession as a noble “Lost Cause.” This narrative of the Lost Cause, which romanticized the pre–Civil War South and denied the horrors of slavery, fueled white backlash against Reconstruction and the rights that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments (1865–1870) had granted to African Americans.

For decades, southern politicians claimed that the statue was simply a part of a larger project of reconciliation, a way for political leaders to solidify national unity at a time when the wounds of the Civil War were still fresh. In some ways, they were right. It was intended as a symbol of reconciliation and unity. But for whom? Certainly not for Black Americans, who, in the decade leading up to the erection of this statue, had been terrorized by more than 700 lynchings across the country.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy did not conceal what they meant by reconciliation. To them, reconciliation meant demanding that Reconstruction—which is to say, any efforts oriented toward pursuing Black social, political, or economic equality—was acknowledged to have been a mistake. The best way to achieve national unity, they thought, was to allow southern white people to govern themselves, with no repercussions from the federal government for the routine torture, destruction, and murder of Black people. As the Confederate veteran and former secretary of the Navy Hilary A. Herbert wrote on behalf of the UDC when the statue was unveiled in 1914:

In 1867, the seceding States were subjected to the horrors of Congressional Reconstruction, but in a few years American manhood had triumphed; Anglo-Saxon civilization had been saved; local self-government under the Constitution had been restored; ex-Confederates were serving in the National Government, and true patriots, North and South, were addressing themselves to the noble task of restoring fraternal feeling between the sections.

According to Samantha Baskind, an art-history professor at Cleveland State University and the author of a forthcoming biography of Ezekiel, the United Daughters of the Confederacy didn’t want just anyone to construct this statue; they specifically wanted him. Ezekiel, the first Jewish student ever to attend the Virginia Military Institute, was a veteran of the famous Battle of New Market. In the battle, 257 institute cadets, some as young as 15 years old, were ordered to help close the Confederate line. They did so, and against the odds, forced Union troops to retreat. So many soldiers lost their boots in the mud caused by days of rain that the battlefield became known as the “Field of Lost Shoes,” and the victory would take on an outsize, mythologized importance in Confederate memory. “Ezekiel is a famous sculptor, a famous southerner, a famous veteran—who could be better in their mind?” Baskind told me.

Whether or not Ezekiel intended it, the particular images he used have come to be understood as Confederate propaganda. The image of the Black servant following his white master into battle, for example, has been used by groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans to perpetuate the myth that Black men served as soldiers for the South during the war. This idea, as the historian Kevin M. Levin writes in his book Searching for Black Confederates, was used to buttress the claim that the Civil War had been fought not over slavery but over states’ rights. If Black people served in the Confederate army, the logic goes, then the war could not have been about their enslavement.

“There is no question that Ezekiel used iconography that is unacceptable,” Baskind told me. And in doing so, she believes, he took what could have been a true opportunity to create a meaningful site of national reconciliation and ruined it. “He’s the one who really has doomed the monument in the 21st century,” she said. “It was supposed to be the premier symbol of sectional reunion, but it has white-supremacist origins in its iconography.”

In 2017, following the murder by a white nationalist of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, a group of Ezekiel’s descendants wrote a letter demanding that the Arlington statue come down. “Like most such monuments, this statue intended to rewrite history to justify the Confederacy and the subsequent racist Jim Crow laws. It glorifies the fight to own human beings, and, in its portrayal of African Americans, implies their collusion,” they wrote. “As proud as our family may be of Moses’s artistic prowess, we—some twenty Ezekiels—say remove that statue.”

The statue stayed up—but in 2020 a plaque was placed nearby, explaining to visitors that the memorial contained “highly sanitized depictions of slavery.” Then, in 2021, Congress created the Naming Commission to devise a framework to effect the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials at military facilities—and as a military cemetery, Arlington was included. After the decision was made to take down the statue, more than 40 Republican congressional representatives sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, urging him to intervene. Nevertheless, the Pentagon said that the statue needed to be removed by January 1, 2024.

Making sense of Arlington’s Confederate Memorial is impossible without understanding the larger history of the land it sits upon. Although many people today think of Arlington National Cemetery as a place to commemorate the lives of fallen American soldiers, that was not its original purpose. Before the land became the national cemetery, it was the plantation of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Prior to the Civil War, about 200 enslaved people lived and worked there.

Lee had come to own the plantation through his wife, Mary Curtis, whose father, George Washington Parke Custis, had built the mansion that sat at the edge of the plantation to memorialize his adoptive grandfather, President George Washington. The marriage of Mary Curtis and Robert E. Lee brought together two of the most powerful families in the South. But in 1861, as the Civil War began, Lee and his family fled from their Arlington plantation, which was soon seized by Union soldiers. The estate served as an important strategic outpost for the Union army throughout the war. Three years into the conflict, in 1864, the first military burial took place, and the land began to evolve into the cemetery it is today. One of the cemetery’s goals, from the beginning, was to establish justice for the Union cause, which, as I looked up at the statue, makes the presence of a memorial glorifying the Lost Cause all the more perplexing.

I made my way from the Confederate Memorial to the Robert E. Lee Memorial at Arlington House, the white mansion that sits on a hill and has a panoramic view of Washington, D.C., that I had never encountered. Why this place had become so valuable to the Union during the Civil War was clear: Officers would have been able to see any army approaching the city from miles away.

Behind the home were former slave quarters, spaces that had been transformed into exhibits documenting the lives and stories of those who had been enslaved there. I began to wonder what the families who had once lived in those quarters would think about the Confederate Memorial—its presence, and now its removal.

I called Stephen Hammond, a scientist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey who is a descendant of the Syphax family, one of several families that were enslaved on the plantation. He is a family genealogist and docent at Arlington House, where he tries to ensure that his family’s story and the stories of other Black people who once lived there are preserved.

“I’m conflicted,” Hammond told me, when I asked about the memorial’s removal. “I think it’s important to be able to tell the entire history of a space,” he said, before pausing. “And yet, there are aspects of that memorial that are very offensive to me, and I feel like they don’t represent what our country is about.”

Although the Confederate Memorial did provide an opportunity for historians, docents, and visitors to discuss the wider history of the cemetery, Hammond told me, he does not subscribe to the idea that the statue’s purpose was unity. “On the news this week, I’ve heard people saying we shouldn’t tear it down, because it’s a ‘reconciliation monument,’” he said. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

When Hammond walks through the cemetery, he attempts to hold all of its complexities together—the cognitive dissonance of its being the final resting place of the enslavers and the enslaved, a place that tells the story of those who fought for the Union and those who fought to destroy it. Although doing so is not always easy, he told me, he tries to extend empathy and grace to all, in the same way he hopes visitors will extend them to his own ancestors.

“I honor those that have died in that space,” Hammond said of the memorial, “but I also recognize that not more than two or three football fields away, my family members were enslaved, and were forced to labor and serve other people for exactly the reasons that the war was fought.”

“I don’t want history to be lost by the removal of something that creates a gap,” he went on. “But at the same time, what was filling that gap is not reflective of what history really was.”

This is why, for Hammond, the issue of who is commemorated at the cemetery, and how, goes beyond the Confederate Memorial. He is currently leading an effort to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from the Arlington House site. In a 2022 op-ed for The Washington Post, Hammond and Lee Crittenberger Hart, a descendant of Lee, wrote, “Our families realize that the name ‘The Robert E. Lee Memorial’ focuses solely on one side of those who lived at Arlington House and excludes and diminishes the lives and histories of those who were enslaved.”

Earlier this year, Representative Don Beyer and Senator Tim Kaine, both Democrats of Virginia, introduced legislation that would change the name to the Arlington House National Historic Site. Hammond is hopeful that the law will pass. In the meantime, he continues with his personal effort to inform visitors about the full history of Arlington House, giving an account of those whose stories went unacknowledged for so long.

“People get off of the trolley,” he said, referring to the small hop-on-hop-off bus tours that bring people around the cemetery, “and they walk over to see that beautiful view, and they have no idea what that space really is.”

On Tuesday, Judge Rossie Alston, the federal judge who’d earlier issued the stay, visited the site and, saying he “saw no desecration of any graves,” cleared the way for the memorial’s removal. Judge Alston—who is Black and was appointed to the bench in 2019 by President Donald Trump—commented that the memorial contains a depiction of a “slave running after his ‘massa’ as he walks down the road. What is reconciling about that?”

In something of a full-circle moment, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, who had argued against removing the memorial, announced that the statue would be relocated to land owned by the Virginia Military Institute at the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, where Ezekiel and his fellow cadets fought the battle that made them Confederate legends.

On Thursday, I traveled back to Arlington to see the remainder of the memorial taken down before it was packed up and transported to its new home. The crane was now swinging its neck inside the fence. After the workers secured the final section, one of them signaled to the operator, and the bronze was lifted from the memorial’s stone base, floating above our heads like an asteroid caught in a new orbit. Some of the workers pulled out their phone to record the moment.

Before I left, I took one last look at the stone base upon which the statue had stood for more than a century. The space was not conspicuous in its emptiness. I took a photo and turned around to make my way back toward the main road.

The memorial is gone. But the question of how we remember who we’ve been isn’t going anywhere.

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