Statues With Limitations: Time to Take Them Down

The Confederate Monument in Portsmouth, Virginia in 2017 and on June 11th 2020

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have to apologize for the delay in getting this out. I have been working on most of the week. In fact, I thought I would have it ready on Wednesday night, but I was not happy with my revisions and the situation kept changing. So I kept editing, redoing, adding and deleting. That consumed Thursday night and Friday night as well as I tried to include the bases named for former Confederates is well. I quit last night and decided enough, that I would use what I had written about them in a separate article.  

This is a heavily edited and revised consolidation three articles that I wrote in 2017 following the White Nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, that the violence inflicted on the counter-protestors by the White Nationalists.  Of course that was when President said that “there were very good people on both sides.” I shuddered when I heard his words. Since then the President doesn’t even try to hide his massive amount of racism and admiration for the republic built on the foundation of slavery, whose descendants and supporters through the south and even in the north, erected monuments which were for the most part to perpetuate the memories of traitors, and to remind Blacks that they were not equal.

Over the past two weeks this topic, which was shut down pretty quickly after Charlottesville, has risen again with good reason. The brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a White police officer, which was followed by protests with a militarized police response, causing additional violence against unarmed and mostly peaceful protestors. The President Trump ordered an attack on peaceful protestors by heavily armed federal police and National Guardsmen, firing tear gas, firing rubber bullets, and brutalizing people indiscriminately following a speech from the Rose Garden to the Nation. He did it for a photo op outside St. John’s Church where he held up a Bible like a weapon. I never felt more afraid of an American President than I did at that moment. Overwhelming numbers of people agreed, and some of the finest, most honorable, and distinguished military leaders this nation has produced since Vietnam began to speak out, former Secretary of Defense and Marine Corps General James Mattis compared Trump’s actions to those of Hitler and the Nazis. And still Trump tweeted, but military commanders and governors took action.

Admiral Gilday, the Chief of Naval Operations set about the process of banning the official or unofficial display of the Confederate flag on Naval Bases. The Commandant of the Marine Corps extended his ban on it to bumper stickers, and flags on cars, clothing, or displayed in barracks rooms. Governors, Mayors, and City Councils began to order or debate the removal of statues on public grounds. The Army announced that it would consider renaming bases named in honor of former Confederate Generals, only to have Trump defend names of the bases and state that they would not be renamed. The Senate Armed Services Committee voted that the bases should be renamed and included that in the National Defense Authorization Act, which the President has promised to veto if the amendment was included.

But last night at least two important Confederate Monuments were toppled or so heavily damaged before authorities could have them removed. The first was the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Richmond’s Monuments Boulevard, which was toppled from its base. The other was Portsmouth, Virginia’s monument to “Our Confederate Dead.” The city council had taken up a discussion about removing the monument, but demonstrators accompanied by a brass band with no police intervention, heavily damaged it amid a party like atmosphere.

Truthfully, it reminded me of when East Germans tore down the wall, and other Easter European nations topped statues of Stalin and other Communist leaders in 1989 as they overthrew their Communist governments. Sadly, it was marred when one man trying to clear people out of the way of a statue that was being pulled down was pinned under it and seriously injured.

Context is Everything

Why they Fought: Willing Volunteers or Draftees

The context of the placement of the Confederate Monuments is paramount as I will explain, and my comments are not meant to impugn the lives of people’s ancestors. However, what motivated these men to fight is part of the context. Many, who were not professional soldiers, especially early in the war were eager and willing volunteers with dreams of glory, speedy victory, and return to normal life after the Confederacy achieved independence. While many did not own slaves, and were poor, the fact that they were White, meant that they were at least not at the bottom of the social ladder. Likewise, some slave owners, some who held many and others just a few felt strong enough to join up.

My family on both my paternal and maternal sides fought as members of the 8th Virginia Cavalry on the side of the Confederacy, despite their part of Virginia officially siding with the Union and becoming the state of West Virginia. One of them, the family patriarch on my paternal side was a slave holder who after the war refused to swear his allegiance to the United States and quite possibly was a member of White Supremacist groups after the war. There is no doubt of what he fought for, and the fact that he was a traitor and remained a traitor to our country.

I don’t know as many details about the maternal side except they were part of the same regiment, none were subject to conscription and as such all volunteered willingly to fight against the United States. For me that is a problem, I find it hard to honor their military service because it was against the United States. There are no records that I know of, no letters that they wrote which say what they thought, and they are not “mentioned in dispatches” (the manner in which the Confederate Army honored soldiers) for any particular gallantry, in fact the history of the regiment mentions that my paternal family patriarch, an officer, deserted in February of 1865.

I also have draw a distinction between the kinds of men that served in the Confederate Army. In particular I make a distinction between those that were eager volunteers for the Confederacy, like my ancestors, and those who were unwilling conscripted in the Confederate Draft beginning in early 1862. Interestingly enough the Confederates resorted to a draft before the Union because the Confederate Army could not get enough willing volunteers. These men were drafted, often against their will, and the Confederate draft had exemptions for the rich, and slave owners, who could pay for substitutes, and go on with their life running plantations. However, a few notable slave owners, like Wade Hampton of South Carolina not only did  not take advantage of that privilege, to volunteer, but Hampton went beyond volunteering, but actually armed and equipped what was in effect a combined arms regiment of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. He was a volunteer, who had never served in the U.S. Army and he served throughout the war, serving with distinction, and went home to nothing.

Most of the soldiers drafted had no means to pay for a substitute or did not have the political connections to escape it. Interestingly one of the notable exemptions to the Confederate Draft were the men who were exempted because they owned more than ten slaves or worked for someone that owned more than 20 slaves. This was known as the Twenty Slave Rule, which was modified in Draft Law of 1864 to 15 slaves. As you can imagine many poor Whites who owned no slaves found the rule to be quite unjust, but this kind of privilege is just that, quite unjust.

As a result the conscripts were frequently abused by the willing volunteers and their commanders, and frequently deserted. When found, most were summarily executed following a Drumhead Trial. As the war became more desperate, deserters were summarily executed without any trial. Hundreds of deserters from the Army of Northern Virginia were executed in the last months of the war by the direct order of Robert E. Lee simply because they were trying to go home to their families who had been displaced by the advance of Sherman’s army in Georgia and the Carolinas. These men were victims of the war and secessionist leaders as much as anyone. If you read some of their letters they are heartbreaking.

All of those who volunteered to serve the Confederate cause were traitors. But the men who had previously been officers in the United States Army or Navy, or in high Federal office, were far worse, because they broke their oath of office. No-matter their reason for serving the Confederacy, none of their their gallantry as soldiers, battlefield heroics, leadership skills, or tactical brilliance matters because they were traitors to the United States. Yes they were Americans, and many had served honorably before the Civil War, but that makes them no less traitors.

After the war a some of the survivors reconciled with the Union, and openly opposed the growing myth of the Lost Cause, and took no part in subsequent violence or in implementing discriminatory measures against the now free Blacks. Among the most prominent of these men were Lee’s lieutenants James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, John Mosby, and Billy Mahone. I have little doubt that A.P. Hill would have joined them had he not been killed in action at the end of the war. Following the war Hill’s widow opposed Jubal Early and other proponents of the Lost Cause.

Longstreet, received a pardon and his citizenship with the help of the Radical Republicans who were most vocal in terms of Reconstruction, and he announced his support for the election of Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 election. For this he was condemned by many former Confederates. He received an appointment as Surveyor of Customs New Orleans. In 1872 he was appointed as head of the Louisiana Militia, by the Republican Governor. In 1873 he sent troops to stop the threat of an attack on the majority Black town of Colfax, but they arrived a day after several hundred members of the White League committed what is now known as the Colfax Massacre. In 1874 he led the New Orleans Police, and local militia, including Blacks to defend the temporary capital against a force of more than 8,400 members of the White League, which outnumbered his force by more than two to one. The action became known as the Battle of Liberty Place by opponents of Reconstruction and White Supremacists. During the action he was wounded, his men defeated and Grant sent in Federal troops to restore order. The supporters of the Lost Cause despised him because he told the truth when they claimed that States Rights, not Slavery. Longstreet on hearing this, said “I never heard of any other cause of the quarrel than slavery.” Longstreet in word and deed proved his loyalty. Despite the fact he was one of the corps commanders in American history, and stood for what was right after the war he did not get a Fort named after him.

Robert E. Lee himself did reconcile and opposed the use of the Confederate flags, uniforms, and monuments, after the war, but still held very racist views and never apologized for his actions. I will explore Lee’s actions during the secession crisis, during, and after the war the at a later time because for the most part they are neither honorable or noble.

Interestingly, very few monuments, except those on battlefields are dedicated to these men in the South, except for Robert E. Lee who ironically wanted no part of them. Nor are there monuments in the South to Southern officers who remained loyal to the Union during the war including Generals Winfield Scott, George Thomas, John Buford, John Gibbon, Montgomery Miegs, and Admiral David Farragut.

Likewise there is another class of men who have to be considered when dealing with the Monument Controversy. These were the political leaders whose actions led directly to the deaths of three quarters of a million men, including hundreds of thousands of Southern men, and the destruction of much of the South. How even the most devoted Southerner who wants to honor their soldiers can tolerate monuments to these political leaders who got so many of them killed  in their back yards is beyond me. These were also the men who ensured that primary reason for secession given in their various articles of secession for each state was preserving and expanding slavery, while maintaining white superiority. As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens noted in his Cornerstone Speech:

“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

There is a final group that needs to be considered. These were Confederate veterans, including notables like General Nathan Bedford Forrest, as well as men who did not serve in the war who joined paramilitaries such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts, and the White Leagues, that terrorized and killed newly free blacks, sometimes destroying whole towns or neighborhoods in the process.  There were others politicians, turned soldiers, and went into politics again who established the Black Codes. These were pre-Jim Crow laws that placed many former slaves into a form of slavery by other means, imprisoning them and making them forced laborers on plantations, and businesses, many owned by Northerners.

Racism and slavery was at the heart of the war, and it proved to be not just a Southern problem. Many Northern businesses and banks had a strong financial interest in slavery, and there was a strong anti-war, pro-Confederate movement, known as the Copperheads in the North that fully approved of slavery, the post-war Black Codes, and Jim Crow. Likewise there were many Northerners who were just as racist as any Southerner, before, during and after the war. There were and are still are some  Sundown Towns, though they don’t openly say so, in the North and states that were never a part of the Confederacy. In no way can all Northerners be fully excused from the crime of slavery, nor can many be absolved of being as racist any pro-slavery Confederate or Jim Crow proponent. Some of these men have monuments built in their honor which likewise should be examined if we are going to talk about the Confederate monuments.

As to the monuments themselves, the vast majority were erected after the Plessy v. Ferguson case that legalized the Jim Crow Laws and empowered the movement to disenfranchise blacks, to fire them from positions in Federal and State governments, and to use violence against Blacks to keep them in line. Almost all of the monuments which were erected between 1895 and 1930 were put up not to honor the men who served but to remind Blacks of their status. The same is true of the next major surge of monument building which occurred during the Civil Rights movement, again to demonstrate to Blacks that they were subordinate to Whites, and many of these monuments were erected in places where no Confederate soldiers came from, and others which commemorate men who committed terrorist acts and murder against Blacks in the years after the war. In many case these monuments are located in cities and towns that are heavily African American. Two of these are no far from where I live in Norfolk and Portsmouth Virginia. They have different histories which I think leads to a discussion about their context.

Context and Placement Matter

Alexander Pope wrote “Monuments, like men, submit to fate.” 

Instead of going directly into what I think should be done with these monuments but think that a little bit more background and context is necessary. That context is best put in the difference between history and memory. History, is made by people because it has real world effects cannot be erased because for good or bad its effects always are with us. Memory on the other hand is often selective and tends toward sentimentally, or our sense of anger, or grief  over over past losses or the loss of a mythological past.  Because of that, memory often leads to the preservation of things that provide us with a certain sense of comfort, or things that buttress our innate sense of superiority and desire for revenge.

Statues and monuments themselves have to be taken in their historical context: especially what they meant to the people that erected them and the era in which they were constructed. From time immemorial people and nations have erected statues and monuments to dieties, empowers, kings, generals, and yes, even philosophers and historians. They have also sought to commemorate the lives of soldiers who died in various wars, in part to honor their dead, as did the ancient Athenians at Kerameikos, but more often to build upon a sense of national myth and purpose, to link the sacrifices of yesterday’s leaders, or soldiers to their current generation’s political, social, and even spiritual urges.

Some religions like Judaism and Islam have traditionally frowned upon the erection of statues and images that represented their dieties, their saints, or their leaders, fearing that such images could lead to idolatry. There was even a constroversy in the Christian Church, the Iconoclast Controversywhich dealt with the issues of statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or Saints which took more than a hundred years to resolve.

In Western society, especially since the Romans there has been a conscious attempt by nations to built statues and monuments to their leaders and other men, as women seldom rated such honor, whether the men actually deserved honor or not. As such there are monuments across Europe in prominent places to honor men with political, social, hereditary, or economic connections. Often when compared to their contemporaries, or others, before or after them, did little to be heirs to such honor. This does not mean that they were necessarily bad people, or even unworthy of the honor of their time, but rather that they are undeserving of perpetual honor in the most public of locations, or in places unconnected with where they made their name.

Cemeteries and museums are the best places for statues which have past their effective life in the public square. Removing them from places of honor does nothing to harm history, nor does it write them out of history. I like how the Old Testament writers of the books of the Kings and Chronicles end their discussions of the kings of Israel and Judah. They note that these men’s lives and deeds, good and evil, are written about and where they were buried to be with their ancestors. An example of the is Jehu, one of the kings of Israel in the book of Second Kings: “Now the rest of the acts of Jehu, all that he did, and all his power, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel?”

Since the Jews of the Old Testament did not build statues to their leaders for fear of idolatry, they ensured through the oral, and later the written tradition that these leaders, the good and the bad, were remembered for their work and contributions, as well as their failures. The Islamic tradition is quite similar.

The ancient Greeks, particularly those of Athens chose to use the cemetery as a place to remember their dead. In dedicating the Mount Auburn Cemetery during the Greek revival, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story noted:

“The Greeks exhausted the resources of their exquisite art in adorning the habitations of the dead. They discouraged internments within the limits of their cities; and consigned their relics to shady groves, in the neighborhood of murmuring streams and merry fountains, close by the favorite resorts of those who were engaged in the study of philosophy and nature, and called them, with the elegant expressiveness of their own beautiful language, cemeteries or “places of repose.”

Cemeteries are always places where the dead can be honored or remembered, and where their descendants can find comfort and even sense the presence of their departed ancestors.

But the public square is another matter. Times change, societies change, governments and systems of governmental change. The statues that the early colonists of the British American colonies erected to King George III after the French and Indian War, had no place in the new republic and were removed. Monuments to Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin where removed from their places of prominence in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania once those countries escaped Soviet domination. After the Second World War, the new Federal Republic of Germany banned any monuments to Nazi Leaders as well as the use or display of Nazi paraphernalia. Instead, resisters to the Nazis, as well as the victims of the Nazis have been honored and remembered, especially those killed in the Holocaust. Since reunification Germany has continued to honor the victims and resistors much to the new generation of Germans born in the former East who know little about the evil of the Nazis and seek to follow their example.

However, when a monument is located in prominent place it makes a statement about the values and character of the people who put it there and the times in which they lived. But as I said, times changes, as do societal values, and in the case of the cause of the Civil War, so do views on race and the value of other human beings.

Statues in public places dedicated to specific individuals or events tend to have a shelf life, which means that they regardless of who they are dedicated, to need to be periodically re-examined in the light of history to see if they should remain in their current place of honor or be moved to a different location.

But, the United States is a comparatively young country, our oldest monuments are likewise comparatively new, and many pale in comparison to those of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In those areas multiple civilizations and empire have risen and fallen, massive monuments have been erected, toppled, or faded away. Many surviving monuments now are in museums, in collections of antiquity representing fallen civilizations, or have been moved from places of honor and replaced by ones that more appropriately represent the current national culture and experience.

As we approach the first quarter millenium of our experiment as a republic it is a good time to look at what we have commemorated with monuments and make considered decisions about each of them, and not just Confederate monuments.

Obviously many, especially those that deal with our founding as a nation and our founders need to stay, but others should be replaced, or removed to more appropriate venues. In cases of monuments that memorialize the most shameful parts of our history, and men whose actions subjected others to inhuman treatment, and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands we do have options of what to do with them which now have to be exercised.

One option could be to leave them where they are and place other monuments and markers to explain the historical context and promote truthful history versus myth, as we have with men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  In both cases we honor the good but we own up to other things about them.

Another option is to remove them, but what replaces them should be well thought out. This actually goes beyond the monuments themselves. Our actions have to do with history, historical preservation, and the narrative that a community wants to communicate about its history, its values, and yes, even its future. Whatever replaces the monuments we replaced, for good or bad in the long run, are part of what bind generations together, or drives them apart.

A third option is destroying them,  especially those dedicated to men who were evil, or represented evil causes. In the case of many of the relatively generic mass produced monuments to Confederates during the Plessy v. Ferguson and Civil Rights Era, the monuments were not placed to honor long dead soldiers but to stick a finger in the eyes of Blacks, and defy those who called for more than emancipation, but true equality.

It think in the case of truly evil men that their statues and monuments should be placed in poorly kept parks, at eye level with other statues like them. This allows people to view them not as exalted figures, but as for their littleness and evil.  A number of Eastern European countries have done this with statues of Stalin, Lenin, and others from the Soviet era.

But the generic mass produced ones are another matter. They are of no particular quality, their value only in reminding Blacks that they are despised.They should be removed, and if someone wants them as a backyard ornament, or if someone wants them to stand guard over the graves of Confederate dead as they lay in repose. That may be the best option, but there are so many of them.

The placement or monuments is of more importance than their existence, and their contexts matter. Honore De Balzac noted: “With monuments as with men, position means everything.

Removal, Relocation, Preservation, or Destruction: What Now?

It is interesting to see how memory and myth cloud history when it comes to monuments, especially those to the Southern Confederacy. This confederacy that was described by its Vice President, former US Senator Alexander Stephens in these words:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” 

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who so many monuments are dedicated was not happy with his Vice President’s remarks. This was not because he didn’t believe them himself,  but because Stephens honesty could hurt the cause of the Confederacy abroad. Davis knew that France and Britain had to recognize and support the Confederacy was to survive.  He noted:

“That speech infuriated me, Oh, what Stephens had said was true, perfectly true, but could anything hurt us more abroad than such impolitic remarks? It was the beginning of a fatal falling out between me and that rebellious and vindictive dwarf, who was hell-bent on forming his own policies and disputing mine with niggardly deviousness.” 

How President Trump’s closest advisors, who tend to be better read than him, cannot understand the purely Machiavellian words of Jefferson Davis is beyond me. How they think that openly proclaiming racism is harmful to their policies and political goals is beyond me. Likewise how the President can tweet it or repeat them can only be described in three ways: he is no political genius, he is completely ignorant of history, or that he really is the embodiment of evil. I don’t see any other choices.

The sad fact is that the vast majority of the Confederate monuments, wherever located, were not built to honor the several hundred thousand Confederate dead; but rather to remind Blacks that they were subordinate to Whites, wherever the were erected. They are monuments to White Supremacy, racism, and to intimidate Blacks in the public square.

This is most evident by looking the periods during which they were constructed, eras in which discrimination, intimidation, and violence against Blacks was predominant. Very few were built in the first two decades following the war, but the first big surge in construction came in the aftermath of Plessy v. Ferguson in the 1890s the although some of those, including the monument which was for the most part destroyed in Portsmouth, Virginia last night were funded  by the wives, mothers, and children of the fallen; were not erected until the 1890s as every right of Blacks was stripped away, not just in the South, but in the entire United States.

Honestly I cannot understand why any of these monuments remain where they are some 155  years later, unless the context of their construction and monuments or historical narratives to the victims of the Confederacy and the institution of Souther Slavery are placed alongside. I am hard pressed to explain why they remain in places of honor. Instead if displayed they should be displayed as symbols of shame next to monuments dedicated to the victims of slavery, and those who fought to destroy it, along with historical exhibits that show the depth of the evil of the era and the suffering or the victims, as otherwise good people watched everything and did nothing.

But most memorials to the Confederate dead memorials, the very few that were built other than expressions of White Supremacy are a tiny minority. Most of the Confederate monuments that spark such freak show of White grievance today were erected anywhere from 30 to 150 years after the war.

The periods that they were built are interesting of themselves. The biggest spike in construction began in the immediate aftermath of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that legalized Jim Crow and the second during the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement beginning around 1948. The chart below provides a good representation of when the Confederate monuments were built.

As I mentioned I think that each monument should be examined based on its historical merit. Since the vast majority of these monuments happen to be from the days of the Confederate resurgence after Plessy and at the height of the Dixiecrat response to the Civil Rights movement beginning after Brown v. Board of Education which overturned Plessy in 1954, there is nothing redeeming in the vast majority of them.

So I am going to use the example of the monuments in Hampton Roads area as a teaching point.

In the Commonwealth Virginia where I live, there were 223 Confederate monuments standing at the time of Charlottesville, the most of any state. That is in a sense understandable due to it being the largest state in the Confederacy as well as the site of its capital. There are three major public monuments located in South Hampton Roads as well as a number of monuments in local cemeteries throughout the area.

The one located in Portsmouth is the oldest and the most interesting from a historical point of view. Planning and fund raising for it began in the late 1860s shortly after the war and it was dedicated on the site where slaves were whipped and punished in the town square. It was dedicated in 1893. The head of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter say that it was placed there when a church where it was planned to be located backed out. I do not know the veracity of that claim. That being said the location is still problematic, especially since Portsmouth has been a large Black population,  and many of the Black families in Portsmouth trace their roots to the slaves of the city’s ante-bellum times.

The monument itself was, before its destruction last night most interesting monuments that I have seen. It is an imposing sight in the old court square. At its center is an obelisk on which is inscribed To Our Confederate Dead. The obelisk is surrounded by four statues representing an infantryman, a cavalryman, an artillleryman, and a sailor. It was one of the most impressive Confederate monuments I have seen, but despite the fact that it was funded by war widows and their families, it could not remain in place. It stood in the place where slaves were auctioned and a block from where they were held in deplorable conditions until they were auctioned off like cattle.

Three years ago I thought it be would fitting if the monument was moved in its entirety to a cemetery in the city where Confederate war dead are buried. It could be replaced by any number of monuments, perhaps one to the Portsmouth’s war dead from the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, and the current wars which have been going on since 2001, or maybe even better a monument to the victims of slavery, the Black Codes, and Jim Crow with an adjoining historical and research center. The Germans do this with concentration camps. However after it was shattered on June 10th, I think that it it is time for it to be removed. I think that if its supporters want they can pay for it to have dismantled, removed,  and restored so it can be displayed in a private location out of public view, they can. However, I think that maybe the city to move it to a less prominent position and leave it the way it is as a reminder to future generations, with an explanation of where it stood and why it stood there. It would kind of be like the preserved remnants of the Berlin Wall.


Norfolk’s monument is another case in point. After Portsmouth’s monument was destroyed, Norfolk’s Mayor announced that the statue crowning it would be removed in 24 hours weather permitting, and that the monument it stood on would be removed within two weeks. I wish that Portsmouth had the sense to do that in 2017, or even two weeks ago. The statue was removed today and the rest of the monument will follow.

Norfolk’s monument, where is, or is soon to be was, located within a block of where Norfolk’s slave auctions took place, the slave jail, and  slave infirmary  were located, and but a few blocks from the docks where slaves were shipped to other destinations in the South. This is important because Norfolk was the leading port in the slave trade from about the 1830s until the outbreak of the Civil War, and that was not because of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but to the trafficking of slaves already born in the United States.

The monument was over 80 feet tall. When it was built it towered over the city. In the years since it still occupied a prominent position in the center of the city, but now has been dwarfed by massive towers representing banks, businesses, and hotels. It was capped by the figure of a defiant Confederate soldier holding a sword and the Confederate flag, nicknamed Johnny Reb. At its base are engravings of the Confederate Battle Flag and a dedication to Our Confederate Dead. It was lake the others aWhite Supremacy. The city should make a prudent and well informed decision of what to do with it.


In Virginia Beach the Confederate Monument is outside the old Princess Anne County Courthouse where slave auctions were held, and which is on the grounds of the current Virginia Beach Municipal complex. In older times it would have been seen by all entering the city hall or courts for any reason. It is over 20 feet tall and topped by the statue of a Confederate infantryman. Unlike the other monuments simply dedicated to the dead. Instead this one is dedicated to Our Confederate Heroes.

Now compared to the Norfolk or Portsmouth memorials it is in a distinctly less visible location and one has to go out of their way to find it. I think it could remain where it is but only if there was monument to the victims of slavery who were bought and sold there. That would provide appropriate context for it. However, there is something about being dedicated to Confederate Heroes which has no appropriate place in the public square. Its design is unremarkable. It was dedicated not long after Plessy v. Ferguson. Likewise, it was located where slave auctions were held in a county that provided very few soldiers to the Confederate cause. This it can only be interpreted one way, to remind people that Blacks are inferior. I think that it should be removed and destroyed as there is nothing that it commemorates, that is worth preserving, even in a museum or cemetery.

There is one other located in our area. It is in the Denbeigh section of Newport News, at site of the old Warwick County Courthouse. Denbeigh was named after the Denbeigh Plantation. When the county seat was moved to Newport News when Denbeigh and Warwick county were consolidated as the independent city of Newport News in 1958.

The courthouse is now a museum. The monument, which was dedicated in 1909 to the men of Company H, 32nd Virginia Infantry Regiment, stands outside the museum. The regiment, recruited from the Peninsula in early 1861 had a number of companies farmed out to the artillery was reconstituted as a small, 7 company regiment in 1862. It was decimated at Antietam and served to the end of the war with the Army of Northern Virginia where just five officers and forty-two enlisted men surrendered with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on April 9th 1865. Since this monument is dedicated to a specific unit which distinguished itself in numerous engagements, including Antietam, and Petersburg I think that relocating it to one of those battlefields where it fought would be completely appropriate. Leaving it in place is more problematic. The Newport News City Council decided to cover it until they could decide what to do and requests have been made for its removal.

All of these monuments served a twofold purpose. In the case of Portsmouth, it began with monetary donations from war widows and for a monument was to honor the fallen. By the time it was built that purpose was also mixed with the political desire of many whites to re-establish White Supremacy. As to monuments located in cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are interred it is only fitting that they remain where they are, those are the places of their repose. My only objection would be to displays of the Confederate Battle Flag in those cemeteries.

As to what should be done with each monument there are options, but what can actually be done with them are dictated by State Laws which stipulates that localities can erect monuments like the former law of Virginia which stipulated that the state cannot “disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.” That was problem for the Virginia legislature finally changed the law. Last week Virginia’s Governor, Ralph Northam ordered the monument to Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Boulevard be removed. His order was temporarily stayed by a Federal District Judge after objections by a avowed Confederate sympathizer currently running for office in Northern Virginia.

As a historian I think that all of these monuments can serve as teaching points. Likewise,  whatever is done with them has to be the to context of the context of when and why they were erected in relation to slavery, and White Supremacy. Additionally, the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow needs to be clarified as part of teaching history and in the process of expunging the myths of the Lost Cause and the Noble South from the historical narrative.

I want to make a couple of points. First I do not think it is wrong for the relatives and descendants of those who fell in any war to want to remember them, but that should not be these memorials. I have traveled throughout Europe and I have seen the monuments in city squares Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany. These monuments list the names of the war dead of those towns in wars dating back to the Napoleonic era and before and many are in churchyard cemeteries.  Even if I disagree wth the cause that they fought for I will not forbid their descendants to honor their memory, even if I for reasons of conscience refuse to honor the military service of my ancestors who rebelled against the United States in 1861. I may carry their blood and DNA, and they will remain part of my heritage, but I cannot honor or memorialize the cause for which they fought.

I think that the remaining Confederate monuments serve no purpose where they are. I have described what I think would be best done with the ones in our local era. But they have to be replaced. I would suggest that they be replaced by monuments to victims of slavery, the unwilling conscripts pressed into service of an immoral and inhuman cause, and those who opposed that cause, before, during, and after the war, and learning centers staffed by trained historians and archivists who are not out to promote the Noble South and Lost Cause myths.

Norfolk’s monument is in the process of being removed, Portsmouth’s, now mostly destroyed, should be removed. I have already discussed the Virginia Beach and Newport News monuments, the fates of which are yet to be decided. The same is true for many other of the Confederate monuments throughout the South. In the last two weeks But, at the same time we have to address the monuments to Confederate leaders which built during the same time period as these generic representations of Confederate soldiers. The fact is that the leaders of the Confederate rebellion against the United States are much more responsible for the deaths of three quarters of a million soldiers and the devastation of the South than any ordinary soldier. These leaders include the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, secessionist politicians like Henry Benning and military leaders like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Braxton Bragg. I see little reason for monuments to men who were responsible for such great suffering to remain in places of honor.

But honestly even this is not enough. We have to remove the the monuments or do something to explain their presence. Likewise, in order to do justice, we have to fully tell the story of the victims of slavery, the Black Codes, and “Southern Justice.” Likewise, we have to also honor the Southern Unionists like George Thomas, Montgomery Meigs and Winfield Scott who did not forsake their oaths the the country, and remember men like Robert E. Lee’s lieutenants James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, Billy Mahone, and John Mosby who fully reconciled to the Union, supported the rights of Blacks, and who were deomonized and then written out of Southern history by the proponents of the Lost Cause.

So anyway, monuments to the Confederacy, its leaders, and those in other parts of the country dedicated to others of questionable merit, must be held to the bar of history, otherwise we mock all of their victims by keeping them in the public square long after their time is up. We will also really look hard at schools, highways, streets, named after the leaders of the Confederacy.

I will deal with the Forts tomorrow.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under civil rights, civil war, historic preservation, History, News and current events, Political Commentary, racism, war crimes

5 responses to “Statues With Limitations: Time to Take Them Down

  1. ajc

    Maybe real history should be taught in school. The statutes reflect a part of history but should be removed because they remind people of the injustice inflicted on so many. Such a dark time. Maybe put them in a special museum like the english do showing their past cruel history Not out in public as if they represented glorious history, just history. ajc

  2. Fantastic post, a great read and important reminder of systemic historical misconceptions.

  3. Plimsoll

    Great post, as I read it though I realized that you made a case for preserving those monuments. If they were prepared to say that they were idols to their religion, tearing them down might be prohibited on ground of it violating their religious freedom. I know this should cause a conflict, being notionally Christian and all, but obviously they either have white supremacy as their creed, or they are practicing ancestor worship.

    • padresteve

      Thank you for your comments. Of course I was very specific in where and what context they should be preserved, if at all. The mass produced ones are little better that backyard decorations. There are some that might be preserved in museums with appropriate context that deals with why they were placed and and the issues of White Supremacy, racism, and the systematic attempt to eliminate Blacks from public life, before, during and after the Civil War right up until today. The few that depict real men who served as soldiers, could be placed on national or state battlefields if a private group wants to spend the money to first get permission, and then working with historians determine where and how to display them. Of course as to the Christians of today, few actually pay attention to what they say and do politically or socially in terms of actual faith, the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, or Church history. It is a sad state of affairs.

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