Extirpation of Memory

by Donald Smith

In deciding which Confederate iconography should remain visible at the Virginia Military Institute, the school’s Commemorations and Memorials Naming and Review sub-committee (CMNRC) identified four major items of commemoration to Stonewall Jackson at the Main Post. Most famously, there was the statue sculpted by VMI alumnus  and Battle of New Market veteran Moses Ezekiel, but Jackson’s name appears  on Memorial Hall, while his name is engraved on an arch at the Old Barracks, while a quote attributed to him is also displayed there.

This past November the Board of Visitors (B0V) voted to remove the statue. In May it approved the removal of drastic alteration of the other three items.

The criteria that drove these decisions appear in this document, Finding Meaning in the Landscape and Criteria By Which To Assess It.

A comparison of key passages from that CMNRC document and the Board of Visitors’ decision raises many questions.

Take the following passage, for example:

Over the history of the Institute, [its] landscape has been formed with the cadet in mind. The buildings, monuments, and statues are subtle and silent teachers; reminders of the values and character expected of a VMI cadet.

If the “buildings, monuments, and statues are subtle and silent teachers; reminders of the values and character expected of a VMI cadet,” then is VMI (or the external forces acting upon it) sending a message that Stonewall Jackson’s value and character are suspect, or deficient? Is his legacy something unworthy of respect on VMI’s Main Post?

Should we infer from this latest set of decisions on Jackson iconography that people in authority at VMI are really concerned that the simple sight of his name on an arch, or a building, might be detrimental to a VMI cadet?

Let us remember that the most recent round of cancellations… sorry, modifications…  were approved in May, months after his statue was banished… sorry again, relocated to New Market. Moving his statue 70 miles away wasn’t enough? Why not?

Then there’s this:

Much in the same manner that the curriculum is continually reviewed for relevance and academic integrity, we must ensure that the lessons offered by the landscape address the needs of the current and future Corps of Cadets.

How does Jackson’s legacy not “address the needs” of current and future cadets? Exactly who decided that Jackson’s name on an arch and a building might harm modern-day cadets?

When African-American graduate Ron Carter told The Washington Post that his “generation just had thicker skin” and that today’s college-age people “take [things} more personally,” should we infer that he was correct?

Does Jackson’s name on a building and an arch offer “lessons” that are so toxic that they have to be removed?  Old Barracks is, after all, a National Historic Landmark. Shouldn’t VMI have to have very, very compelling reasons before dramatically altering a National Historical Landmark?

Jackson’s name is carved in stone. You’ll probably need a jackhammer to remove it. Are we really willing to take a jackhammer to a National Historical Landmark?

(Did the Taliban have a representative on the CMNRC?)

And there’s this:

The charge of the…sub-committee is to review landscape features that have taken on questionable meaning in contemporary society.

Who defines what is “questionable?” What is the threshhold for questionability?  If a small group of activists who know how to work politicians and the press can generate enough of a furor to make a landscape feature “questionable,” then we should all invest in statue-moving companies.

A person selected for veneration by an earlier generation may have held beliefs or practices no longer acceptable in modern society.

If all signs of Jackson have to be erased because he owned slaves, then what parts of America’s pre-Civil War heritage can we honor? (Besides the New England abolitionists, that is).

If Jackson’s beliefs and practices are so egregious that moving his statue wasn’t enough — what happens if that principle gets applied to other great Americans?  George Washington not only owned slaves; he refused to use his influence to force the Founding Fathers to eschew slavery in the Declaration of Independence. George C. Marshall, as Secretary of State, led the opposition in the Truman administration to the U.S. recognizing the state of Israel –recognition that was instrumental to not only Israel’s emergence as a nation, but its actual survival in its turbulent early years.

A person selected for veneration by an earlier generation may have held beliefs or practices no longer acceptable in modern society. Such contradictions must be weighed in view of the honored person’s over-all contribution to society and the purpose, or intent, of the original veneration.

When asked why signs of Jackson’s legacy on VMI Main Post had to be reevaluated (and perhaps altered or removed), the VMI communications office said that there was a perceived need to tone down visible reminders of the “Stonewall” persona on Main Post. The VMI superintendent said essentially the same thing on April 9th.

Well, removing the statue did that. Why are these further alterations necessary? Why is it necessary to take a jackhammer to a National Historic Landmark?

Does VMI’s leadership believe feel that “the original veneration” of Stonewall Jackson on Main Post was in error? That would explain the latest round of alterations to Jackson iconography- — alterations that essentially remove all signs of a great general, a good man and a dedicated (if mediocre) teacher from Main Post. The only monument left that mentions him prominently is the one for the Jackson-Hope Medal. Perhaps the only thing that will save that memorial is the fact that Hope was British. Hauling it away might generate some unwelcome calls from the British Embassy or the BBC.

I’ll stipulate that some of the past adulation of Jackson at VMI, and of the Confederacy, was over the top. But the proper response to an excessive, over-the-top action isn’t an excessive, over-the-top reaction. Yes, VMI did need to reckon with Jackson’s legacy. But, reckoning with a legacy is one thing. Erasing it is something else entirely.

Donald Smith, a University of Virginia graduate, is following VMI’s treatment of Stonewall Jackson’s legacy.