by Robin Traywick Williams
It is dangerous these days to advocate for anything even tangentially associated with the words “Confederate,” but after almost three years of monument-bashing, it might be worth discussing where this is going. In addition to Lee, Stuart and nameless soldiers on courthouse lawns, Columbus, Lincoln, and Juniper Serra have all fallen. Will the country take a deep breath and consider whether significant works of art bear saving because of their historical and cultural value or will self-appointed arbiters of righteous thinking move on, unrestrained, to burning Monticello and imploding the slave-built White House?
The Naming Commission has submitted its final report, and not surprisingly, it recommends the renaming or removal from military installations of every item related to the Civil War, down to the last toenail clipping. The panel of eight political appointees was nothing if not thorough, finding offense even in the use of the color gray on military insignia as well as in the name of a Confederate horse.
Renaming bases and removing prints of Civil War battles is one thing—the hallowed ground of Ft. Benning will remain, and there are thousands of reproduction prints—but the Commission has taken the astonishing step of recommending the demolition of a culturally and historically important work of art by an internationally-renowned artist—in Arlington Cemetery, no less.
On the block is the Confederate Memorial to Reconciliation and Reunification, which is on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing part of the Arlington National Cemetery Historic District. Created by one of America’s most celebrated artists, Sir Moses Ezekiel, the monument was endorsed by four presidents and dedicated by Woodrow Wilson at an event attended by veterans of the North and South, who shook hands and embraced.
The monument recognizes an important moment in the evolution of the history of America, the spiritual and emotional reconciliation of two regions that had fought bitterly 50 years earlier. Although the country was technically reunified in 1865, the heavy hand of Reconstruction made reconciliation challenging, as Southerners struggled to rebuild their war-torn states under steep federal burdens. But in 1898, the sons and grandsons of Confederate soldiers joined the U.S. Army in large numbers to help fight the Spanish-American War. President McKinley, himself a Union veteran, saw an opportunity to bind up the nation’s wounds with a generous show of gratitude towards the South. Congress concurred, and provision was made for proper treatment of Confederate graves, including re-interment of hundreds in Section 16 of Arlington Cemetery.
Ezekiel’s impressive monument, designed in his Italian workshop, was part of this effort. Topped by a female figure wearing an olive wreath, holding a pruning hook and leaning on a plowshare and surrounded by dignified human figures representative of the Southern experience, the monument forms an integral part of the design of the Confederate section. As such, it is part of an open-air museum. Among various inscriptions on the monument are the words: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Ezekiel, a Jewish VMI graduate and a veteran himself, is buried at the foot of the monument with three others, making his chef d’oeuvre his grave marker as well.
One important tool we have for understanding the past is to study contemporaneous art. The towering figure of a woman signifying “peace” on top sends a powerful message. The figures girdling the base are all peacefully linked. The monument was hailed all around as indicative of the much-wished-for future of sectional comity. Destroying it dishonors the veterans who embraced reconciliation and desecrates the surrounding graves.
So powerful was the feeling of reconciliation that Arlington Memorial Bridge, built in the same era, was purposefully laid out to connect the Lincoln Memorial with Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s wife’s former home, as another symbol of national reconciliation. Ironically, the bridge has just received a multi-million-dollar restoration, while the namesake monument is scheduled for a multi-million-dollar demolition.
You don’t have to love the Confederacy to realize that destroying a monument to peace and reconciliation after the most wrenching event in our nation’s history is wrong.
Historians, art critics and everyday people continuously debate their interpretations of art and history. Original source material is critical to those debates. That is why we put such a premium on historic preservation. But if historical artifacts are deliberately destroyed, the debate is cut short and a one-sided narrative is imposed.
Of course that is what the destroyers want. Government-sponsored demolition of this international work of art smacks of the primitive cleansing of history by authoritarian regimes like the Taliban and ISIS. Or the Chinese Communists.
Congress passed the act creating the innocuous-sounding Naming Commission at the height of the monument-bashing orgy and set up a process designed to reach the pre-determined outcome quickly, before anyone could have second thoughts. The Arlington Cemetery Advisory committee, which has some authority, refused even to take public comment, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin promptly approved the report (obligating $62 million in Pentagon funds). However, legal steps by DefendArlington.org are being taken in an attempt to force reconsideration.
Reaching for an excuse for this barbaric recommendation, the Naming Commission interprets the presentation of the figures around the base as a “sanitized” picture of slavery. But the monument is not about slavery, and perhaps that is the problem. For the commission and its adherents, everything is about slavery. It doesn’t serve their purposes to admit the complexity of events surrounding the Civil War, such as the North’s profiteering from the slave trade and slave-produced cotton and Lincoln’s commitment to preserving the Union. In their narrative, slavery was an exclusively Southern/Confederate thing, therefore all things Confederate must be expunged—as if that would solve modern problems. Such a simplistic view does a great disservice to the country as we grapple with the lingering impacts of the era.
Art is controversial. Our nation’s history is controversial. Both should be open for debate, but as with other issues, one faction would like to impose its own interpretation on everyone else. Americans are tired of tribalism and the hatred and division that it fosters. The Civil War veterans who helped dedicate the monument proved the country could be reunited and move forward. Too bad citizens of the 21st century want to go backwards.
Robin Traywick Williams is a Virginia author and journalist.