by Catesby Leigh
Beautifully landscaped with ample medians and harmoniously lined with gracious houses in various historic styles, Richmond, Virginia’s block-paved Monument Avenue and its several statuary tributes to Confederate leaders were once recognized as a triumph of American urban design. The residential frontages served admirably as a variegated frame for the monuments, creating a superb urban tableau that it made no sense to eradicate—especially as the monuments lost ideological currency with the passage of time, as monuments often do.
But after the mayhem triggered by George Floyd’s fatal arrest in Minneapolis in May 2020, the 14 blocks of the avenue comprising a National Historic Landmark District present a sorry spectacle. Bare pedestals, with the vandals’ graffiti not entirely washed away, stand on the avenue’s median. Statues of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the cavalry commander J. E. B. Stuart, Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and the world-renowned oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, who played an inconspicuous role in the Confederate war effort, are gone—victims of fanaticism fueled by Twitter slogans drawing, in turn, on national-guilt and systemic-racism narratives in which Americans have been increasingly indoctrinated.
The magnificent bronze equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee still stands at the center of a turfed circle 200 feet wide that is Monument Avenue’s principal node and was the point of departure for its creation at the end of the nineteenth century. But the monument’s majestically rusticated, 40-foot-tall granite pedestal has been hideously defaced by Black Lives Matter agitators’ spray-painting. The circle, previously enclosed within a ring of heavily graffitied jersey barriers, and, since January, within an additional ring of chain-link fencing eight feet tall, degenerated into an anarchists’ playground last year. The New York Times Style Magazine has perversely hailed the monument’s nihilistic “transformation” as the most influential work of “protest art” since World War II.
Located in the Confederacy’s capital, Monument Avenue was the South’s most important venue for commemoration of the Lost Cause. The quality of its statuary was of a distinctly higher order than the many undistinguished, often cheaply mass-produced “Silent Sentinel” statues of lone Confederate soldiers, standing at parade rest in front of many a courthouse portico—not to mention Stone Mountain, Georgia’s huge, kitschy relief of Lee, Jackson, and Davis on horseback.
While Americans overwhelmingly deplore the vandalization or destruction of statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass and other abolition advocates, as well as figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary, Confederate monuments have a far more precarious hold on public affections. In recent years—and particularly during Donald Trump’s presidency—they have become increasingly controversial in the South itself. Since the BLM protests erupted, dozens of these monuments have been banished from courthouse squares, parks, and other public spaces, from the Carolinas to Texas—in small towns as well as big cities.
In Virginia, which has seen the most dramatic outburst of defacement and officially sanctioned removal of monuments of any state, opinion has been split on the fate of the Confederate landmarks. A September 2020 Associated Press poll found 46 percent of Virginians in favor of removal and 42 percent opposed, with a margin of error of 4 percent. While the South leans red on the whole, Virginia is blue. And despite years of mass-media vilification of all things Confederate, and Virginia Republicans generally treating the monuments issue like kryptonite, the state has seen nothing like a solid consensus supporting removal. That hasn’t prevented politicians like Virginia governor Ralph Northam and Richmond mayor Levar Stoney from getting with the iconoclastic program. The legality of their efforts is dubious in Richmond’s case. But while the damage will almost certainly not be reversed where most of the city’s Confederate statues are concerned, Northam’s June 2020 order for the removal of the Lee equestrian is another matter.
For the record, I have Confederates in my attic, including a great uncle on my father’s side who served as a private in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and was killed at 18 and, on my mother’s, a great-great grandfather who directed the strategically vital Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond before, during, and after the Civil War. For my money, two quotations from Wilfred McClay’s fine history of the United States, Land of Hope, serve as a useful point of departure when pondering the fate of Confederate monuments.
The first is Gettysburg hero Joshua Chamberlain’s recollection of the scene in April 1865 when Lee’s men surrendered their weapons and banners: “Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”
The second quote is from another Yankee, an old soldier asked why he had taken up arms against the British at Concord decades before: “Young man, what we meant going for those red-coats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
Some Confederate monuments—such as those to Lee, Jackson, and Stuart on Monument Avenue—represent acts of homage rendered to revered commanders, plain and simple. But those two quotations encapsulate the message that Southerners, especially Southern women grouped in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, wished to convey in many of the hundreds of Confederate memorials that they erected in the public square, mostly between 1890 and 1920: that the South’s Lost Cause, no less than the American Revolution, was a valiant struggle for independence waged against an invading army.
We know that there is more to the story. We know that one Southern state after another, in proclaiming its secession from the Union, cited the threat to slavery posed by Lincoln’s election to the presidency as justification. If slavery is mentioned on a single Confederate pedestal, it would be news to me. What we do often encounter are belabored exercises in Lost Cause apologetics, as with Monument Avenue’s bombastic 1907 encomium to Jefferson Davis—over whose statue, with the right arm histrionically extended in oratorical appeal, loomed a deified Vindicatrix crowning a column 60 feet tall. On the Davis statue’s now-naked pedestal one can still read tributes such as this:
As citizen, soldier, statesman, he enhanced the glory and enlarged the fame of the United States. When his allegiance to that government was terminated by his sovereign state, as president of the Confederate States he exalted his country before the nations.
Maybe not. In any event, the ornate semicircular columnar screen that framed the statues of Davis and his vindicating goddess is still in place, terminating in piers once crowned by bronze urns brimming with banners and perched on martial implements. They’re gone. So are the piers’ bronze plaques, inscribed with lengthy tributes to the Confederate army and navy. It would be hard to find a monument that more ostentatiously reflected a region “so long trained to believing what it wanted to believe” or better embodied the old Southern penchant for the grandiose rhetorical gesture, as observed by W. J. Cash in his brilliant 1941 cultural study, The Mind of the South. It is a sign of the times that the Davis monument has been dismantled—his statue having been toppled by a mob on June 10 as police stood by, while the deity was removed weeks later by a construction crew retained by Stoney. Erected by the Daughters, the now-dismembered monument spoke volumes about Lost Cause panegyric and propaganda. And in aesthetic terms, it enriched the avenue’s physiognomy.
The South’s segregationist Jim Crow regime crumbled over half a century ago, and the first African-American mayor of Richmond (whose population is half black) assumed office in 1977. In the intervening decades, Monument Avenue has retained its function as a celebratory venue not just for Richmond but also for the surrounding region—a place for charity walks and marathons, Saturday morning jogging groups, bike races, moonlight bike rides, and an Easter festival with people promenading past porch parties and street vendors, on their way to the celebrated bonnet contest at the Lee Monument, where women young and old (and even some males of the species) have appeared in more or less hilarious headdress, sometimes accompanied by more or less hilariously attired canines. The statuary has served as an impressive backdrop for citizens of all races and threatened nobody.
to tell the whole story, or even the real story. That task belongs to historians. Monuments have always enshrined particular aspects of experience and elevated them to a symbolic, ideal, or mythic realm—an essentially artistic task—and for this reason, monuments can retain an aesthetic or cultural value that endures even after their mythic power has faded. They also retain historical value, as physical testaments to the loyalties, memories, convictions, or illusions of those who erected them. And, of course, as testaments to valor and fortitude that, in the case of Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, for example, are anything but mythical.
The devotees of politically correct iconoclasm would have us believe that Confederate monuments have no significance or value independent of the Jim Crow regime, which began taking root in the late 1870s, and that to defend their preservation is to defend white supremacy. That may apply to a coterie of far-right misfits. But on the whole the indictment is bunk. Monument Avenue was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997 for reasons having everything to do with culture and history and nothing to do with advocacy of white supremacy.
And yet, in Richmond itself, no effective opposition to the lawless destruction committed by Black Lives Matter, antifa and kindred groups, or the authorities’ capitulation to them, emerged last year. Business leaders kept silent even as numerous retail outlets and other private properties were attacked by vandals and arsonists. The day the Davis statue was hauled down, the publisher of the Richmond Times Dispatch, always a key figure in the city’s business community, issued a privilege-checking pronouncement that said nothing about the acute civil disorder and the authorities’ failure to enforce the law. “We believe Black Lives Matter,” he assured readers. “At the RTD, we have work to do. Our team is not diverse enough, but we are committed to changing that. . . . As a 60-something white male raised in a suburban setting, I am acutely aware how experiences must change to foster awareness.” It’s as if these people hoped the mob’s destructiveness would hasten a “progressive” rebranding of the River City. Meantime, some scholars and preservationists underwent conversion experiences inspiring fulsome approval of the monuments’ removal. Others remained silent. “I don’t want my house firebombed,” said one. In short, the mob’s chant—“Whose streets? Our streets!”—was no idle boast.
All told, a dozen statues or landmarks with Confederate associations were among those that came down in Richmond last June and July. A lofty Corinthian column on Libby Hill, principal landmark of the beautiful old Church Hill neighborhood in the city’s east end, is now bereft of its silent sentinel (1894), shown with his rifle and bayonet perched on a tree stump at his side. Across town, in a small plaza not far from Monument Avenue, the mob yanked a much finer work, a bronze statue of an artilleryman, off the pedestal of the Richmond Howitzers monument (1892). Somewhat reminiscent of the ancient Greek Doryphoros, or Spear-Bearer, the artilleryman was shown in uniform rather than nude, and clasping a tamper instead of a spear. Monument Avenue’s figurative but modernistic Maury monument (1929)—removed, like the Libby Hill sentinel, on Stoney’s orders—showed the seated scientist in mufti, with a swirlingly allegorical, multi-figured portrayal of storms and floods girding the base of the large globe above him.
As for Lee, he is mounted on a horse fortunately larger than Traveler, the rather diminutive equine he rode in real life. He holds his hat at his side and looks into the distance. The French sculptor Antonin Mercié modeled the statue making use of a death mask provided by Lee’s family. Like the Jackson (1919) and Stuart (1907) monuments, the Lee equestrian, inaugurated in 1890 before a crowd estimated at from 100,000 to 150,000 spectators, is devoid of Lost Cause apologetics. The inscription on its once-splendid pedestal consists of exactly one word: Lee. The statue has some paint on it but shows no sign of serious damage. Because the monument was deeded to the state along with the circle, this is the one Monument Avenue landmark Stoney could not remove. The year it was completed, Virginia’s governor, acting with the state legislature’s authorization, signed a deed that included the state’s “guarantee that she will hold [the Lee] statue and pedestal and circle of ground perpetually sacred to the monumental purpose to which they have been devoted and that she will faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.” Litigation over the Lee statue has now reached the Supreme Court of Virginia, which is unlikely to rule against Northam even though the way the state legislature went about approving his removal order is legally questionable. But because bedrock principles governing contracts are involved, the monument’s fate could wind up in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The removal of Confederate statues began to attract more support after a young racist psychopath, Dylan Roof, slaughtered nine African-American parishioners in a Charleston, S.C. church in 2015. The massacre was a major factor in New Orleans’s removal of its three principal Confederate monuments. But the future of Richmond’s only began to be seriously questioned after the violent confrontation between neo-Nazis and Klansmen and a far larger number of counter-protestors, including a significant antifa contingent, in the liberal college town of Charlottesville in August 2017. The white supremacists were rallying in defense of Charlottesville’s equestrian statue of Lee, which the city council had voted to remove. A 32-year-old woman was fatally struck when one of them drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters.
In the aftermath of the Charlottesville riot, then-Governor Terry McAuliffe acted to prevent a similar confrontation at the Lee monument in Richmond by signing an ordinance—which remains in effect, and which Northam, Stoney, and the police mainly honored in the breach during the BLM protests—that aside from limiting public gatherings at Lee Circle to 500 people, prohibited weapons or anything that could be used as a weapon, along with food, beverages, and any sort of encampment. The ordinance also prohibited climbing on the monument and imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew at the site.
In 2018, a blue-ribbon commission assigned by Stoney to review the status of Monument Avenue’s Confederate landmarks proposed removal of the Jefferson Davis monument and leaving the others in place with new signage providing historical context, plus a range of cultural and educational initiatives. The wisest, if not the wokest, course might have been to leave the avenue alone and offer exhibits including different perspectives on its commemorative art in the fine English Renaissance mansion, designed by John Russell Pope, adjacent to the Davis monument site. The mansion is now home to the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. In any event, and despite Stoney’s vehement denunciations of them, Richmond’s Confederate monuments seemed safe.
But not for long. Early in 2019, Northam’s medical school yearbook page from 35 years before with a photo showing one man in blackface and another in Klan garb turned up. Then his VMI yearbook page emerged, giving one of his two nicknames as “Coonman,” a racial slur. There were many calls for the governor’s resignation in the ensuing uproar. Northam weathered the storm, but he sought to repair the political damage by focusing on a racial-justice agenda. With a view to facilitating removal of Confederate monuments, he signed legislative amendments last year empowering cities to “remove, relocate, contextualize, or cover”—but not alter or destroy—war memorials. Thirty days’ public notice was required to permit citizens to submit their views at an open meeting.
Then came George Floyd’s death in police custody. It was the moment BLM and its allies had been waiting for. They certainly weren’t interested in observing the niceties of the new monuments legislation, not to speak of the McAuliffe ordinance concerning the Lee Monument. Nor, as it turned out, were Northam and Stoney.
Many of Monument Avenue’s well-heeled denizens were at first sympathetic to the demonstrators. And though BLM and its allies hardly mobilized the “mass protests” some have claimed, demonstrations did initially attract thousands of peaceful participants, black and white alike. After that, the city confronted agitators usually numbering in the low hundreds who were mostly white and often violent. Over the course of two weeks in June, they toppled five statues (including the Davis) without a single instance of police intervention. Christopher Columbus was pulled down from his pedestal in Byrd Park, spray painted, set on fire, and dragged into a nearby lake. The agitators blocked streets and vandalized private property. Even during the first weekend of protests, May 29 to 31, Richmond firefighters responded to nearly 50 fires attributed to BLM agitators. The Daughters’ headquarters, prominently situated in the city’s museum district, was set on fire, causing $1.5 million in structural damage.
Unruly demonstrations subsequently took place at Richmond police headquarters, at Stoney’s downtown apartment building, at the home of the city council member whose district includes Lee Circle, at the home of the state attorney for Richmond, at the downtown office of a law firm that obtained an injunction against the Lee monument’s removal, and at the city courthouse. According to her attorney, members of the Monument Avenue household of 96-year-old Helen Marie Taylor, a plaintiff in lawsuits against Northam and Stoney and the city council arising from their monument removal campaign, were roughed up and her house was vandalized.
From the outset, protesters occupied Lee Circle, unofficially renamed in honor of Marcus-David Peters, an unarmed black teacher fatally shot in 2018 by a Richmond police officer on I-95 while in a violently deranged state. (A state attorney who is now Virginia’s attorney general determined that the shooting was justified.) Despite sporadic police efforts to enforce the McAuliffe ordinance, the circle became a campground. A carnival atmosphere prevailed on June and July nights when thirtysomething video artists Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui projected images of the Black Power clenched-fist icon, Floyd, Breonna Taylor—the 26-year-old Louisville ER technician killed in an early-morning police raid—and distinguished African-American historical figures on the Lee Monument, along with quotations and slogans.
Within weeks of Floyd’s death, however, there were armed protesters, including white men in body armor, at the circle. Aside from hearing gunshots, the Times-Dispatch reported in August, people in the Lee Monument’s vicinity had “witnessed assaults, caught visitors defecating and urinating on their property, and struggled to sleep through the noise.” The noise was mainly attributable to drum-beating and truck-born double-decker loudspeakers at the circle, firecrackers, and police planes circling overhead on an almost nightly basis.
The Lee monument is located a mere couple of miles from the Governor’s Mansion, and Northam is responsible for the state’s abject failure to protect it in accordance with the 1890 deed as well as the McAuliffe ordinance. The chain-link fence that went up in January was about eight months late. And it should have been reinforced, from the disturbances’ outset, by a detachment of state or city police charged with keeping order at the site.
Instead of restoring order, Northam and Stoney elected to placate the mob, with Stoney relying on his declaration of a state of emergency to carry out his statuary cleansing campaign. (Northam’s emergency order for Richmond included an 8 P.M. to 6 A.M. curfew that protesters ignored, along with his Covid-19-motivated restrictions on public gatherings.) In June, a BLM member had his head cut open when protestors toppled a statue adorning an elaborate Confederate monument in Portsmouth, Virginia, as police looked on. Resorting to a pretext swiftly adopted by numerous public authorities throughout the South, Stoney cited “failing to remove the [Confederate] statues now” as “a severe, immediate and growing threat to public safety” when a construction crew removed Monument Avenue’s Stonewall Jackson equestrian from its pedestal on July 1. He called the statues’ removal a “temporary” emergency measure while making it clear he regarded their banishment as permanent, declaring “I think the healing can now begin in the city of Richmond.” By July 9, the crew had removed five other statues linked to the Confederacy.
The problem—as the interim city attorney, Haskell Brown III, had warned Stoney—was that the state of emergency did not authorize the Confederate monuments’ removal. Stoney’s action has been contested in circuit court and in the state Supreme Court; in no case has it been sanctioned. The Supreme Court has ruled that an anonymous plaintiff brought suit too late. A Richmond circuit judge, on the other hand, called Stoney’s action “wrongful” in a February hearing but ruled that putting the statues back up would be “a futile act” because the city would presumably just take them down again, this time in a legal manner.
Stoney also agreed, again on his own authority, to a $1.8 million contract with a Norfolk businessman and political donor who arranged for out-of-state crews to do the removal work. (Virginia contractors allegedly weren’t interested.) That contract, uncovered by veteran Virginia journalist James A. Bacon, is now under investigation by a state prosecutor.
The white-majority city council voted unanimously to approve a Confederate monument-removal ordinance on August 3, after publishing notice of the meeting early in July. But by the time the council voted, the statues had already been in storage at the city’s wastewater treatment plant for weeks. The ordinance was drafted as if Stoney hadn’t already presented the council with a fait accompli. This is banana republic stuff. And on this past April Fool’s Day, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in a Charlottesville case declaring that the amended monuments law applies only to works erected after 1997, meaning that the law doesn’t mean what Northam, the legislature, and the general public thought it meant.
“Those statues stood high for over 100 years and it was for a reason,” Stoney declared on July 1, “and it was to intimidate and to show black and brown people in this city who was in charge.” Leaving aside the Orwellian switcheroo of making the statues the culprits instead of the vandals, Stoney was regurgitating a familiar leftist talking point, and it is false. Those statues represent tributes to valor as well as attempts to salvage redemption from the misery, privation, death, and defeat brought on by a four-year siege of the Confederate capital. Their creation was less a matter of Jim Crow’s advent than of the passing of the generation that fought bravely and suffered acutely. Two cannons on Monument Avenue that Stoney removed marked the inner and outer defensive perimeters, respectively, on the city’s western flank.
The only Confederate monument still standing on the streets of Richmond is the dignified 1891 statue of A. P. Hill, an able Stonewall Jackson subordinate killed in the final days of the war, on a traffic circle on the city’s north side. This monument has stronger legal protection because Hill and his wife are buried underneath. But it will not be there much longer. The city is only now getting around to studying its options for the disposition of Confederate statues that Stoney removed or the mob pulled down. The more than 20 would-be recipients range from the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation to a pair of conceptualist artists who want to have the Stonewall equestrian cut into fragments in a New Jersey foundry for sale to help Richmond public schools close racial gaps.
Stoney went on to win re-election last November, but his demagogy certainly didn’t win the agitators’ support. More than 300 of them were charged as a result of the chronic disorders that lasted for months. Though the raucous gatherings had recently ceased, there were still garden plots and basketball hoops on Lee Circle when I visited early last fall. The pavement around the monument featured “Fuck Stoney” and other graffiti crudely insulting “Mayor Baloney.” “Fuck Ralph Northam” was also inscribed in large letters, along with variations on the “fuck the police” theme. Even now the graffiti is visible despite being whitewashed, while boarded-up shopfronts repeatedly catch a driver’s attention on the city’s main commercial thoroughfare, Broad Street. Traffic was light when I made a late-March weekday visit and few people were on the streets, despite the pleasant weather. Aside from the Covid pandemic’s ongoing impact, a pervasive sense of insecurity, of public order all too susceptible to further disruption, appears to grip the River City.
And all the agitation has done absolutely nothing to improve life for Richmond’s most vulnerable African-Americans—who, if anything, were adversely affected by the diversion of police to the BLM protests. Shootings surged over the summer in the city’s black neighborhoods, and children as young as three figured among the victims. Yet this violence didn’t provoke any demonstrations. Do black lives only matter when they’re cut short by cops?
Late in 2019, African-American artist Kehinde Wiley’s knock-off of the J. E. B. Stuart equestrian was installed at a prominent site on the grounds of Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The pedestal is inscribed “Rumors of War.” Instead of the dashing cavalry commander, a young black man in contemporary attire, with a clutch of dreadlocks pointing picturesquely upward, is mounted. The pose of the man and his horse are identical to the Stuart, save that Wiley’s figure clasps the back of his saddle rather than a sword.
“Rumors of War” might be dismissed as grist for the postmodern mill, or even a publicity stunt. Yet its installation elicited a thoughtful comment from a Virginia Museum curator—when it looked like Richmond’s Confederate statues might survive the clamor for their removal. “It takes a different vision to say, ‘Leave them up,’” the curator told the Washington Post. “Let’s see how we can appropriate, reverberate, echo. It’s an eloquent call and response.”
That’s the kind of nuanced, quintessentially liberal opinion—whether expressed by curators, historians, preservationists, or the prominent Richmonders who helped foot the $2 million bill for the Wiley sculpture’s acquisition and installation—that got canceled amid the chaos triggered by Floyd’s death. The monumental “call” to which Wiley “responded,” of course, got canceled, too.
Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture and lives in Washington, D.C. This essay ran originally in City Journal, and is republished here with permission.