The Monument Commission Nailed It

The monument to Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue would come down but statues to Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart, and naval commander Matthew Fontaine Maury would remain standing under recommendations submitted by the Monument Avenue Commission.

Under the Commission’s proposals, interpretative signage would be added to the four statues to explain the historical context of why the statues were erected. Additionally, the Commission recommended installing additional monuments on the boulevard, including one to the United States Colored Troops, a regiment of former slaves.

To take effect, pending legal challenges must be resolved and a state law on war memorials must be amended.

The Monument Avenue Commission report is a thoughtful document that examines multiple facets of the controversy and acknowledges all sides of the debate. Its recommendations, I submit, reflect the best-possible balance achievable in these divisive times.

Jefferson Davis’s 1907 memorial is the most odious to modern-day sensitivities. Stated the report: “Of all the statues [the Davis statue] is the most unabashedly Lost Cause in its design and sentiment.”

Not only was Davis not a native-born Virginian, not only was he not a military hero, but the monument glorifies his role in the secession. As the report explains, “Davis’s pose depicted him giving the speech in which he resigned from the United States Senate. In that speech, which is quoted on the entablature behind him, he referred to the state’s rights guaranteed by the Constitution as the justification for secession.” The allegorical figure atop the column behind him, Vindicatrix, was based on the word vindicate. The statue clearly reinforced the goals of the Lost Cause movement.

By contrast, the monument to Lee was unveiled in 1890, twenty years after his death but twelve years before Virginia’s 1902 state constitution restored white supremacy. The statue depoliticized the Civil War by emphasizing Lee’s personal virtues and sacrifice. The erection of the statue was part of a larger movement that downplayed slavery, but the main impetus of which, states the report, was “to help the South walk away from defeat and humiliation and reenter American life with dignity.”

The statues to Stuart and Jackson were erected in 1907 during the white-supremacy era. Still, the statuary emphasized personal virtues. The Stuart statue showed him leading a charge. The Jackson monument emphasized the serenity and spirituality of its subject.

There are many stories here to be told. There are the stories about the historical figures themselves. There are stories about thinking that went into erecting the statues. There are stories about the South’s defeat and humiliation, Reconstruction, the reconciliation of North and South, the nostalgia for the passing of the Civil War generation, the ideology of the Lost Cause, the rise of white racial supremacy, and the institutionalization of Jim Crow oppression of blacks. There are stories, too, about the overthrow of Jim Crow and the struggle for individual rights. A common theme across the arc of Virginia history is the articulation of and struggle for individual rights. It is a complex story, and it doesn’t fit the easy narratives of Left or Right.

Richmond stood at the center of these great debates, and it stands at the center of the national dialogue on race and reconciliation today. We Richmonders can erase the history, or we can reinterpret it anew. If done properly, Richmond can serve as a model for the rest of the nation. With its museums, statues and historic buildings supplemented by signage, websites, historical databases, mobile apps and videos, the city can become a living museum for understanding, reinterpreting — and moving beyond — the most painful chapter in America’s history.

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14 responses to “The Monument Commission Nailed It”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    A much more reasonable sounding narrative than what we were hearing earlier about “destroying history”.

    Maybe it took a while to evolve to a view that acknowledges/recognizes some of the nefarious motivations for erecting the statues in the first place – and yes… many statues including those of Hitler and Hussein also do emphasize their “good” personal qualities…

    Just FYI – a similar process is taking place in Fredericksburg on a smaller scale involving a block of stone used to auction slaves… will be interesting to see what changes they recommend but I perceive the effort to involve adding context more than removal.

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I doubt people with strong feelings on either side will be satisfied. A very careful and political result, which is what is hoped for with these “blue ribbon commissions.” A lovely photograph however that shows why Monument Avenue remains one of the country’s most prestigious neighborhoods. I had dinner on Stuart Circle Saturday evening and several people were out in the circle getting a close look at that statute. Before all this stir I never saw people looking at or photographing it.

    Richmond does not have to “become” a living museum to the Civil War and its aftermath – it has been exactly that since they started to rebuild after the surrender.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    My suspect is that many folks either don’t know or if they do know – won’t agree on many of the original motivations for erecting the statues.

    Second, they don’t seem to know or care that others besides soldiers and Generals were also “involved” – i.e. Black Folks and slaves of which there were no similar efforts to erect statues memorializing their places in “history”.

    The “context” narrative is in some respects – a euphemism to acknowledge how one view got statues and other memorializations and the other view got almost none…. almost as if their “history” did not even exist.

    Some folks will recognize and accept the “context” aspect while others will continue to believe that the “history” as currently represented, without changes, is the proper “history”.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      If you really want to have some fun with people’s minds, erect a plaque to the blacks who belonged to the United Confederate Veterans. I didn’t believe such an event occurred but a friend showed me a substantial video clip. I’m guessing the early to mid 1930s.

  4. Acbar Avatar

    I’m fine with the result, but there are three practical problems that should be decided as part of the overall package here.

    First, where, if anywhere, put the Davis monument when it’s removed? Mere demolition would be to go rather from one extreme to the other. He did live in Richmond during part of the CW and he is, after all, buried in Hollywood Cemetery. Relocate part of the monument (say, the statue itself) to Hollywood Cemetery or, say, to the Valentine Museum or UDC grounds?

    Second, the cross street at the Davis monument is named “Davis Street” — undoubtedly because the monument was placed there. Rename the street, too?

    Third, Monument Avenue is an architectural as well as historical tourist attraction and, as the Commission undoubtedly mentions (I haven’t read this report yet of course), the Davis/Monument intersection was designed with extra setbacks to receive and frame the Davis monument. That space, once emptied, will invite a new monument to fill it. What should it be? Another Arthur Ashe? Surely there are many Richmonders qualified for such an honor — John Marshall comes to mind.

  5. I’m not wedded to these statues one way or another, but what I’m sensitive to as a dynamic in the US is a fear of questions. Memorializing something/somebody is not the same as fondness or endorsement, just ask Germany about its preserved concentration camps. If “we” are unable to answer questions like “Mommy, who was Jefferson Davis?” in historical context, remove his statue, then in a few years people won’t know to ask about him or his role in Richmond. Will we remember to explain that states can and have seceded? This lesson seems pretty important to me, and public art, whether pretty or ugly, comforting or disturbing, can provide an opening for a quick and useful public service announcement about what has gone before. To avoid shameful moments as a nation, we’d best be well-versed on those we’ve suffered previously. Slave block would apply be in this category. Cleansing is what Mao did, what Stalin did, and then in turn, large parts of their history have been cleansed. Dangerous, risky stuff.

  6. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Where is the movement to display this country’s dirty linen on religious discrimination? Catholics, Jews, Mormons and “outlying” Protestant sects and their members were discriminated against in many ways for many decades.

  7. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    I am totally baffled. “The fantasy of the Lost Cause is a dream of white American innocence, one in which slavery is elided or explained away.” It is 150 years later and I agree with this writer.

    I lived on Monument Ave for a short time when the South was still holding to separation of the races laws. I was baffled then as I went to get a drink of water and saw the sign “blacks only”. I walked away because I was at a client’s office, there on behalf of IBM. Unlike the football players I thought the job was not an appropriate place to protest. Months later I unwittingly sat in the ‘blacks only’ section of a lunch counter. I stayed when I was told what I had done.

    So … William Penn set up the government of Pennsylvania to be open to race and religious difference … a Quaker tenet. Those Virginians in Philadelphia actually copied some of what Penn did in PA’s governing tenets, and I just found out that some of my ancestors actually came to PA from England to start Penn’s colony. Bought land from Penn. Watch out. It’s addictive.

    So now this Yankee can really thumb her nose because here is the “Charge to the Sons of Confederate Veterans”

    “To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we will commit the vindication of the cause for which we fought. To your strength will be given the defense of the Confederate soldier’s good name, the guardianship of his history, the emulation of his virtues, the perpetuation of those principles which he loved and which you love also, and those ideals which made him glorious and which you also cherish.”
    “The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.”

    Baffled! “Vindication of the Cause”? Don’t think we need to worry about ‘cleansing’ here. This, as the writer said, is the “dream of American innocence.”

    1. Andrew Roesell Avatar
      Andrew Roesell

      Dear Jane,

      If your ancestral land still calls, there’s always I-95 and I-81 northward; both still work. So do 301 & 13. ;-))<



      1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
        Jane Twitmyer

        Would love to take your smart a** advice … and this 150 year old Confederate stuff feels like a grammer school school-yard, where if something bad happens, a whole lot of voices speak up yelling .. “I didn’t do anything! It wasn’t me. Not my fault.”

  8. Andrew Roesell Avatar
    Andrew Roesell

    Dear BR Mates,

    An attack on President Davis’ statue in Richmond will be construed as an attack on Southerners, which is what it is. This is all about demographics and money. Prominent Virginians made tons of money on building tract housing to Yankee transplants after the Second World War and the Blacks have voted as an anti-White bloc since the 1960s, precisely as many, though not all, of their freedmen ancestors did during Reconstruction. Now the chickens have come home to roost, demographic change for 30 pieces of silver. Today’s attacks on the statues and flages are all calculated affronts. Attempts to “selectively airbrush” history will not appease anyone, except gratify your own egos at your “cunning surgical skill” at “finely separating” Confederate “in-state wheat from out-of-state chaff.” You all are like the Liberals of South Africa in 1994. You think it will be just the Boers who will suffer. Not so, palefaces. The beast you are feeding, after satiated on the interests of native White Virginians who venerate their ancestors’ defense of home and hearth against the Yankee invader of yore, will snap you up in due time, too. Like a great clearance sale, “Everything must go!” Envy requires constant prey to survive. In heaping up what you think will be our funeral pyres, you will have made your own, too.



  9. I’d like to think that Americans have the intellect both to retain their history and progress/evolve from it. It’s not an either/or dynamic. I certainly don’t trust any commission or tribunal or truth reconciliation bureau to establish the version of history that we are to adopt.

    1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
      Jane Twitmyer

      I wouldn’t either but … how about some legitimate historians?

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