The Statues Are Coming Down? What’s Next?

by James A. Bacon

Throughout history military commanders have faced a classical dilemma: When confronted with overwhelming odds, do they stand fast and hope for a miracle to deliver victory, while risking total annihilation as a fighting force? Or do they conduct an orderly retreat, regroup and live to fight another day? Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart knew when to pick their battles. Now their statues are coming down, and those who wished to preserve them face similar choices. Do they fight against all odds to keep the statues in the public square, or do they move on in the hope of influencing what comes next?

I have heard rumblings of lawsuits to prevent the Northam administration and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney from removing the statues. Appealing to the courts may protract the agony, but I don’t see how they can do anything but delay the inevitable. The next session of the General Assembly will simply re-write the state law to eliminate whatever legal obstacles might exist.

Given the tenor of the times, the Confederate statues are coming down. Once they are gone, two questions inevitably will rise: (1) what do we do with them, and (2) what do we replace them with?

Removal of the statues is inevitable because their foes are fervent and lack any reservation while defenders are ambivalent. Whatever the personal virtues of the Civil War figures honored by the statues (and they were many), and whatever their personal motives in fighting for the Confederacy (and they, too, were many), at the end of the day they fought to defend an evil system, the system of chattel slavery. Defenders of keeping the statues in the public square had to adopt a “yes, but” strategy. Yes, those things are true, but…

There’s no point in prolonging a battle that cannot be won. We need to answer a different set of questions now.

The first is what becomes of the statues. Do we melt them down into scrap metal? Do we concede that they are magnificent pieces of art worth preserving, perhaps in museums where they can be “interpreted” in line with the intellectual tone of the times? Or do we find some other setting for them — perhaps warehousing them for 20 or 30 years until the dust settles?

Personally, I feel that the first of those options would be a senseless tragedy — although I’m sure many would disagree. I’m not even sure there is a museum in Richmond right now that would be willing to accept the statues, much less display them. The sooner statue conservationists concur about which course of action to take, the better the odds they can successfully influence the public debate.

The second question is what replaces the statues? The statues were designed to serve as focal points on Monument Avenue. The Lee and Stuart statues are located on traffic circles. Lee, Jackson and Stuart are set upon magnificent plinths and horses. The settings require a monumental scale. An Arthur Ashe-scale statue would look puny, almost demeaning.

Even more forbidding is the job of selecting subjects for the statues. Do we replace them with contemporary art? Do we pick Civil Rights leaders? Do we  restrict our choices to Virginians? Who has sufficient stature to stand horseless upon Lee’s magnificent plinth?

What are our aims now? Do we want to emphasize reconciliation? If so, would it make sense to commission a statue that recreates the famous scene of Grant accepting Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse? My wife has made that suggestion.

We are who we honor, and that will become the real battleground. As a lover of freedom and liberty, I see the evolution of Virginia as a 400-year struggle — with twists and detours — toward individual freedom. I believe we should honor the men and women, white and black, morally perfect or imperfect, — and preferably Virginian — who did the most to advance those freedoms. That is a battle I’m willing to fight.

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35 responses to “The Statues Are Coming Down? What’s Next?

  1. Your wife and I are on a page. A statue of Lee, seated as if at his desk at then Washington College, penning a letter of reconciliation could probably pass the stink test.

    Surely, the man has to be known for something other than murdering 10s of 1000s of his countrymen?

    On the other hand, an Army base is named after him. Maybe the Army could change the name of the Armored Command base to Fort Rommel, too?
    Oooh, how about melting it down to make a statue of Bob McDonnell accepting a Rolex watch?

  2. I like the mcdonnell watch idea. Maybe one of anatabloc?

  3. How about this? Let the City of Richmond hold an auction, and let the free market decide what to do with the old statues.

    Also, who cares what the City of Richmond puts back in place of the removed statues. Let them put up what they’d like.

  4. “The next session of the General Assembly will simply re-write the state law restricting the right of local governments to take the statues down, allowing local governments from Richmond to Charlottesville do what they please.” Uh, Jim, the 2020 session already did that. There’s something of a process for input, but no real impediment. A story in the RTD reports that the people who sued over the C-ville statue are laying the legal groundwork to void the judge’s earlier order preventing removal. But you’ve stopped reading the RTD…..

    Agreed, the city can decide what if anything to put in their place, as can the state at Lee (soon to renamed I’m sure) Circle. A less well known statue was toppled by vandals in Monroe Park last night, and by the end of the year I’m sure hundreds will be gone from around the South (of those not already removed.) They will definitely go after Gov. Byrd, but I still think the perfect “context” there is a statue to Gov. Wilder, right in Harry Senior’s line of sight. Imagine the tour guide explaining that.

    And I’m sure if not already done, the Confederate Shrine inside the Old House Chamber of the State Capitol will be removed.

  5. You ask, what comes next? I would strongly recommend all to read up on [and for those true liberal arts students, re-read about] the French Revolution. They are coming for all next: Jefferson, Washington, and the state name itself.

    Some will complain that walking past cars is a microaggression having to see each and every ‘Virginia’ license plate. After all, the state’s namesake promoted and profited from the slave trade. All those road side historical markers will disappear – the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe foretold of the subjugation of the local tribes. The Newport News Victory Arch will be demolished as the Expeditionary Army which helped defeat the Kaiser was segregated.

    I would suggest all go and read the letters written by soldiers on both sides from 1860-65. Most did not fight for or against slavery – they fought for their state. Read Robert E. Lee’s letter of resignation. If you know anything about the man you know he was honest, honorable, and open. He never once mentioned slavery, but he did state, “Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.”

    And that was the motive for the vast majority of soldiers on both sides. Read their letters. Both my great grandfathers fought in the war, one in a North Carolina infantry regiment, the other in a Virginia regiment. Neither owned slaves, nor did they know anyone who did. One was a waterman on the Rappahannock, the other a dirt farmer from Gibson. Both fought for their states.

    Most citizens of the nation did not consider themselves as ‘Americans’ in the 1860s. They were Virginians, or Georgians, or New Yorkers, or Michiganders. If the letters of the participants won’t persuade you, look at the order of battle on both sides.

    There were very few ‘Confederate’ or ‘Federal’ Units. The vast majority were state units like the 9th Virginia Cavalry, the 110th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the 2nd Maine Artillery, or the 27th North Carolina Infantry. Why? Because the men on both sides fought for their states.

    After the war? The US military had very few ‘state’ units. Why? Because the term Americans was born both among the citizenry and the military.

    The past must be honored from the viewpoint of the past, not the present. If we change our heritage because of the winds of today, we will act as Stalinist Russia did. Remember, YOUR heritage is disparaged by someone. How will it be viewed once they gain power?

    • It seems quite a few of us here want Civil War statues banished from public spaces and moved to the equivalent of Holocaust Museums which force visitors to read their preferred denunciations of the South and its leaders. The problem that I have with that approach is that history is messy and a one sided explanation of it is always inaccurate and becomes mostly an ideological screed. That is the case with both the “Lost Cause” and “the Union was God’s anointed army led by Archangel Abraham Lincoln” narratives. Both are oversimplified, biased, incomplete and therefore inaccurate.

      I think that cities should generally manage their own affairs and since I do not live in Richmond and Charlottesville, I have no opinion on their actions that I would publish. On state property, it seems that there ought to be broad public support to justify changes to long established public memorials. However, as a lover of studying history (and yes I do read source documents when I can gain access to them), it is distressing to see history used as a tool for advancing ideology rather than for pursuing understanding.

      • How about we do this? Put two plaques on each statue- a Democrat can write the one on the left and a Republican can write the one on the right. The things that both have in common would be underlined. That way, those who are interested in getting the most unbiased opinions can simply read the underlines bits (if there are any).

    • Seems to me it was Lincoln himself who had the vision of America as the central common theme vs. individual states. Now we are heading to Blue states and Red states?

    • The letters written home by Virginia soldiers fighting with Lee, Jackson, etc., may not have mentioned slavery, but the Virginia legislature made its motivation clear in its secession ordinance. It listed as a specific grievance “the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.”

  6. Re: French Revolution. We already did that. See Bowling Green, Statue of King George… perhaps we should it back. Hey, that’s it! Melt the Lee statue and recreate…

    • Ha! So true. The Cassandras amuse me when they state that removing these statues is “rewriting history.”

      Here’s a clue for those individuals: We not only rewrite history every single day, we rewrite religion every single day.

      Go study the history of Christianity or Islam. Both faiths have been revised hundreds of times in the past few centuries to grapple with each age’s moral issues. Christianity in 2020 looks nothing like Christianity in 30 or 500 or 1000 or 1500 or even 1950.

      History? My God, look at someone we all know: George H.W. Bush. He was voted out of office in 1992 and only received 37% of the popular vote. That was the lowest share of the popular vote by an incumbent President since Taft in 1912. He was widely criticized by both the left and right in the mid 90s as “lacking vision” and a “custodial President.”

      Now? His Presidency is thought of as average to above average by most historians. President Obama has repeatedly praised H.W. Bush. The horror of allowing a couple of decades to pass and “rewriting history.” This “revisionist history” has certainly been kind to a Republican President.

      As to statues…I am sure the commenters on this blog were just as horrified about statues of Stalin coming down in 1989/1990. How dare Eastern Europeans “rewrite history”? Nobody in Eastern Europe has forgotten Stalin even though his statues have been gone from those nations for 30 years now…

  7. How about a frieze of editorialists with tape over their mouths while watching Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey watching training officer Chauvin step on George Floyd’s neck? It would need a quote or two from Frey’s 2017 campaign promise to clean up the Minneapolis Police Force.

    If you really wanted to get edgy you’d add Jeff Bezos quietly watching the silence from his D.C. media outlet.

  8. lotta “mob chatter” here this morning. 😉

    It bothers me a little bit that some see the statues as victims of changing public sentiment and not how they are and always were, viewed by black folks – for decades – in the public square and clearly ties to the Jim Crow…era in which blacks were lynched, their homes burned and land taken away from them. To deny or ignore this context while expressing sympathy for their removal is missing some important aspects.

    They’re racist symbols to black people and we act like that’s not really an issue and it’s “unfortunate” that the statues are coming down because they represent history and heritage.

    What about other statues? Well, if they’re not associated with the lost cause and Jim Crow, and black folks don’t find them racists – then there’s a good chance they’ll be left alone – and that goes for new ones also. You can represent even Robert E. Lee in a way that memorializes him as a man of significance even apart from his role in the Civil War.

    Folks here know that I walk in a Battlefield that contains land known as Bloody Angle. There are a dozen or more memorials in that park but not a one with a general astride a horse – every one of the memorials is to the men, on both sides, who died in that battle…

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    • No shortage of generals on horses at Gettysburg. Straining to remember Sharpsburg…. Battlefield parks strike me as suitable locations for these three, but they will go into storage and disappear.

      • If you want to put the Generals on BOTH sides… maybe… but these battlefields are about the ordinary men who gave their lives there, more than the Generals in my view. And they should also tell the story of the slaves who lived there and what they did when war came to them.

        What we want – what we should have always wanted, was an objective rendition of the war – both sides, ordinary soldiers.. and the slaves.

        What we got was “hero” statues of the Confederacy and we were putting them up at the same time we were lynching blacks…burning their homes and not letting them attend public schools..etc..

        We’ve been “preserving” and memorializing only one aspect of history…

    • The Confederat… er, I mean Conservatives, are afraid if they take down the statutes then they’ll forget who lost the war. After all, with no statues of King George around, they forgot who lost the Revolutionary War. Must’ve. They have been working like dogs to create another king for the last three years.

      • You should not paint broad swaths denigrating people you consider “conservative”. I am a political Conservative/Libertarian on financial issues and a liberal on social issues. Your comments above are as worthless as your previous posts. Why do you even read or post on this site?

      • Seems to me that the Confederates would prefer to forget that they lost the war.

  9. The comment I about to make should be read in the context that if there were two people from history that I would like to meet, they are Thomas Jefferson and Robert E Lee. Like many I favored providing context to removal, especially since the view of Lee has been totally distorted.
    I wrote to our Governor objecting to his decision even though I knew it would do no good. The continued protests and growing evidence on deep seated racism has led me to the view that the statues should come down. If there removal can contribute to the reduction of racism in Richmond and Virginia, it will be a small price to pay and one that I believe Lee would endorse.

    • If Lee would endorse their removal to reduce tensions then what would he have thought of increasing tensions by erecting them in the first place?

      You can meet an excellent likeness of Jefferson on Tuesdays on your local NPR affiliate.

      • First, he would not have wanted a statue built. The tensions that increased, if they did, would have been already there. Part of those were the result of how Andrew Johnson pursued reconstruction and not how Lee would have pursued it if given a chance and if he lived longer.

  10. Good post, Jim. I like the idea of a statue of Lee and Grant. As to what to do with them, museums or battlefields would be appropriate. Jackson and Stuart could go to Manassas. The Lee statue could be erected at Appomattox. I have read that the mayor of the town of Crewe has asked if his town can have the Lee statue–he thinks it would draw tourists.

  11. Dick, the Crewe mayor resigned after public outcry over his idea.

  12. Black folks are NOT going to want these statues put in ANY public space because they consider these statues to be overt symbols of jim crow and racism, the original reason they were erected.

    They are opposed to those symbols being in any public place and white folks who listen to and believe the black folks – support them on this:

    Many of the commentors in this blog seem to understand white culture in the South with these statues. Few of us seem to know how they came to be put up – and no, they never taught that in public schools as I recall.. I did not know until I was over 50 who put these statues up and for what purpose.

    At that point, I started to understand why there is such a large division between how whites and blacks feel about them. And now, today, apparently the “real” history of these statues, i.e. their Jim Crow roots is not believed or just ignored as not central to the issue. It is for most black folks.

  13. Here’s a statue that will stay up….

  14. Larry the G makes the key point – review and understand the genesis and push to build and deploy the statues in the first place – 50 years after the war as a political statement and reminder. (I will refrain from previously made joke (I think borrowed from Robin Williams) about all these statues to 2nd place finishers.

    So, step 1 – pick a different group with a different agenda to decide what to do with the statues and what to replace them with.

    Maybe form a commission including these groups and ask them to make a recommendation: The VA Commission for the Arts; The VA Museum of History and Culture; and the VA Historical Society. I probably left somebody out, but they form a group. Likely, within cities and or at the state level, there is already some process for deciding when to put up a statue, include them too.

    http://www.arts.virginia.gov/about_mission.html
    https://www.virginiahistory.org/
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Historical_Society
    https://www.history.com/news/how-the-u-s-got-so-many-confederate-monuments

  15. How about we stop deifying people. Take all the statues down.

  16. Here’s another one that no one will say “take down”:

    the point here is that there are actually genuine heroes that virtually everyone will acknowledge as worthy of a statue.

    We sort of ignore this fact when we want to talk about statues that don’t have everyone in favor of…………..

    there are actual real heroes…

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