Whither the Statues?

Ryan K. Smith

by James A. Bacon

Now that most Confederate statues have been removed from prominent public places, where will they go? They’re too big to fit into museums without expensive retrofitting, and not many museum boards are likely to welcome the controversy of housing them anyway. A commonly suggested alternative is to move the memorials to cemeteries.

But apparently even that idea will engender controversy. In a recent op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Ryan K. Smith, a Virginia Commonwealth University history professor, calls the introduction of statues into cemeteries “a political statement.” He concludes: “However much dignity we might wish for the individual dead, we cannot lend the sanctity of their cemeteries for a new Lost Cause.”

It appears that some people can’t declare victory and call it a day. Not content to remove the statues from prominent views, they effectively want to extirpate them entirely from the public sphere.

I fall into the camp that says we should have preserved the statues and updated their signage to place them in their appropriate historical context as reminders of a past we now repudiate. We lost that battle. Fine. I appreciate that many African-Americans were offended by the presence of statues glorifying generals who fought to defend a nation, the Confederate States of America, that was dedicated to the preservation of slavery. I get it. Society has decided. Let’s move on to issues that make an actual difference in peoples’ lives such as joblessness, failing schools, and unaffordable housing, healthcare, and college tuition.

Smith does not seem interested in moving on. Perhaps that’s understandable given the fact that he authored the recently released book “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries.” But I fear that he channels the instincts of many others.

Smith sums up the case for transferring the statues to cemeteries as follows:

Those advocating [the transfer of statues to cemeteries] defend them with several points. First, they note that the cemeteries are secluded beyond the public spaces of courthouse squares and city streets. Second, the cemeteries present more practical alternatives to museums since they do not require special housing for the often oversized sculptures.

Lastly, and most importantly, advocates believe that the Confederate soldiers buried in the cemeteries give them special claim on the monuments. The presence of those bodies is seen to transform the carved or cast figures of the Confederates into more traditional memorials, akin to gravestones. Cemeteries are places of retreat and reflection, after all, intended to be inviolable. And who wants to denigrate that which is associated with the dead?

But Smith isn’t buying that logic. He writes:

There was always a powerful connection between the bodies of the dead and the Confederate statues in public spaces, after all. It is no accident that Richmond holds at least 10% of the Civil War’s entire Confederate dead as well as the preponderance of Lost Cause tributes to them. The city’s dual statues of [Jefferson] Davis made those connections plain.

He also contrasts the upkeep of Confederate graves with the neglect of many African-American cemeteries in Virginia.

Smith erects a straw man when he suggests that anyone is interested in pursuing a new “Lost Cause,” a term associated with the Jim Crow era of segregation. That’s just silly nonsense. The issues are more profound than the ones he raises.

The Left has imbued the statues of Confederate heroes with a particular meaning: associating them with the defense of slavery during the Civil War, the Lost Cause mythology following the war, and the oppression of African-Americans generally. That’s not the meaning conferred by the statues’ defenders. Whatever the motives of those who erected the statues long ago — a matter of considerable debate — those who defend them today honor the martial valor of the men being memorialized. In many cases, the defenders are descended from those who fought in the conflict or otherwise shared in the extraordinary sacrifices of the war effort. To mangle an oft-heard phrase, that’s heritage, not hate.

The defenders of heritage have lost the battle to maintain the statues in places of public prominence. If Smith’s op-ed is any indication, the goal posts are being moved. Don’t be surprised if we hear people saying that the statues should not be erected in any public place, including museums or cemeteries. If that’s the next phase of the culture war, it will be even more bitter than the one that came before. It’s one thing to say, “We won’t, as a society, honor those generals anymore.” It’s quite another to add, “And we won’t let you, as individuals, honor them either.”

When the North won the Civil War, northerners reconciled with their southern brethren. No such spirit seems alive in the republic today.

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32 responses to “Whither the Statues?

  1. When I read that this weekend I wondered why he didn’t just advocate one more step and remove all the headstones….I mean, many are marked “CSA” or have one of the rebellious flags engraved. Or dig up the bones and burn them…maybe then they’d just shut up….

    • That’s to include grave stones at Arlington Cemetery (Section 16).

      It’s lovely how no one remembers Justice Brandeis’s Counterspeech Doctrine.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    The wingnuts will go after the graves of the southern soldier next. Test case. AP Hill monument/grave on Laburnum.

    The bitter sweet taste of low hanging fruit is a tough habit to give up.

    • I have said in this space before that General Hill needs to move because that is a major traffic hazard now! Reason enough….but imagine the to-do when the Sons Of ask for a parade permit to move the casket back to Hollywood….flags flying, drums and fifes….no, that won’t get to happen.

  3. Desecration of other peoples dead ancestors is common practice in cultural genocide.

  4. So keep the statutes out of public cemeteries run by the City of Richmond.

  5. Swords to pl0wshares? I guess we are at the opposite end of the scale: melt the statues down and turn them into helmets and riot shields to hold back the Proud Boys.

  6. I’ll take one. The J.E.B Stuart statue from Monument Avenue would look good in my yard…

  7. re: ” It’s one thing to say, “We won’t, as a society, honor those generals anymore.” It’s quite another to add, “And we won’t let you, as individuals, honor them either.”

    When the North won the Civil War, northerners reconciled with their southern brethren. No such spirit seems alive in the republic today.”

    I doubt seriously if Northerners “reconciliation” included having statues of civil war generals in THEIR public spaces including their cemetaries.

    And it’s safe to say that not everyone in the South wanted them either.

    The entire point of public spaces is NOT putting symbols in them that offend and insult major segments of society.

    This sounds like a back-door attempt to make confederate cemetaries the new home for lost cause memorials.

    No public place is suitable for lost cause memorials.

    This is not much different than insisting that these memorials are “history” in my mind. They’re really not “history” – they were put up as monuments to the Lost Cause. Time does not change that and make them “history”. They’re still what they were intended to be originally.

    Those that still revere them need to take care of them not continue to impose them on society that rejects them.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      “The entire point of public spaces is NOT putting symbols in them that offend and insult major segments of society.”

      Not one monument or symbol can pass your pee test. Somebody is always going to play victim.

      • Well not my test but society. These are now perceived primarily as lost cause symbols and a significant number of peope – as opposed to one or two object.

        The strategy of calling them “history” has been rejected. No matter where you put them, they will represent the lost cause to a lot of people and not history. They are memorials – even those who want them admit that.

        Someone mentioned Battlefields. I live 3 miles from Bloody Angle. There is not a single Confederate general statue there. There are numerous memorials to soldiers and units – both sides. Trying to put a Confederate General statue in that Battlefield Park would have been highly controversial and really inappropriate in my mind.

        Thousands of men on both sides died there – that’s who is memorialized – not the Confederate generals – nor the Union Generals.

        All the generals involved and their actions ARE very much described on story-boards – full history, not forgotten.

        • James Wyatt Whitehead V

          Sedgwick monument at Spotsy Battlefield. It has to go Mr. Larry. Participated in the Imperialist Mexican War and a pre Civil War Indian fighter. Highly controversial, really inappropriate, and frankly one of the most overrated corps commanders in the Army of the Potomac. Your rules your society test, not mine.

          • Was he a Confederate and the monument lost cause?

          • Larry,

            He was a commander in the Army of the Potomac.

          • Hahah WayneS I think you’re going to have to spell it out.

          • James Wyatt Whitehead V

            In your own back yard where you walk the dog and you don’t even know the foggiest thing about Major General Sedgwick.

          • yep, not lost cause , right? problem?

          • I know him well James. He’s not lost cause. he’s not on a horse in a heroic pose.. zippo…

            As I had said before, ALL the generals who participated in Bloody Angle are WELL described in the story boards but NONE of them are really memorialized.

            The monument you reference is more of a guidepost that a memorial in my mind. There is no guy on a horse in a heroic pose….

            That monument is nothing like the ones on Monument Ave in Richmond or the ones in Charlottesville. You can’t even tell who Sedgewick was just looking the the monument.. it’s says 6th Corps on it… not “General”.

          • James Wyatt Whitehead V

            Nope Mr. Larry. Sorry. Sedgwick must go. Imperialist and Indian killer. A suitable replacement: actress Kyra Sedgwick.

          • That’s funny James!

            I can only speak for myself I guess but I just don’t see any controversy in the Sedgwick Monument – which I pass by probably every day.

            The focus is memorials to the lost cause, often during the Jim Crow era.

            Other memorials, certaintly the ones to the soldiers, as far as I know, have no objectors.

            But you do have good taste for some things for sure!

      • That’s my mistake. I meant Civil War Confederate statues.

        But even the Northern ones were far, far less… almost rare.

        The Lost Cause memorials go back to Jim Crow… The Northern statues of Generals do not.

    • There’s an entire section of Arlington Cemetery for Confederate dead, with a substantial Confederate monument. Lee was memorialized at West Point at least through 2010. A bust of Lee was in the US Capitol until what, last week? There’s a Jefferson Davis Park in Washington State.

  8. Bronze makes good fittings.

  9. It would be interesting if someone would do an economic analysis of the lost tourism revenue from people who will no longer travel to Virginia and Richmond to visit and learn about the Late Great Unpleasantries.

    I’ve met many non-Virginians from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line , as well as foreigners, who have traveled here to visit the Museum of the Confederacy, Monument Avenue, Virginia Historical Society, Tredegar Iron Works, and the many battlefields and cemeteries and smaller museums.

  10. I heard in Poland they piled all the Soviet statues in a field and people come to piss on them.

    We could do that.

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