The Troubling History of Arlington Cemetery's Confederate MonumentRoundup
tags: statues, Confederacy, monuments, public history, Arlington National Cemetery
Samantha Baskind is a professor of art history at Cleveland State University and author of five books, most recently The Warsaw Ghetto in American Art and Culture.
An independent commission has recommended that the government should topple Arlington National Cemetery’s 32-foot tall Confederate monument. It is an egregious paean to the Lost Cause. And, predictably, when the monument was completed in 1914, many Southerners viewed it as a vindication of the ideals for which they had fought.
Yet the monument — designated for placement in a national cemetery, with widespread federal approval from Congress and several successive presidents — was never intended to be a regional symbol. The monument, which is officially named “New South,” also had wide support from Northerners, who viewed the statue as the premier symbol of sectional reunion and thus were willing to overlook its white-supremacist origins.
After the Civil War, women’s groups in the South, notably the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), took on the task of burying their men and maintaining private cemeteries because their kin were excluded from the newly formed national cemetery system.
With renewed hope for reconciliation in June 1900, Congress introduced legislation for a section of Arlington Cemetery for the Confederate dead. That law was in part initiated by a speech delivered two years earlier by President William McKinley in which he advocated for government care of Confederate graves. Soon members of the UDC lobbied for a monument to the newly interred. Secretary of War and future president William Howard Taft granted that request in 1906.
The UDC commissioned Moses Jacob Ezekiel, an internationally known sculptor and Confederate veteran of the Civil War, to fabricate the sculpture. At Ezekiel’s request, the UDC gave him free rein with the design and discarded their original idea to order a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee on the battlefield.
Eight years later, “New South,” one of the largest statues at Arlington Cemetery, was dedicated as the definitive monument to Confederate soldiers. The most complex and most controversial section of the massive, five-tiered monument features an eight-foot circular frieze of high-relief figures. At center, Minerva, the goddess of war, glances at the collapsed woman on her left who she tries to prop up. An allegorical representation of “the South,” she appears as a defeated figure who barely grasps her shield, which is inscribed with the word “Constitution.” Soldiers flank the pair, and hovering above are spirits of war calling them to offer the South assistance. Carrying weapons, those soldiers heartily answer the call.