Arlington Cemetery Will Remove its Racist Confederate Monument, but Some Won't Let it GoRoundup
tags: memorials, Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, public history, Arlington National Cemetery, Lost Cause
Erin L. Thompson the author of Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments, teaches at the City University of New York
Confederate President Jefferson Davis has been yelling at me lately. Well, the person running a Twitter account in his name has been doing so. “Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne” has chimed in to call me a fraud, liar, and “an antisemitic activist on a mission to destroy history.” Other Confederates try to take a higher road: Since “anyone putting pronouns in their bio is broadcasting their cult indoctrination,” I should simply be ignored in favor of reading print-on-demand books with titles like Old Times There Should Not Be Forgotten: Cultural Genocide in Dixie.
Why the fervor? I had tweeted that Arlington National Cemetery has announced the removal of its Confederate Memorial. In 2021, as a response to the worldwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, Congress required the Department of Defense to create a commission to consider the ways in which the military continued to honor the Confederacy. This January, the department announced that it had accepted this commission’s recommendations. The secretary of defense explained that the decision to “remove from U.S. military facilities all names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederacy” had been taken so that these facilities could “inspire all those who call them home, fully reflect the history and the values of the United States, and commemorate the best of the republic that we are all sworn to protect.”
One of these recommendations is to remove portions of the Arlington Confederate Memorial. This memorial, dedicated in 1914, has a granite base and a bronze frieze of life-sized figures that present, according to the cemetery’s website, “a nostalgic, mythologized vision of the Confederacy, including highly sanitized depictions of slavery.” The frieze was intended to enshrine two cherished myths of the Lost Cause apologists by showing a Confederate soldier handing his baby to an enslaved nurse, who weeps to see him go, and an enslaved valet stoically marching alongside his master. These figures represent the supposed “loyal slaves,” who faithfully remained at home to care for soldiers’ wives and children during the war (because, presumably, they agreed that slavery was on the whole a good system), and the “Black Confederates” who fought for the South.
When I responded to this news by tweeting, “No more ‘loyal slave’ myths!,” I was admonished that these ideas are not mythical at all. My replies were full of information about Black men who fought for the South, and I was scolded for forgetting “these brave men [who] fought for their land.” All these claims have been thoroughly debunked, most recently by the historian Kevin M. Levin in his book Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. Meanwhile, “Col. Joseph Hardin” (a Revolutionary War hero pinch-hitting for the Confederacy) doubted that I could explain “how the South was able to mobilize as many men as it did without loyal slaves manning the plantations.” As if there were no other possible reasons to explain the decisions of the people who kept working during the war.
The lies written in bronze on the Arlington Confederate Memorial are no mere historical curiosities, displaying now-discarded beliefs. Those beliefs are alive and well. No wonder the commission found that the picture presented by the memorial “distorts history” so thoroughly that it would be impossible to neutralize its effect by merely putting up contextualizing signage. While the members considered other options, such as “demolishing and recycling all components of the memorial,” they ultimately recommended removing the bronze elements, while “leaving the granite base and foundation in place to minimize risk of inadvertent disturbance of graves.”