Confederate Memorial at Arlington Cemetery to be Dismantled - TribPapers
Opinion

Confederate Memorial at Arlington Cemetery to be Dismantled

Cherry trees bloom in Jackson Circle around the Confederate Monument in Section 16 of Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Va. The Confederate Monument was unveiled June 4, 1914, according to the ANC website. Arlington National Cemetery Photo by Rachel Larue

Arlington, Virginia – A highly symbolic monument in American history is slated to be destroyed. In the War between the States, approximately 750,000 people died and over a million were maimed out of a national population of 31 million. In World War II, the country lost 400,000 people out of a national population of 132 million. To think that the commissioners on the Federal Advisory Committee are recommending the destruction of a 109-year-old monument, the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery, is incomprehensible and shocking. It was erected for the primary purpose of reconciling the North and the South after the South lost the war.

An independent commission is recommending that the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery be dismantled and taken down, as part of its final report to Congress on the renaming of military bases and assets that commemorate the Confederacy. Retired Army Brig. Gen. Ty Seidule, vice-chair of the commission, said in September,  the final cost for all of its renaming recommendations would be $62,450,030.

Name changers and monument destroyers want to change the situation by getting rid of any suggestion or symbol of the Confederate past. The thinking is that by destroying a visible monument, they can destroy what happened. They can’t.  The Civil War happened. Alas, history is history, and the facts remain the facts. In the aftermath of the Floyd killing–which by the way took place in a NORTHERN state–and the months of racial unrest that followed, the Pentagon and Congress are only stirring up more racial divisions between individuals and groups as they glorify their own current high moral standards. They are pointing their fingers at people in the past who did not live up to their current thinking in the 21st century. This does not help to calm racial waters. It aggravates the situation and stirs up controversy. It has no positive effect.

Over and over again, it has become apparent that those living today want to eliminate what happened in the past. How can or will the destruction of a monument, the renaming of a base, or the renaming of a ship change history? It won’t. Society has changed radically, and those living today struggle with understanding what society and life was like years before they were born. The 21st century is not the 19th century. How could our forefathers have believed and behaved in a way that so many today cannot understand or even fathom? It is simple: the world they lived in then, in the 19th century, was a different place than it is today, in the 21st century. They were a part of a society that behaved in a certain way; the mores of the times differed radically from today.

In its day, this Confederate Memorial was a gesture of reconciliation to honor the many brave soldiers who died in the Civil War. This monument was intended to convey fraternity, healing, and reconciliation. It was enthusiastically endorsed by Congress and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. Unveiled in 1914, the Confederate Memorial was designed by noted American sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran and the first Jewish graduate of the Virginia Military Institute.

The elaborately designed memorial offers a nostalgic, mythologized vision of the Confederacy. Standing on a 32-foot-tall pedestal, a bronze, classical female figure, crowned with olive leaves, represents the American South. She holds a laurel wreath, a plow stock, and a pruning hook, with a Biblical inscription at her feet: “They have beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” The monument’s pedestal features 14 shields, engraved with the coats of arms of the 13 Confederate states plus the border state of Maryland (which neither seceded from the Union nor joined the Confederacy).

The renowned British art critic Alexander Adams considers it highly artistic and of great historical value. He said, “It is my professional opinion that the Memorial is a serious, iconographically complex, and technically accomplished piece of art. In my view, it is a handsome sculpture and an entirely appropriate funerary monument. I consider it an internationally significant piece of art for its type and era. Any nation should be proud to host such a magnanimous and dignified monument.”

Before the war, states were sovereign and supreme over the federal government. After the war, the federal government was supreme over the states. The Southerners who visited Arlington Cemetery had a place to contemplate battlefields drenched in blood and strewn with dead and dying men. Grieving families had received the horrifying news that their young man, their little boy, had been killed and buried in a place they would never know or be able to visit and grieve. This monument, a striking work of art surrounded by Confederate graves, was erected as a place to heal wounds, accept the new situation, and allow the nation to go forward with compassion. 

Sadly, the current destruction of familiar monuments such as the 65-foot Vance obelisk in Pack Square in Asheville, the many Confederate statues and monuments in Richmond, Virginia, or the Silent Sam Confederate Monument in Chapel Hill won’t erase the horrors of the Civil War nor what led up to it. That did happen, and 750,000 Americans died. Nor will the removal of these monuments today improve racial tension. It only blots out facts. What it does is allow some to remain blissfully on a cloud of ignorance, not to be reminded of the Civil War and any participants. The people being erased lost the war, so why are their names and monuments such a threat today? The world has changed. I do not see how the elimination of names and monuments helps foster love between races. Do you? It only fosters ignorance. Why are the leaders of the Confederates, who lost the war, such a threat today?

Millions and millions of dollars—an incalculable amount—are being spent to take down all these monuments, pay for legal battles, and figure out what to do next. I suggest that these large sums of money be used to build statues and monuments. Build, don’t destroy. Build monuments to the many unacknowledged and unsung achievers. Bring pride to those African Americans who have accomplished much and deserve great praise but have not received any visible sign of their achievements. Honor these people with a statue or monument. Show more people the accomplishments of those who had to overcome incredible obstacles to achieve what they did. Spend the money to tell the world more about them. Shine a light on these people. One example would be a monument for John Merrick (1859–1919), who was born into slavery in Clinton, NC, but later founded various companies in the Raleigh and Durham area, most notably the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Another person might be Katherine Johnson. She was an American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. There are many to consider.