Despite Virginia's Role in Electing First Black President, Confederate Soldier Statues Hold Their Ground

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 21, 2009

Driving by, you might not notice the man with the gun. He has been the recipient of flowers and curses, the victim of drunken drivers and vandals. One public figure suggested throwing him into the river. Some people don't even know who he is.

Virginia is home to what scholars say is the densest concentration of Confederate common-soldier statues of any state. Visitors from outside the South are sometimes surprised to see them: more than 100 unknown infantrymen, often in prominent places across the state. Locals tend to take for granted the lone figure that often stands near the county courthouse, commemorating what came to be known to some as the "lost cause" and to others as the war that ended slavery.

Long considered a conservative Southern state when it came to politics, Virginia turned that image upside down in November when it helped elect the nation's first black president. Many of those voters were in Northern Virginia, home to many transplants from other states. But the election also prompted some native Virginians to take another look at the statues and what they represent.

Growing up in Willisville in Loudoun County, Jennifer Grant, 33, rarely thought about the statue of a soldier with a rifle that has guarded the courthouse in Leesburg since 1908. When she did, the thoughts were not cheery.

"I didn't like it," said Grant, who is black and is a deputy clerk at the county courthouse. But, she said, "there were certain things people didn't talk about."

During and after the civil rights movement, some did talk about it, calling for the statues to be removed. But the memorials had staunch defenders, particularly among the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which had raised money to erect many of them.

"What's offensive to me might not be offensive to you, and vice versa," said Debby Mullins, president of the organization's Mary Custis Lee-17th Virginia Regiment chapter, which helps maintain a statue in Alexandria. "Everybody should be able to celebrate their heritage."

The fact that the statues went up at all testifies to the South's resurgence soon after its defeat, said John Coski, library and research director at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.

"How unusual it is that the losers in a war . . . were free to erect monuments to their heroes," he said, noting that the South began regaining political clout soon after the war. "A monument always testifies to power -- to who was in power at the time."

Monuments to the Civil War appeared soon after it ended, but the solitary-soldier trend began in Virginia in the late 1880s. "Appomattox," unveiled in 1889 at Prince and Washington streets in Alexandria, was one of the first.

The soldier, unarmed and sporting a walrus moustache, faces south, his back to the Capitol, slightly swayback, head bowed. Below him are the names of Alexandria residents killed in the war.

His expression is subject to interpretation.

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