Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) announced Monday she was in talks with contractors to haul away the statues, and the city council approved a removal plan that night. Some activists had vowed to destroy the monuments before the government could act.
Photos and video on social media Wednesday morning showed crews using cranes to remove statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, then hauling them away on a flatbed truck. Statues honoring Confederate women and Roger B. Taney, the U.S. chief justice who authored the pro-slavery Dred Scott decision, also were removed.
A statue honoring Confederate soldiers and sailors, defaced with bright red paint over the weekend, is also gone.
On the base of the now-empty Jackson and Lee monument are messages saying "Black lives matter" and "F--- the Confederacy." By noon, an artist was erecting a statue of a black woman to take the generals' place.
Pugh said in an interview that she decided Tuesday to get rid of the statues through a stealth operation after a contractor was ready for the task.
"I said, 'We want to do it tonight, away from fanfare,' " said Pugh, who stayed up all night monitoring the statue removals between 11 p.m. Tuesday and about 5 a.m. Wednesday. "We all are seeing lessons via the media of uprisings and violence, and violence is not what we need in our city."
Just a day earlier, Pugh said she would seek approval from the Maryland Historical Trust, a state agency, to remove the Lee-Jackson monument, then provide a public timeline for removal.
But she defended skipping those steps as necessary for keeping the community safe. She did not have an estimate for how much the statue removal cost taxpayers.
Carolyn Billups, former president of the Maryland division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, criticized Pugh, saying she bypassed rules in the rush to remove the statues.
"That's an act of lawlessness in my mind," said Billups, who lives in St. Mary's County. "This is a public figure. This is the leader of a city. If you expect . . . your constituents to respect the law, you have to toe the line."
Pugh said Wednesday she did not know where the monuments were taken, adding that their fates would be determined by a group created to address their future. She said she hopes to see plaques where the monuments once stood that explain why the statues were removed.
The mayor's office is also reaching out to cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are buried to see whether they are interested in the statues.
Baltimore City Council member Brandon Scott said the statues should be melted down and used to create a statue of Kurt L. Schmoke, the city's first elected black mayor. He praised the mayor's handling of the issue.
"Taking the right action in a swift way kept all of Baltimore safe," Scott said. "My worry was that some young kid that wants them to come down goes out and gets hurt."
He said he was thinking of Durham, N.C., in particular, where a woman faces felony charges in connection with the vandalism and toppling of a monument.
A commission, appointed by then-Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake after a white supremacist killed nine African Americans in a historically black South Carolina church, recommended the removal of the Lee-Jackson monument, with signs adding historical context to two other statues. Pugh had criticized the previous administration's inaction after the commission's recommendations.
Pugh also consulted New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D), who oversaw a contentious removal of Confederate statues this spring. The first company hired to remove New Orleans's monuments withdrew after receiving death threats.
"Baltimore is setting an example that others should follow," said Del. Cheryl Glenn (D-Baltimore City), who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland. "If this neo-Nazi movement is intent on exacting violence where we have these Confederate statues, then if you take the statues down, you reduce the potential for this kind of divisiveness."
Across the nation, Confederate monuments have come under renewed scrutiny following widespread disgust at how a Lee statue in Charlottesville became a rallying point for white supremacists this year.
President Trump on Tuesday seemed to defend Confederate monuments during a combative news conference in which he declared "both sides" were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville and suggested memorials for slave-owning Founding Fathers would be next if monuments for Confederate generals were removed.
Pugh said that Trump's comments played no role in her decision-making and that she had not listened to them, because she was busy with Baltimore's monument removals.
The mayor of Lexington, Ky., is seeking approval to relocate two Confederate monuments in the city, citing the Charlottesville clashes for the timing of his decision. Officials in other cities have been considering removals as well.
At a news conference Wednesday, Pugh offered this advice to the mayors of those communities: "Do it quietly. And quickly."
The vestiges of Confederate veneration in Maryland are also shaping up as an issue ahead of next year's governor's race.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Tuesday announced he would support removing the statue of Taney from State House grounds. The statue had been defended by Democrats and Republicans, and Hogan last year described calls to remove it as "political correctness run amok."
Former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, applauded the removal of the Baltimore statues and called on Hogan to support the removal of other Confederate memorials — including the "Talbot Boys" statue in Talbot County.
"The question is whether he has the courage to stand up in a Republican stronghold in Eastern Shore and say the statues there should come down as well," Jealous said. "That will be a real test of leadership for him. The politics are very different than in Baltimore."
At least three other Democratic gubernatorial candidates — Baltimore entrepreneur Alec Ross, former Michelle Obama policy director Krish Vignarajah and state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery) — also praised Pugh.
Calla Kessler contributed to this report.