Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett stepped into the national debate over symbols of the Confederacy on Friday, saying that he has ordered a 102-year-old bronze statue of a Confederate soldier removed from the lawn next to Rockville’s Red Brick Courthouse.
Leggett (D) had been staying out of a community discussion over the Montgomery County Confederate Monument, sparked by the movement to remove the Rebel battle flag from South Carolina’s state capitol grounds.
Last week, he said he wanted to hear various points of view on the statue, and the Rockville City Council is scheduled to hold a hearing Monday evening. In addition, County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) has asked his staff to put together a private meeting of stakeholders — without elected officials present — so they could freely exchange views.
But on Friday, Leggett, who was the first African American to serve on the Montgomery County Council and be elected county executive, sounded adamant.
“I decided we’re going to remove it, period,” he said, adding that he has asked David Dise, director of the county’s General Services Department, to develop a plan for moving and storing the monument, which was commissioned by the Daughters of the Confederacy.
Asked about possible places to move the artifact, such as Monocacy Cemetery in Beallsville, where many Confederate soldiers are buried, Leggett said: “I don’t care. We’re just going to take it down, and we’ll put it in storage. Those are two different questions,” removal and relocation, he said.
Leggett said the statue was part of a national effort by Confederate supporters to “rewrite history” by obscuring the fact that Maryland did not secede and that the state sent many more soldiers to fight with the Union than with the Confederacy.
The monument depicts a young cavalry private, arms folded and with a sabre hanging from his left hip. The plaque reads: “To Our Heroes of Montgomery Co., Maryland, That We Through Life May Not Forget To Love The Thin Gray Line.”
Said Leggett: “There was a thin blue line, too.”
The final say might not be Leggett’s. A document posted on Rockville’s Web site Friday said removal would require the Rockville Historic District Commission’s approval. But Rockville and Montgomery officials said there is still some question about the extent of the commission’s power.
Those who favor keeping the statue in place — possibly with more signage to add context — said that Leggett didn’t always take such exception to it. A 2008 chronology produced by Peerless Rockville, a historic preservation nonprofit group, says that Leggett attended a 1994 rededication of the statue when he was on the County Council. Leggett’s spokesman said the county executive doesn’t recall being there.
His decision comes on the heels of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement last week that there would be no statewide review of Civil War-related symbols, despite petitions seeking to remove a statue outside the statehouse and rename Byrd Stadium at the University of Maryland.
“Where do we draw the line? Some of this is our history,” said Hogan (R), calling the petition efforts “political correctness run amok.”
Historian Susan Soderberg, who has written extensively about Maryland’s war monuments, said the Rockville statue is a monument not to war but to peace and reconciliation. “It has a special significance,” Soderberg said. “It is the statue of a common soldier, not a general or a leader.”
Soderberg said the statue reflects the Confederate sentiment in 19th-century Montgomery, when many men crossed the Potomac River to fight with the Army of Virginia, then returned to hold local and state offices. One account in the Maryland Archives says the model for the statue was Spencer C. Jones, mayor of Rockville at the turn of the 20th century.
Maryland has “an almost equal number” of Union and Confederate monuments, Soderberg said. She noted that some of Montgomery’s Union and Confederate veterans fought side by side in the Spanish-American War a few years later.
Leggett’s position seems to echo that of University of Vermont sociologist James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader,” who wrote in The Washington Post on July 1 that neo-Confederates have successfully recast Montgomery and Maryland history.
Loewen said that Maryland sent 24,000 men to the Confederate armed forces and 63,000 to the Army and Navy.
“The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about,” Loewen wrote.
Rockville City Council member Tom Moore, who along with City Council member Virginia Onley set up Monday’s hearing, said he supported Leggett’s stance.
“I’m pleased to hear it,” Moore said, adding that it will help focus the discussion on alternative locations for the monument. Those expected to attend Monday’s talk are Anita Neal Powell, president of the NAACP’s Montgomery County chapter, and Tony Cohen, founder of the Menare Foundation, a nonprofit group that preserves the history of the Underground Railroad.
Leventhal said he respected Leggett’s position, but he added: “I think the timing is a little abrupt. We still want to have this meeting of community stakeholders.”