As the city of Alexandria, Va., wrangles over the proper locations for its Confederate memorials, letters are pouring in to keep one Johnny Reb statue right where he is: on a pedestal in the middle of a too-busy intersection.
“He stands there solemn and humble and sad,” one resident wrote to the citizens advisory group charged with studying the relocation issue. “Please don’t remove this statue — I pass it daily and it reminds me to look for the solution and not strife.”
Another letter read: “His head is bowed in defeat, he has no weapon. There is no prophecy of a Confederate resurgence, no anger towards the North, no attempt to justify the cause of the South.”
Sorry, but that Johnny Reb statue, called “Appomattox,” belongs in a cemetery. To understand why, you have to dispense with the fantasies about what he represents.
First of all, Johnny Reb does not give up. If he bows, it is a feint. His primary weapon is a belief in white supremacy; thus, he is always armed. If he loses a “war between the states,” he’ll spend the next hundred years waging war within the states.
One need only look at the statehouses throughout the South to see that his cause is far from being lost.
In the book “Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War,” Colin Edward Woodward writes: “For rebel troops, the Confederacy was a great and bloody gamble to keep the South wedded to the economic prosperity and racial caste system that slavery made possible.”
Nothing noble about it.
“Most rebels did not own black people, but very few could claim ignorance of the everyday workings of the peculiar institution,” Woodward remarks. “They were part of a culture of slavery in the South, and they certainly did not fight for the eradication of human bondage.”
No denying that, either.
The Johnny Reb figure was based on a photograph of a Confederate soldier after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Va., in 1865. Some might think that meant the war was over for Johnny.
“This statue, unlike no other, represents peace and the post war reflection of the veterans,” a resident wrote to the advisory group.
The fact is Confederate veterans founded the first-iteration Ku Klux Klan. The group would flourish throughout the United States during the 20th century, becoming terrorists, not peacemakers.
It was the killing of nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., last year — by a man with a fetish for Confederate symbols — that prompted many cities to reconsider how such memorials and flags should be displayed, if at all.
“This unarmed soldier with downcast eyes, is not, and was never intended to be, a monument to the Confederacy,” wrote Deborah A. Mullins, chapter president of the Mary Custis Lee-17th Virginia Regiment Chapter 7 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “From inception, he was, and is, a memorial to one hundred citizens of Alexandria who lost their lives defending their state.”
You have to hand it to those Confederate daughters and sons: Their public relations campaign to separate Johnny Reb from his ignoble cause has been astounding. And here he stands atop a pedestal — at the intersection of Prince and South Washington streets — a hero facing south with his outsize sculpted bronze behind protruding toward the nation’s capital.
The Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Confederate Memorials and Street Names must recommend to the City Council what to do about him, along with other memorials and nearly 50 streets named after Confederate generals and military leaders.
A stretch of Jefferson Davis Highway (a.k.a. Route 1), named for the president of the Confederacy, ought to be renamed immediately. Nat Turner Rebellion Road would be a fitting twist.
At a meeting Monday night, the advisory group seemed to think that council members had passed the buck “just to take the heat off of them.”
But making a decision should not be too difficult.
The advisory group need only take into account “community values, knowledge, and ideas into its discussions and considerations,” as the City Council instructed.
Knowledge, facts — those are key.
Moving Johnny Reb would require an act of the Virginia General Assembly. Those who placed the statue anticipated today’s controversy and enacted laws to make moving it as difficult as possible. But just because it may be impossible doesn’t mean that it’s not the right thing to do.
“The war between the states, the great invader from the North, had similarities to the colonials breaking away from European control,” a resident wrote.
Another said: “My great uncle’s name is on the Appomattox statute, and he died fighting for a perceived injustice, federal over-reach, and states’ rights. . . . He fought for the ideal that a man should pursue his own destiny and fortune, black or white, without federal mandates.”
There are lots of heartfelt letters being written. But that doesn’t make them right.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.
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