On the western edge of Arlington National Cemetery stands a 32-foot-tall bronze hymn to soldiers of a bygone past. Such monuments are common on the hallowed ground where more than 400,000 are buried and honored for service to the country.
But the one in Section 16 commemorates those who fought for another cause. It is the Confederate Memorial. A soaring testament to Southern pride, placed in Arlington nearly 50 years after the Civil War ended, the monument features a frieze depicting Rebels shouldering rifles, a black slave following his master and an enslaved woman — described on the cemetery’s website as a “mammy” — cradling a Confederate officer’s infant.
Across the country, monuments to the Confederacy and slavery defenders in the antebellum South have come under fresh scrutiny after white nationalists and white supremacists protested plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville park. Their protests spiraled into a weekend of chaos in the college town as a counterdemonstrator was killed and two state troopers who had been monitoring the protest died when their helicopter crashed.
There are many Rebel monuments on federal property — in battlefields, cemeteries and parks. The Confederate Memorial stands out, opponents say, for its location on sacred space in Arlington and its offensive depiction of slaves. But it seems unlikely President Trump would agree to remove it: He has pronounced himself a skeptic of monument movers, pointing out that Founding Fathers owned slaves.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. “You . . . . . . can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”
This week, one Confederate statue was toppled in Durham, N.C., and others were yanked overnight from pedestals in Baltimore. The mayor of Lexington, Ky., announced plans to move Confederate memorials. The Congressional Black Caucus chairman called for the removal of Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol. Democratic state lawmakers from Alexandria, Va., previously reluctant to propose a bill to take down the Confederate statue “Appomattox” in Old Town, now say they intend to do so when the legislature reconvenes.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced support for removing from the State House grounds in Annapolis a statue of a 19th century Supreme Court justice, Roger B. Taney, known for the infamous proslavery Dred Scott decision. “The right thing to do,” Hogan said.
The Arlington cemetery, occupying what was once Lee’s estate, is on property administered by the Department of the Army. The Confederate Memorial, erected in the early 20th century, is encircled by 482 graves of Rebel officers, enlisted men and others affiliated with their cause. Plenty of critics support its removal, including the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Association of Black Veterans.
Many local and state officials opposed to Confederate monuments say that all those gallant Southern generals astride horses represent efforts to promote white supremacy. The Confederate Memorial features slavery outright, rendering them under the command of masters in perpetuity.
“It’s a memorial that says the people who fought to keep a boot on your neck and to keep you as property are heroes,” said Jeffery Robinson, director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality with the American Civil Liberties Union. Robinson, who is black, called it “a monument to men who fought for the proposition that they own people who looked like me and then treat them as less than human.”
But there is little evidence of any public campaign to remove the memorial. Even if there were, it is unclear what legal path exists for it to be taken down.
Courtney Dock, a spokeswoman at the cemetery, said its leadership would not answer questions about the issue.
“We cannot comment on a hypothetical matter that would require actions outside the purview of the Secretary of the Army,” Dock said. “Due to the complex nature of the history of the monument and the fact that it is a contributing element to a historic district, the Secretary of the Army cannot unilaterally remove the monument.”
Acting Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Patricia M. Bryson, president general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the group that funded and commissioned the monument.
Frank Earnest, heritage defense coordinator for the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the public is largely unaware of the memorial.
“One little corner is not too much to ask,” said Earnest, of Virginia Beach. “They didn’t know about it until someone told them to be offended by it. So how is that just ripping people’s hearts out when most people don’t even know it’s there?”
Early in President Barack Obama’s first term, a group of professors urged him to abandon a presidential tradition of sending a wreath to the monument for Memorial Day. The professors described the memorial as a “symbol of white nationalism” that emboldens the “modern neo-Confederate movement.”
But Obama continued the tradition while starting a new one: sending a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial in the District, which honors the 200,000 blacks who fought for the Union.
Slavery is woven deep into the history of Arlington. At the beginning of the Civil War, as many as 63 slaves worked on the Lee family plantation and inside the columned mansion that still stands on the grounds.
After Virginia seceded in May 1861, Union forces took over the property across the Potomac River from Washington. After President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, former slaves flocked to the capital. Many settled in what became known as Freedman’s Village on Lee’s old estate.
“One sees more than poetic justice in the fact that its rich lands, so long the domain of the great general of the rebellion, now afford labor and support to hundreds of enfranchised slaves,” a journalist wrote in the Washington Independent in January 1867, according to Robert M. Poole’s 2009 history of the cemetery, “On Hallowed Ground.”
Union graves also proliferated on the estate in the final year of the war as casualties mounted, the genesis of the national cemetery. In 1900, Congress authorized a separate burial area for the Confederate dead as a gesture of national reconciliation.
Soon after, the United Daughters of the Confederacy petitioned the government to allow a new monument for what is now called Section 16. William Howard Taft, then secretary of war, approved the request in 1906. The work was designed by sculptor Moses Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran whose works include a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia. Atop the monument in Arlington is a figure of a woman holding a laurel wreath, facing south. Beneath her is a plinth with symbols of the Confederate states and the frieze depicting Southern scenes.
On June 4, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson led a dedication ceremony for the finished monument. He called it an “emblem of a reunited people.” The event was held the day after the birthday of the late Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
“My privilege is this, ladies and gentlemen: To declare this chapter in the history of the United States closed and ended,” Wilson said, “and I bid you turn with me with your faces to the future, quickened by the memories of the past, but with nothing to do with the contests of the past, knowing, as we have shed our blood upon opposite sides, we now face and admire one another.”
Wilson made no mention of slavery.
Nowadays, the issue is given scant attention at the cemetery, beyond a dim and musty room in a former slave quarters behind the mansion. There is also no physical trace of Freedman’s Village, which at its peak was home to 1,500 former slaves. The government razed the settlement in 1900.
Tamara Moore, 66, a retiree who lives in Arlington, is a descendant of slaves owned by Lee. She said that regardless of what the future holds for the Confederate Memorial, the cemetery should do more to recognize the role of her ancestors on the estate.
“There should be more inclusion in terms of talking about their contributions there,” said Moore. Her great-grandfather James Parks was born into slavery at Arlington in about 1843 and died there Aug. 21, 1929. His grave lies in Section 15, within sight of the shining bronze memorial to those who fought in vain to preserve slavery.