History Column

The Confederate Statue

By Sarah Becker

In college my roommate, an Arkansan and I often discussed southern history. One afternoon—I will never forget—she turned her tiny torso and snapped: “Yankees do not understand! America did not fight a Civil War. It was the War of Northern Aggression.” Aggression was news to me. I am a Hoosier by birth.

The War Between the States began in April 1861 with the shelling of Fort Sumter. Alexandrians—initially—were reluctant to separate from the Union. However the mood changed when President Abraham Lincoln assembled 75,000 troops to respond to the rebellion. Virginia seceded as of May 24, 1861 and the War ended with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

“After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the [Confederate] Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources,” Lee told his troops on April 10, 1865. “I need not tell the survivors…that I have consented to this [surrender] from no distrust of them; but, feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. By the terms of this agreement, officers and men can return to their homes…”

Reconstruction did not proceed easily. President Andrew Johnson, a southerner and Unionist Democrat, failed to win widespread political support. In 1870 Negro males were granted voting rights.   The economic downturn, when combined with the emotion of Robert E. Lee’s 1870 death resulted in a surge of southern sentiment.

History-Appomattox, The Confederate Statue, bronze, John A. Elder  artist, 1889In April 1885 Edgar Warfield, a pharmacist and former private in the 17th Virginia Infantry, asked the R.E. Lee Camp of the United Confederate Veterans to construct a monument on behalf of the Confederate dead.   In 1888 the Alexandria City Council approved the project, permitting placement of the Statue—Appomattox—at the intersection of Prince and Washington Streets. The Confederate Statue stands where local soldiers, mostly between the ages of 19 and 26, assembled prior to evacuation.

“Alexandria’s fair daughters found a labor of love in their efforts to raise funds for the Confederate monument,” The Washington Post reported in 1888.

The Statue now falls within the purview of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC was established in 1894, an outgrowth of Confederate memorial, monument and veterans organizations. Its mission is “to collect and preserve the material necessary for a truthful history of the War Between the States.” (Italics added)

The Confederate Statue was dedicated on May 24, 1889 [Alexandria’s Confederate Memorial Day]. Warfield invited former President Jefferson Davis to attend but he declined: “I regret that it will not be practicable for me to…meet the survivors of those who so nobly sacrificed [for] the purpose of preserving for themselves and their posterity the rights their revolutionary fathers secured and left to them for inheritance forever.” Davis published his memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government in 1881.

In 1890 Virginia declared Robert E. Lee’s January birthday a holiday. The Commonwealth also confirmed The Confederate Statue’s permanence: “Whereas it is the desire of the said Robert E. Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans and also the citizens and inhabitants of said City of Alexandria that such monument shall remain in its present position as a perpetual and lasting testimonial to the courage, fidelity and patriotism of the heroes whose memory it was erected…the permission so given by the said City Council of Alexandria for its erection shall not be repealed, revoked, altered, modified, or changed by any future Council or other municipal power or authority.”

The Robert E. Lee Camp copyrighted The Confederate Statue in 1892. Why? Because it was the copycats meow. The soldier, a private, embodies “the complete history of the lost cause graphically presented to posterity.”

In 1979 black City Council member Nelson Greene, Sr. argued the Statue’s removal. “It’s asinine for me as a black to pass by it every day when it represents a cause that was trying to keep me in bondage,” Greene told The Washington Post. The hateful actions of white supremacist, accused murderer Dylann Roof drive this year’s discussion of the Confederacy.

History-Appomattox, Oil painting, John A. Elder artist, 1888 The bronze Confederate Statue is the creation of Confederate veteran and Fredericksburg, Virginia artist John A. Elder. It is born of a “clay model of the figure in his painting Appomattox.” Elder’s oil painting, the property of the State of Virginia, includes a Confederate soldier pensively perusing the battlefield. Sculptor M. Casper Buberl executed the design.

“We must expect reverses, even defeats,” Lee wrote President Davis in 1863. “They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.” Defeat is “to win victory over; to prevent the success of.”

What does the Confederate soldier’s defeat teach us? That defeat is not the end; it is the beginning of something new. The extent of the defeat is determined by how well the defeated and the victor adjust. On May 1, 1869 President, former General Ulysses S. Grant invited College President Robert E. Lee to the White House. He accepted.

“True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them—the desire to do right—is precisely the same,” Grant said. “The circumstances which govern their actions change, but their conduct conforms to the new order of things.”

The Confederate soldier, as depicted by Elder, carries no weapon; wears a hat, shoulder bag and canteen. His arms are folded, his eyes cast downward. He reflects on the past; presumably battlefield carnage. Said Lee when asked about sadness, “I’m thinking of the men who were lost after I knew it was too late.”

With defeat comes education. “The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged,” Lee mused. “It is history that teaches us to hope.” Hope inspires the effort that creates change.

“It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them,” Grant declared. “At the time of the framing of our constitution…the application of steam to propel vessels against both wind and current…had not been thought of…We could not and ought not be rigidly bound by the rules laid down under circumstances so different.”

Tourists know Robert E. Lee as Alexandria’s hometown boy. This month the Alexandria City Council discusses Confederate symbols, best practices, and the display of the Confederate flag and Statue. My suggestion: The Confederate flag is shown only within Alexandria’s Confederate Veterans Building and Museum. The Confederate Statue remains in its present location and the nearby Lyceum, the city’s museum develops interpretive signage suitable for side yard display.

The Confederate Statue, “a statue of heroic size,” is “not the soldier who led brigades and divisions and corps, and whose reward has been the glory of renown, but the private soldier who is unknown.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy “guard this statue with sacred care.” The Confederate soldier, as explained in 1889, fought “for a principle which he deemed righteous, and yet apparently all for naught

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