Remove the Confederate statues shamefully displayed in our nation’s Capitol

  • Published on August 15th, 2017

Without justice, there can be no environmental justice.

The year my mother moved the two of us from southwest Georgia—1956—was the same year the legislature there chose to unfurl a new state flag in defiance of the desegregation mandate of the Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The lawmakers chose the most prominent part of that new flag to replicate the battle banner of the Army of Northern Virginia, a flag that in its rectangular form has come to be seen by most Americans as the Confederate flag, often mistakenly calling it the “Stars and Bars.

By Meteor Blades 

These statues of Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton III, Gen. Robert E. Lee, secession-promoter John C. Calhoun, and Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith are among the 100 that stand in places of honor in the nation's Capitol.
These statues of Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton III, Gen. Robert E. Lee, secession-promoter John C. Calhoun, and Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith are among the 100 that stand in places of honor in the nation’s Capitol.

Since I was but 9 at the time, I didn’t really understand the significance of the legislature’s move nor the significance of the Confederate statues erected in the town square of my birthplace and other nearby Georgia and Florida cities and towns we had visited or at least driven through. Only in my late teens did I come to appreciate the hateful nature of the battle flag and these monuments to treason and slavery.

Ever since I came to understand, more than half a century ago, I’ve been amazed that more effort wasn’t given over to dumping into a landfill or a furnace these representatives of savage inhumanity.

So I’ve been delighted to watch the past few years as these disgraceful emblems in support of keeping humans in bondage have been belatedly removed from their places of honor. It would have been better, in my view, if the flags had been torched and the statues chained and yanked into the street like many of the statues of Lenin and Stalin after the U.S.S.R. bit the dust. But seeing them removed from public spaces will have to be good enough.

Alexander Stevens, Confederate Traitor in our nations capitol
Marble statue of Alexander Stephens (1812-1883), the Confederacy’s only vice president, perched in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol, displayed like a hero of the Republic instead of one of its leading traitors.

Of course, there remain scores if not hundreds of such statues throughout the South, and a few of these relics will no doubt be there still 50 years from now, a mere two centuries after the Confederacy collapsed and its most stubborn advocates began a long-running tale about how they were the victims. It will be up to local activists to melt down these remaining monuments or confine them to museums and private property. The delay is a drag, but so be it. However, there are some statues of prominent Confederates that should be removed right now. Should, in fact, never have been allowed into the building in the first place.

They stand in the nation’s Capitol, the building that was under construction when the men whom these statues depict launched the bloodiest war in the nation’s history. In the place of greatest honor—National Statuary Hall in the Rotunda—are sculptures of Rebel President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens. His “Cornerstone” speech lays out for all to see that secession was first and foremost about slavery, not tariffs, not Southern heritage, not states’ rights—other than the right to shackle and sell people as property.

Whether it’s Bree Newsome’s courageous flagpole-climbing pull-down of the battle flag on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol two years ago or this month’s removal in New Orleans of the statues of Confederate President Davis, General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, General Robert E. Lee, and a monument lauding a white supremacist militia uprising in 1874, activists have taken actions that finally redress the fetid, twisted view that it is thoroughly patriotic to fly the battle flag and erect these bronze, steel, and marble paeans to privileged insurrection.

The gleeful iconoclasm of these flag-grabs and monument dismantlings have produced some great moments, Newsome’s being the most iconic. Last week, we witnessed another moment of courage and healing when, as acid-tongued Esquirewriter Charles P. Pierce wrote, sometimes “a politician sees his way through the fog that surrounds his daily occupation and arrives at a truth so solid and unyielding that the politician can’t do anything else except share it with the world.” That’s what New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu did in his speech about removing Confederate statues in his city.

Everyone should read Landrieu’s entire speech, but here’s a key excerpt:

The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.

It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

If those words apply to the statues removed in New Orleans, they apply even more strongly to those in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Bronze statue in Statuary Hall of Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), the Confederacy’s only president.
Bronze statue in Statuary Hall of Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), the Confederacy’s only president.

Also in National Statuary Hall in the Rotunda together with the statues of President Davis and Vice President Stephens, is Zebulon Vance, North Carolina’s Confederate governor during the Civil War and again in the 1870s when he was instrumental in destroying Reconstruction. There too is Gen. Joseph Wheeler, who claimed Georgia as his home, though he was born and raised well north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Both these men are depicted in full Rebel regalia, their uniform a badge of dishonor commemorated in stone or metal, not common soldiers, many of whom were conscripts, but rather the men who planned and executed the conflict that slaughtered so many to keep so many more in shackles.

Other white supremacist statues appear in the Capitol’s Visitors Center, the Hall of Columns, and the Crypt, instead of the Rotunda. But, and this sometimes causes confusion, all are part of the 100-piece National Statuary Hall Collection even though only 35 actually reside in National Statuary Hall.

These others include North Carolinian Charles Aycock, who helped destroy interracial politics in the Fusion Period of the late 1800s. Gen. Wade Hampton III, who helped smash Reconstruction efforts in the postwar period in South Carolina, is there.

Slavery apologist and secession proselytizer John C. Calhoun of South Carolina has a place in the collection too, although he of course died well before the outbreak of war. There’s J.Z. George, a member of the Mississippi Secession Convention who signed the Ordinance of Secession and served as a Confederate colonel of the 5th Mississippi Cavalry. Plus Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith of Florida and Gen. Joseph Wheeler of Georgia. General Robert E. Lee of Virginia is there, too, standing tall like these others in full-dress uniform.

The reasons the collection got to be what it is—mostly white, mostly male and packed with Rebel traitors—and why it’s mostly been kept that way—got the full treatment from Tim Murphy in Mother Jones magazine four years ago, and I urge you to read his excellent piece beginning to end. The short version is that there’s an over-representation of men who made their bones in and around the Civil War era because the legislation establishing National Statuary Hall passed in 1864. And the unrepentant postwar leaders of the old Confederacy were eager to use the two statues each state is allotted under the law to honor men who had led the fight to preserve slavery and subsequently maintain white supremacy after at least 600,000 people had died as a consequence of their infamy.

How these sculptures were kept from being vandalized or pounded into shards at a time when one-legged, one-eyed Union veterans still lived is a wonderment. Imagine if Connecticut had chosen to carve one of its allotted statues into a depiction of Benedict Arnold to represent the state in the nation’s Capitol.

Nowadays, the powers-that-be both on Capitol Hill and in the states, are mostly reluctant to redress this obscenity, although Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant says he is willing to discussswitching out President Davis and Colonel George with other personages. The missing-the-point proposal that more diversity could be had by installing three statues per state was fortunately nixed by the Architect of the Capitol because the building’s foundation can’t handle the added weight.

Bad enough that these statues weren’t excluded from the building in the first place. But the mini-bios accompanying them sanitize the records of these men, some of whom were outright criminals above and beyond their treason. It’s not just hoary inertia at work either. As Murphy points out, just 25 years ago when the Florida House of Representatives agreed to remove the state’s statue of Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith and replace him with World War II hero James Van Fleet, the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy lobbied the state senate to trash the proposal.

Some people may argue that none of this matters when so many other issues should dominate our priority list. These statues, they say, merely depict historical figures of importance in the nation’s past and they shouldn’t be erased for purposes of “political correctness.” Shall we talk erasures? How many public squares in Mississippi and North Carolina have statues of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass? They believed in and fought for and urged others to fight for what was promised in the Declaration and Constitution: political liberty and individual freedom. The men of those statues? They initiated the slaughter of 2 percent of the population to ensure that 4 million human beings remained chattel.

There is a big difference between having statues of these traitors filling an honored place in the Capitol and placing them in museums or, say, ranged around the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery where they can eternally look out over the Rebel war dead. They are dead and their cause is dead. Let them join the dead.

Nobody is suggesting their life stories be excised from our textbooks. In fact, their stories demand to be explored truthfully, especially in textbooks that still treat the Civil War as the War of North Aggression even if they no longer express it quite that way.

While New Orleans and other locales are finally taking down their Confederate monuments, how about moving Jeff Davis and Alexander Stephens and the rest of the sculpted crew of Confederates to some corner that only the Capitol’s custodians see? Or shipping them back where they came from to let somebody at the state level find a warehouse to tuck them into?

More than a century and a half after slavery was officially ended and black people declared to be actual human beings, nearly 100 years after women got the right to vote, and more than 50 years since the Civil Rights Act passed, surely the legislatures that sent those statues to represent the values of their states can find replacements that don’t insult their black populations and other citizens who view these white supremacists for what they were, villainous traitors, not heroes.

(Originally appeared at DailyKos. Photo by Architect of the Capitol.)

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.