Confederate President Jefferson Davis has been yelling at me lately. Well, the person running a Twitter account in his name has been doing so. “Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne” has chimed in to call me a fraud, liar, and “an antisemitic activist on a mission to destroy history.” Other Confederates try to take a higher road: Since “anyone putting pronouns in their bio is broadcasting their cult indoctrination,” I should simply be ignored in favor of reading print-on-demand books with titles like Old Times There Should Not Be Forgotten: Cultural Genocide in Dixie.
Why the fervor? I had tweeted that Arlington National Cemetery has announced the removal of its Confederate Memorial. In 2021, as a response to the worldwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, Congress required the Department of Defense to create a commission to consider the ways in which the military continued to honor the Confederacy. This January, the department announced that it had accepted this commission’s recommendations. The secretary of defense explained that the decision to “remove from U.S. military facilities all names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederacy” had been taken so that these facilities could “inspire all those who call them home, fully reflect the history and the values of the United States, and commemorate the best of the republic that we are all sworn to protect.”
One of these recommendations is to remove portions of the Arlington Confederate Memorial. This memorial, dedicated in 1914, has a granite base and a bronze frieze of life-sized figures that present, according to the cemetery’s website, “a nostalgic, mythologized vision of the Confederacy, including highly sanitized depictions of slavery.” The frieze was intended to enshrine two cherished myths of the Lost Cause apologists by showing a Confederate soldier handing his baby to an enslaved nurse, who weeps to see him go, and an enslaved valet stoically marching alongside his master. These figures represent the supposed “loyal slaves,” who faithfully remained at home to care for soldiers’ wives and children during the war (because, presumably, they agreed that slavery was on the whole a good system), and the “Black Confederates” who fought for the South.
When I responded to this news by tweeting, “No more ‘loyal slave’ myths!,” I was admonished that these ideas are not mythical at all. My replies were full of information about Black men who fought for the South, and I was scolded for forgetting “these brave men [who] fought for their land.” All these claims have been thoroughly debunked, most recently by the historian Kevin M. Levin in his book Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. Meanwhile, “Col. Joseph Hardin” (a Revolutionary War hero pinch-hitting for the Confederacy) doubted that I could explain “how the South was able to mobilize as many men as it did without loyal slaves manning the plantations.” As if there were no other possible reasons to explain the decisions of the people who kept working during the war.
The lies written in bronze on the Arlington Confederate Memorial are no mere historical curiosities, displaying now-discarded beliefs. Those beliefs are alive and well. No wonder the commission found that the picture presented by the memorial “distorts history” so thoroughly that it would be impossible to neutralize its effect by merely putting up contextualizing signage. While the members considered other options, such as “demolishing and recycling all components of the memorial,” they ultimately recommended removing the bronze elements, while “leaving the granite base and foundation in place to minimize risk of inadvertent disturbance of graves.”
Now, a coalition of Confederate heritage supporters have banded together and filed a lawsuit to #DefendArlington (their proposed hashtag, which has so far not trended on social media, but you can buy it on a T-shirt). The filing points out that the commission’s authorizing legislation instructed it to pay some attention to “local sensibilities” about changes and then trots out four plaintiffs whose sensibilities have supposedly been offended.
The lawsuit’s definition of “local” is loose, as only two of these plaintiffs seem ever even to have visited Arlington. One is a Confederate history tour guide and the other a descendant of some of the soldiers buried by the memorial. Another plaintiff lives in Alabama but believes that the memorial commemorates his Confederate ancestors buried in unmarked graves in other sites. Since the authorities plan merely to remove the bronze elements, leaving the massive granite base in place, there will still be plenty left for those who wish to visit Arlington’s Confederate section as a pilgrimage site (or just think on it). Indeed, there is nothing to stop the removed frieze from being redisplayed elsewhere—so the tour guide might be able to charge clients more for two stops. Besides, there’s plenty of interest for fans of the Confederacy at the cemetery, at whose center sits Arlington House, our national Robert E. Lee memorial.
The final plaintiff is Harold K. Edgerton, described in the filing as “a Confederate Southern American of African ancestry” who is “an active and vocal defender of Southern culture and history and the honor of the Confederate soldier both black and white.” The filing makes no claim that Edgerton has ever even thought about the Arlington memorial, but his inclusion is unsurprising. He is a prized member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for the support his mere presence appears to give to the myth of Black Confederates. Levin, who has devoted special attention to Edgerton, argues that he is “peddling falsehoods refuted by countless historians of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction.”
Instead of worrying about the “sensibilities” of those whose lives are lived in an antebellum fantasyland, the Department of Defense is admirably showing that it is concerned with the effect of objects like the Arlington Confederate memorial on living service members. Black Americans are overrepresented in the military. They have volunteered to serve our imperfect country. It is a poor return for that service to insist that they share their burial ground with a monument that not only praises those who thought they were superior to Black people, but also insists that Black Southerners agreed that their enslavement was for the best.
On Twitter, “President Davis” insisted to me that the memorial “has nothing to do with slavery in any way, shape or form.” The current lawsuit holds this point of view, as well, claiming that the monument “represents the reunification of the North and South.” Indeed, the filing insists three times that the monument is “commonly” or “oftentimes” referred to as the “Reconciliation Memorial.” I could not find a single example of that appellation used before the commission recommended the monument’s removal—another example of the neo-Confederates hoping that reality will change if they insist on it hard enough.
The plaintiffs point out that “[n]early every U.S. president in the modern era, including Barrack Obama, has laid a wreath of flowers at the Memorial as a tribute to the spirit of reconciliation and healing it represents.” (That’s “sic” on “Barrack,” by the way.) They don’t mention that Obama received heavy criticism for continuing the Memorial Day tradition of including the monument on the list of memorials to which the president dispatches aides to lay wreaths. Obama responded by continuing the tradition but also pointedly adding the African American Civil War Memorial to the list.
The fake Black Confederate on the Arlington memorial should no longer be given the same respect as the hundreds of thousands of real Black soldiers who fought for the Union. Many are buried in Arlington, with no monument beyond their headstones.
Showing that neo-Confederates have learned from protests in recent years, the lawsuit tries to co-opt rhetoric used by racial justice activists: We can’t tear down a monument that offers us a chance to “better understand the complex history of the United States,” can we? The response is that we have a surplus of object lessons about our complex history on view. A walk through D.C. neighborhoods, shaped by long histories of segregation, provides many such lessons. We are in no danger of forgetting when there are legacies much more difficult to change than a single monument.
The #DefendArlington crowd has another card up its sleeve: anti-Semitism. The Arlington memorial was sculpted by Moses Ezekiel, the first Jewish graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, who fought for the Confederates before he began a long career as an artist. The tweeting defenders insisted that supporting the removal of his work would be anti-Semitic. That such a sudden rallying to the cause of protecting a Jewish Confederate is just the slightest bit pretextual was suggested by the homophobic insults lobbed at me in the debate. Ezekiel, who never married, was circumspect about his sexuality, but it’s probably no accident that he relocated to Rome, summered at Capri, and spent 45 years in a close relationship with a male painter whom he immortalized in hunky drawings. I wonder if the Confederate flag comes in rainbow?
Ezekiel plays a big role in the lawsuit, not only for his Judaism (mentioned three times) but also because the filing claims that the entire memorial is his grave marker. If this is true, the commission could not recommend its removal, since grave markers were specifically excluded from its remit. The filing waxes near-poetic about Ezekiel’s burial “inches from the base of his Memorial without the traditional approved white marble headstone authorized for use in Arlington.” That’s true—Ezekiel has no white marble headstone. Instead, he has a hefty granite and bronze headstone. The plaintiffs somehow forget to mention that one, but I have plenty of photos from my recent trip to the memorial.
No amount of rebranding as the “Reconciliation Memorial” will transform this monument into anything other than the lying propaganda it has always been. We need both truth and reconciliation, not one or the other.