In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson unveiled the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Created by Confederate veteran Moses Jacob Ezekiel, the 32-foot-tall monument features a large bronze statue of a woman holding a laurel wreath, a plow stock and a pruning hook, representing "the South," atop a granite base.
On that base is the Biblical verse," And they shall beat their swords into plough-shares and their spears into pruning hooks." It also features images from both mythology and those of Southern soldiers and civilians. These include a Black slave woman holding a white soldier's baby, along with a life-size image of an enslaved man following his owner off to war, among others.
"The elaborately designed monument offers a nostalgic, mythologized vision of the Confederacy, including highly sanitized depictions of slavery," according to the Arlington National Cemetery website.
In 2021, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which included a provision for the creation of the Naming Commission, which directs the defense secretary to "remove all names, symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederate States of America ... or any person who served voluntarily with the Confederate States of America from all assets of the Department of Defense."
As part of that provision, Arlington National Cemetery is preparing to remove the Confederate Memorial, which sits at the center of the cemetery's Confederate section. For the next 30 days, the cemetery is soliciting comments from the public as a part of that process.
Arlington National Cemetery was established during the Civil War, on the land confiscated from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and where (what used to be) his home still sits today. Just more than a month after Lee joined the rebellion, Union troops cleared rebel soldiers from the land and mansion as Lee and his wife fled.
As the Civil War raged on, the U.S. Soldiers' Cemetery and Alexandria, Virginia's Cemetery began to fill up, so Congress released funds to establish a new national cemetery. It just so happened that Lee's land was the perfect place for it, and the first burials at Arlington National Cemetery began in 1864.
Since then, it has been customary to establish a new section of the cemetery for the dead from a particular war. By 1877, Reconstruction had ended and U.S. troops were withdrawn from the South. By 1898, the Spanish-American War had resparked a feeling of unity among both the North and South.
President William McKinley revised the U.S. government's policy on maintaining Confederate grave sites, and he approved a petition asking for a Confederate section in the national cemetery. Congress passed a law allowing for Confederate graves scattered in Arlington to be dug up and reinterred in the new section.
The Confederate grave markers have pointed tops, unlike the rounded tops elsewhere in the cemetery. They are also not buried in orderly rows like the other sections. Instead, they are arranged in a ring around the Confederate Monument at the center of Stonewall Jackson Circle. Planning and fundraising for the memorial at the center began in 1904, and permission to build it was granted in 1906.
Now, after standing for more than a century in its position, the Confederate Memorial is set to be removed. Arlington National Cemetery is seeking comments from the public on its congressionally mandated relocation.
Though lawsuits to prevent its relocation are ongoing, the cemetery is already planning for that relocation, but is inviting the public to provide feedback on "alternatives that will avoid, minimize or mitigate adverse effects of the monument's removal."
"The removal of the Confederate Memorial must be conducted in a manner that ensures the safety of the people who work at and visit ANC and that protects surrounding graves and monuments," the removal page on Arlington National Cemetery's website says. "The entire process, including disposition, must occur according to applicable laws, policies, and regulations."
To submit a comment to Arlington National Cemetery's Confederate Memorial Removal Environmental Impact Statement, visit the website and fill out the electronic form by 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 2, 2023.
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