Federal Judge Allows Removal of Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery

The Defense Department had mandated that the monument be dismantled by January 1, 2024

Fencing in front of a tall statue
Safety fencing at Arlington National Cemetery rings the Confederate memorial. Win McNamee / Getty Images

The divisive Confederate memorial at Arlington National Cemetery will come down, a judge decided on Tuesday. The ruling arrived just a day after a temporary restraining order had halted the removal over concerns that nearby gravesites were being disturbed by the work.

At a hearing, U.S. District Judge Rossie David Alston Jr. said he toured the site. “I saw no desecration of any graves,” he said, per Matthew Barakat of the Associated Press (AP). “The grass wasn’t even disturbed.”

Monday’s restraining order was issued hours after Army crews began dismantling the memorial, reports Reuters’ Steve Gorman. They had been scheduled to complete the process by the end of the week.

The monument in question was funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and dedicated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. Designed by American sculptor Moses Ezekiel, the bronze statue depicts a woman wearing a crown of olive leaves and holding a laurel wreath, a plow stock and a pruning hook. She is meant to represent the American South, according to the cemetery.

At her feet, a Biblical inscription reads: “They have beat their swords into plough-shares and their spears into pruning hooks.” The statue sits atop a 32-foot-tall pedestal featuring four urns, representing the four years of the Civil War, and a frieze with 14 shields, which represent the 11 Confederate states and the border states of Missouri, Maryland and Kentucky.

The pedestal also features 32 life-sized figures that represent Southern soldiers and civilians, as well as mythical gods. Two of those figures are enslaved African Americans: a man “following his owner to war” and a “mammy” holding a Confederate officer’s child, per the cemetery. Also present is a Latin inscription that translates to: “The victorious cause was pleasing to the gods, but the lost cause to Cato.”

The Department of Defense had mandated the memorial’s removal by January 1, 2024. That directive stemmed from recommendations made by the Naming Commission, which was established by Congress in 2021 to rename military bases named after Confederate officers and remove Confederate monuments from military grounds. The United States Army operates and manages Arlington National Cemetery.

In its final report, members of the commission wrote that the Confederate memorial at Arlington perpetuates the narrative of the “Lost Cause,” which “romanticized the pre-Civil War South and denied the horrors of slavery, fueled white backlash against Reconstruction and the rights that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments (1865-1870) had granted to African Americans.”

As the January 1 removal deadline drew near, more than 40 Republican members of Congress signed a letter arguing that the memorial should remain in place. A group called Defend Arlington also filed suit against the Department of Defense on Sunday, reports the AP’s Barakat. The organization argued that dismantling the memorial would disturb the surrounding gravesites and that the Department of Defense had failed to prepare an environmental impact statement about the work, report the New York Times’ Orlando Mayorquin and Rebecca Carballo. In response, Alston issued the temporary injunction, reports NPR’s Sarah McCammon.

The Confederate memorial at Arlington is just one of the many Confederate statues, monuments and artworks that have faced scrutiny since police killed George Floyd in 2020. In October, foundry workers melted down the controversial bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that stood for nearly a century in Charlottesville, Virginia. Also this fall, Washington National Cathedral replaced stained-glass windows honoring Confederate generals with new installations depicting the struggle for racial justice.

“These memorials were created and funded by Jim Crow governments to pay homage to a slave-owning society and to serve as blunt assertions of dominance over African Americans,” wrote Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler for Smithsonian magazine in 2018.

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