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History vs. Memory: Statues of Stonewall Offer a Lesson

Black Tarp Jackson Statue

Stonewall’s statue in Charlottesville, wrapped in black tarp, 2017

Do we erase history when we take down a statue? That’s a question at the core of recent debate concerning Confederate monuments. Personally, I’m not convinced we do, but I do know we erase memory.

However, the distinction between “memory” and “history” is vital.

To illustrate the difference, I want to harken back to a series I did on the blog waaaaaay back in 2011, “Statues of Stonewall,” which I supplemented with a few more entries in 2017.

I choose this illustration for several reasons. First, anyone who knows me knows I’m a Stonewall Jackson fanboy, which (I hope) gives me a little credibility to talk about him. Second, many of these statues are well known by the Civil War community, so folks will know what I’m talking about. Third, there’s tremendous variety among the statues, which will help demonstrate my point.

Before we look at statues, let’s first remind ourselves of Jackson’s physical appearance. For this, we’ll defer to the “Jackson bible,” James Robertson’s definitive biography Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. On pg. 22, Robertson describes Jackson on Jackson’s eighteenth birthday:

Not yet at his final height of almost six feet (five inches above the average for males of that day), he had brown hair kept short because it tended to curl, a bronzed complexion from outdoor life, high forehead, curved Indian nose, and thin lips. Large blue-gray eyes dominated his facial features. His natural expression was a combination of thoughtfulness and fatigue. Jackson’s frame was solid and erect but marred by feet several sizes larger than normal. With that extreme reticence cultivated over a lifetime, Jackson could easily disappear in a crowd of three people.

Later, as Jackson matured, Robertson describes him as “an officer of fairly slender build with a shock of hair and well-kept mustache and beard” (78).

So, physique-wise, we have a “solid and erect” build that’s “fairly slender….” Does this match that description:

Located not far from the visitor center at Manassas National Battlefield, this is probably the best-known Jackson statue. It is, indeed, “solid and erect,” but we’d be hard-pressed to describe it as anything that resembles “slender.” In fact, it’s often referred to as Arnold Schwarzenegger on a Budweiser Clydesdale (so much for “Little” Sorrel!). This is Stonewall on steroids, not someone about to “disappear in a crowd of three people.”

Sculptor Joseph Pollia tried to capture the “Stonewall mystique” in his depiction of Jackson, using an Italian style of sculpture that intentionally exaggerated Jackson’s heroic aspects. It’s one of the main ways Jackson was—and still is—remembered by some people, but it does not represent actual history because it does not show us Jackson as he was in real life. (I’ll note that Robertson mentions Jackson’s “bronzed complexion,” which Pollia’s statue does capture quite literally because the statue is made of bronze.)

The placement of the statue, in the middle of the field, does not mark the actual spot Jackson appeared on the field. Had he been there, he’d have been caught in a nearly point-blank duel between his artillery and Federal artillery near the Henry House. Jackson positioned himself with his infantry in the woods dozens of yards behind the artillery.

So, the statue doesn’t really show us what Jackson looked like or where he was, but it does tell a story about a heroic figure standing firm on a battlefield, which is what people remember about Jackson. That’s a difference between history and memory.

In the summer of 2017, the Jackson monument in Charlottesville attracted a lot of attention. It’s a duplicate of a statue in Jackson’s birthplace, Clarksburg, West Virginia. For illustration purposes, I’ll use the Clarksburg statue because I like the angle better:

This is my favorite Jackson statue. It captures Jackson in motion, intense, fluid, and active. According to Bud Robertson, Jackson “rarely fell from a horse, despite his extremely awkward appearance in the saddle” (14), and despite extensive experience with horseback riding, “Jackson’s horesemanship would never reach the graceful level” (41). Sculptor Charles Keck’s statue argues otherwise.

Keck’s statue is Jackson remembered as “horseman,” particularly fitting in his hometown because the uncle who raised him, Cummins, owned a racetrack and Jackson had a lot of experience working there. But how else might Jackson have been remembered? As a Sunday school teacher? As a fervently religious man? As a father? A one-armed patient? We can find depictions of all of these things in paintings, in particular, but each only captures a specific facet of the whole Jackson. Similarly, each statue captures a specific facet while leaving out a whole lot. Jackson’s remembered in a particular way, not holistically.

My final example comes from Monument Avenue in Richmond:

Here we have a depiction of Jackson that best gets at Robertson’s description of a “solid and erect” build that’s “fairly slender….” Sculpted by Richmonder F. William Sievers, this Defender of the South also reflects the same noble heroism Sievers captured in the Virginia monument at Gettysburg. In fact, it’s so noble that Sievers took a lot of ribbing from veterans who thought Little Sorrel looked too impressive!

Aging veterans were the driving force behind the statue, which was erected in 1919—delayed from its 1914 start by WWI. The statue very much reflects the Jackson those veterans wanted to honor, and aside from the impressive horse, it depicts Jackson as those veterans remembered him.

While veterans remembered Jackson one way, how did black Richmonders remember him, particularly in the wake of WWI, which laid bare America’s racial inequities? When they were recruited to fight in WWI, black men often wondered why they should fight for a country that had done so little for them since the Civil War; resentment was fresh. Add to that the daily toil of living under Jim Crow. Do you think black Richmonders would have supported a noble-looking Jackson, Defender of the South? Would they have even supported a Jackson statue at all? Did anyone ask them for input?

Or, considered another way, had they put up a Jackson statue of their own, what would it have looked like? And let’s take that one step further. Jackson owned slaves. Had they raised a statue to Jackson, what would it have looked like compared to a statue raised by former slaves who did not know Jackson at all? (See how this whole discussion might get pretty nuanced?) Of course, black Americans in the postwar south typically didn’t have the economic or political power to participate in these sorts of remembrances.

So, the Richmond statue portrays a particular Jackson remembered by particular constituencies, but it does not portray a Jackson as remembered by all constituencies. It doesn’t capture a full history, but rather a particular memory.

That’s true of all statues. We could do the same exercise with other figures who’ve had multiple statues cast of them. For instance, some people claim Lincoln was a tyrant and Grant was a drunk, but we don’t see any statues out there that reflect those negative opinions, do we? Or, considered another way, what if, say, Jubal Early and D. H. Hill had decided to raise a statue to Grant: what would that statue have looked like?

By their nature, statues honor (and sometimes sentimentalize) positives and overlook negatives.

No statue captures history; every statue captures a particular memory—and, more specifically, it captures the memory of those with the political and economic power to enshrine that memory (not to mention the particular artistic interpretation of each sculptor!). As my colleague Dan Welch says, “That makes the ‘memory’ even that much more complex and complicated, as all of history is and should be.”

Now that black Americans, in particular, have political and economic power of their own, we should not be surprised that they want a say in a discussion they’ve long been excluded from. That, in turn, raises several vital questions—and, in the context of the current discussion, I would argue “urgent,” too—that center on the nature of memory and its relationship to history:

To me, that’s the crux of the problem. We must remember our history, but we also can’t let our memories cloud our history. Those who forget are doomed to repeat. Those who misremember are doomed to, as well.


For historical background on each of these statues and a host of others, check out “Statues of Stonewall.” Jackson has also been memorialized in stained glass in two churches, which you can read about here and here.