We had bushwhacked our way from the 17th Michigan Monument along Burnside Drive up through the woods to Heth’s Salient—a lesser-known part of the Spotsylvania Battlefield but one worth seeing. Doug Crenshaw and Bert Dunkerly had come up from Richmond for the afternoon to pound around in the brush with me and see such out-of-the-way spots. As we trekked, the humidity and mid-80-temps took their toll, so at the apex of Heth’s Salient, we took a break. Bert checked his phone. Doug and I took a seat on a fallen tree and fell into conversation about James Lane’s brigade, which had a rough morning on May 12, 1864, at the Mule Show, then more tough fighting that afternoon at Heth’s Salient.
“Great brigade,” I said, “but they never got much credit because they were the ones who shot Stonewall Jackson, and they could never shake that specter.”
“Stonewall Jackson is down,” Bert said.
I thought he was referring to his wounding at Chancellorsville, but he wasn’t.
Bert held the screen of his phone toward us. “They took down the Jackson statue in Richmond this afternoon,” he said.
On social media last night, someone had circulated an urgent S.O.S. about statues on Monument Avenue facing imminent, middle-of-the-night removal. The state law that authorized it didn’t go into effect until July 1, so if anything was coming down, it had to be after midnight, although I didn’t think a municipality could unilaterally decide to just take a statue down without public comment and a 60-day waiting period.
When I woke this morning, I texted my friend Rob Orrison to see if anything had happened. (Rob’s superpower is that he knows everyone in Virginia and the inside scoop on everything.) The statues, Rob said, remained up. (For more on the history of the statue, see “Statues of Stonewall: Monument Avenue.”)
This afternoon, shortly after Bert discovered the news on his phone, Rob texted me a link to the live TV coverage of the statue’s removal. I didn’t have cell coverage as good as Bert’s, so I couldn’t watch it then, but I knew I’d have to check it out ASAP.
As soon as the three of us finished our tour, I called Rob.
“They cut off his legs, man!” Rob said.
“Jackson’s?” I asked. “Or the horse’s?”
“The horse’s.” Apparently, the public works crew couldn’t get the statue off the pedestal, so they had to remove it by cutting through the legs of the statue’s horse. Rob laughed. “Jackson wasn’t going anywhere.”
“Standing there like a stone wall,” I noted.
“Well, at least he’s still standing like that at Manassas,” Rob said, adding an ominous, “For now.” Rob hints at a sentiment I’ve heard elsewhere, that the mass demonstrations will next target statues at national battlefields—or even the battlefields themselves. The Manassas Jackson itself was a target of vandalism in 2017. (And no sooner did I wrote those words that I learned he’d been the target of vandalism again this evening.) Their pessimism is justified, I suppose, although I think National Parks provide the perfect context for such statues and monuments, which should be left alone there.
In removing the Monument Avenue Jackson statue, which occupies city-owned land, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney evoked his emergency powers to circumvent the legally prescribed 60-day waiting period. “Failing to remove the statues now poses a severe, immediate and growing threat to public safety,” he said.
According to Bert, volunteers showed up to clean the Monument Avenue statues the other day surrounded by members of an armed militia. With some of the protesters occupying Monument Avenue also carrying weapons, the mix seemed like a brew of real trouble. Stoney also said he worried protesters might hurt themselves trying to pull down the statues themselves, citing a similar incident in Portsmouth.
I’ve maintained all along that communities have the right to decide what they want to do with their monuments, although I’ve also advocated public processes for making those decisions (see here for more on that). While I understand Stoney’s concerns about public safety, and I wholeheartedly support the calls for greater racial justice at the heart of the protests, I felt disappointed by Richmond’s rip-off-the-band-aid approach. At a time when we all need to listen to each other more, this seemed like a rush job.
The city’s other monuments are also slated for removal. The Lee statue, owned by the state, remains in legal limbo following a court challenge to its announced removal. It’s a fast-moving story, so stay tuned for details.