‘Honestly I believe we need to ignore this statement by the governor’
In 1900, the Remington Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a memorial to Rappahannock County’s fallen Confederate soldiers on the grounds of the courthouse in Washington.
A rock and concrete obelisk that stands about 20 feet, the memorial featuring chiseled profiles including Gen. Robert E. Lee is engraved with the “Hallowed Names” of 117 Rappahannock residents who fought and died for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Now, in the wake of violent clashes in Charlottesville over the city’s proposed removal of statues of Confederate Generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has called for publicly-placed Confederate “monuments” throughout the state to be removed.
“As we attempt to heal and learn from the tragic events in Charlottesville, I encourage Virginia’s localities and the General Assembly — which are vested with the legal authority — to take down these monuments and relocate them to museums or more appropriate settings,” McAuliffe stated.
What the governor didn’t point out is the distinct differences between Confederate statues, such as Lee sitting atop his horse, and the monuments or memorials that honor the war dead. Virginia law protects the latter, which would include the Confederate memorial overlooking Gay Street.
“Honestly I believe we need to ignore this statement by the governor and not make news where there is none,” reacts Rappahannock County Supervisor Ron Frazier, who tells this newspaper that McAuliffe is “showing his contempt for state law.”
“These monuments have been standing for a hundred years and never were an issue,” says Frazier, one of five county supervisors. “Even starting a discussion to remove ours will cause division where none exists. It will lead to no good end. People with no knowledge of history will be allowed an equal footing with descendants of the soldiers. While that may be democratic, it certainly isn’t fair, and the removal is illegal as well. What good can come from it?”
Virginia State Code 15.2-1812 guarantees that any locality may, within its geographical limits, authorize and permit the erection of monuments or memorials surrounding any of this country’s numerous wars or conflicts, whether it be the Powhatan uprising in 1622, the War Between the States from 1861 to 1865, or today’s ongoing War on Terrorism.
Furthermore, and wherein lies the problem with McAuliffe’s proposition: “If such are erected, it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected, or to prevent its citizens from taking proper measures and exercising proper means for the protection, preservation and care of same. For purposes of this section, ‘disturb or interfere with’ includes removal of, damaging or defacing monuments or memorials, or, in the case of the War Between the States, the placement of Union markings or monuments on previously designated Confederate memorials or the placement of Confederate markings or monuments on previously designated Union memorials.”
Charlottesville Circuit court Judge Richard Moore is certainly familiar with the law. Next Wednesday, Aug. 30, he will hear arguments surrounding the city’s effort to get a lawsuit opposing the removal of the Confederate statues in Emancipation Park dismissed. Moore earlier issued an injunction preventing the city from immediately removing the statues until he could rule on the suit filed by two groups and 11 individuals.
But the city of Charlottesville has argued that the pair of statues are not covered by the state law because they do not honor the Confederacy’s war dead.
(Federal law has also recognized Confederate soldiers who survived the Civil War. U.S. Public Law 85-425 made clear that the term U.S. “veteran” included any person “who served in the military or naval forces of the Confederate States of America,” and as such they were due the same benefits as veterans of other U.S. wars).
The differences between statues and memorials aside, there are those in Rappahannock County who welcome a separate call by McAuliffe for community dialogue surrounding Confederate effigies on public property.
“We need to listen to one another,” says Rev. Russ Savage, the Harvard Divinity School minister of Sperryville’s Unitarian Universalists of the Blue Ridge. Savage last week led a candlelight prayer vigil and march of some 60 county residents through Sperryville in solidarity with the city of Charlottesville.
“There was a lot of shouting going on in Charlottesville, but not much listening,” Savage points out. “We need to listen especially to the voices of the marginalized and the oppressed, or those who represent groups which once were marginalized and oppressed.
“If someone says, ‘A statue of Robert E. Lee is hurtful to me because my ancestors were slaves,’ how should we respond? Instead of saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way,’ how about saying, ‘I’m sorry. Thank you for telling me.’
“The dialogue needs to be not just among those who are close to us whom we know well — though that will help,” Savage continues. “It needs to be also with those who are different, those whom we think of as the other, those we don’t know well. Reaching out to them can be hard work, and it can make us uncomfortable. If we want to have a real dialogue, we need to be willing to be uncomfortable sometimes.”
Words that struck a chord with Rev. Bessie Taylor Jett, the African-American pastor of the Church Without Walls Ministry in Huntly who earned her Masters of Divinity from the School of Theology at Virginia Union University in Richmond. Jett has also been assistant secretary of the Warren-Page branch of the NAACP.
“Having a Confederate statue [such as Lee or Jackson in Charlottesville] displayed serves only as a reminder that the South has not gotten over the fact that the North won the Civil War, thus abolishing slavery,” Jett opines to this newspaper. “I strongly believe these statues should be placed in a museum, with the historical background of each statue, especially their views on slavery.
“In view of recent and past crimes against blacks — and the accused promoting the negatives of some of the individuals who have statues of them — divides our neighborhoods, states, and country,” she says. “We are Americans, brothers and sisters, trying to live out the word of God. We are all created in the image of God. We should be concerned about that which offends our brothers and sisters and do something about it.”
Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan says if such dialogue does take place then everybody must hear the other side.
“Like it or not, the debate over the location of statues, monuments and memorials has now come to Rappahannock County and it has the potential of dividing rather than uniting,” the mayor observes. “I just hope that everyone takes the time to actually listen to what each side has to say and to look for an outcome which binds neighbors together, rather than divides.”
Frazier seeks to remind county residents that memorials like the one in Rappahannock “were not erected to ‘celebrate’ the leaders or the common soldier but to commemorate the sacrifices made by the inhabitants of the communities, men and women, black and white.”
That said, at least 56 previously enslaved African American residents of Rappahannock County, many of them newly freed, took up arms and fought for the Union. Several of these Rappahannock men wearing blue uniforms were similarly killed on the battlefield, yet they have no memorial on the courthouse property, and certainly their names aren’t listed on the Confederate monument.
On the heels of recent events in Charlottesville, only 40 miles south of the Rappahannock County line, Rappahannock Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff wrote on his Facebook page that “it is utterly untrue and indefensible to say that the Confederate soldier fought for the preservation of slavery. The Confederate soldier fought because his homeland was invaded and all his buddies and brothers joined up.”
Goff went on to call it “an obscene act of intellectual dishonesty to accuse these soldiers of fighting for anything other than the natural patriotism all young men will have. In those days, the first loyalty was to the state where you were born, and not to some pan-imperial nation state. If defense of slavery was the reason or part of the reason these men fought I find it hard to believe because most of them owned no slaves.”
Rappahannock Historical Society Executive Director Judy Tole, who confirms the Gay Street monument was erected “as a memorial to some of those Rappahannock County soldiers who lost their lives between 1861 and 1865,” echoes Goff’s description of a local Confederate soldier.
“Rappahannock County residents commemorated on the monument were small, self-reliant farmers,” she educates, “who were instrumental in maintaining the fabric of strong values and ethics created by their ancestors that are timeless and endure today.”
Chris Parrish, a Rappahannock supervisor whose cattle farm contains an old road and freshwater spring used by Lee’s Army after the battle of Gettysburg, says people need to remember that communities have always memorialized “individuals that have died for a cause, particularly in a geographic area, as with the memorial in our courthouse yard . . .
“Erasing historical items could be a slippery slope and let’s consider the feelings of the descendants who still live in Rappahannock County. I also would not advocate destroying history books.”
Despite what took place in Charlottesville, which like Rappahannock County is part of his congressional district, Republican Rep. Tom Garrett remains opposed to removing Confederate memorials. While a state senator in 2016, he supported a bill, later vetoed by McAuliffe, that would have prevented local governments from taking them down — which he equates to erasing history that people can learn from.
Speaking to the Rappahannock News yesterday [the full interview will be published Aug. 31], Garrett said there’s a far larger crisis beyond Confederate memorials that the nation must finally confront.
“We sure as hell had better agree on this unifying principle that all people are created equal and that we should judge individuals based on the content of their character and not the color of their skin,” the congressman said during a stop in Sperryville. “And I’ll go one step further, the violence [like seen in Charlottesville] isn’t OK.”
“What’s at stake is the soul of who we are,” he said. “There’s lots of scary stuff in the world — I’ve been banging the North Korea drum since January and finally people are catching up to what we have going on there. This is scarier.”