Mistaken ruling over Lee and Jackson statues extends Charlottesville harm

The Lee and Jackson statues were erected not to mourn their deaths, but to glorify their character

Published May 11, 2019 4:00AM (EDT)

The Ku Klux Klan protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Getty/Chet Strange)
The Ku Klux Klan protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Getty/Chet Strange)

This article was produced by Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

In the spring of 2017, a local nonprofit organized to defend Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments called the Monument Fund, the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and 11 individuals filed a lawsuit against the City of Charlottesville, the Charlottesville City Council, and each individual city councilor. The litigation seeks to prevent the Council from removing or altering Charlottesville’s statues to Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, and requests damages for the harm caused by their February 2017 vote to do so. These statues and the Council’s decisions were the focus of the infamous white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally that left three dead and dozens injured on August 12, 2017.

A key portion of this case depends on whether these statues qualify as war monuments or memorials and are thus protected by state law. In a ruling on April 25, the judge trying this case not only declared the statuesto be war monuments but stated thathisconclusion was “inescapable” and“undisputed.” The defense had requested a jury trial; he ruled that this conclusion isso clear that any jury that ruled otherwise would be “unreasonable,” and their decision overturned.

Setting aside other questions that remain in this case — including whether the statute protecting war memorials applies to those erected before the law took effect — the judge’s decision about war monuments or memorials is certainly disputed. It is harmful. And, in my and many others’ opinion, it is wrong.

How is that possible, one might ask? After all, the statues depict generals, known primarily for their war leadership, in uniform. Is that not the very definition of a war memorial?

The answer, in fact, is “no.”

The Virginia law in question is titled ”Memorials for war veterans.” Despite that billing, thelegislation neither mentions veterans nor defines a memorial, speaking only of “monuments or memorials for any war or conflict.” Sohow may one determine what is a war memorial?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a war memorial as "A large structure, usually made of stone, that is built in honor of those people who died in a particular war.”The Collins English Dictionary defines a war memorial as "a monument, usually an obelisk or cross, to those who die in a war, especially those from a particular locality.”

The United States has no official definition of a war monument or memorial, but a proposed War Memorial Protection Act (H.R. 1497) states,“The term `military memorial’ means a memorial or monument commemorating the service of the United States Armed Forces.” This definition, not incidentally, clearly does not include Confederate forces.

Australia does have an official definition: “A war memorial is a commemorative object intended to remind us of the people who served in and died as a result of war. War memorials may take many forms, but common to all of them is the intention that they remind us of those we have lost to war.”

Jackson died during the Civil War, while Lee did not. But before concluding that Lee’s statue does not qualify as a war memorial but Jackson’s does, let us look more carefully at what war memorials look like and what they are they intended to do.

For over a decade I taught a class at the University of Virginia titled “Righting Unrightable Wrongs.” Each year, we would focus on memorials and the varied meanings they have — to honor, to remember, to offer gratitude, to mourn. Through teaching this class I’ve reviewed many dozens of war memorials.

Beginning with the dictionary and legal definitions, and by examining such memorials from around the world, one can describe several elements that would distinguish a war monument or memorial from other statues and monuments or memorials:

1. Location

Most war memorials are located on the sites of significant war-related events. These may include:

  • Burial grounds and cemeteries for those killed during war or veterans
  • Battle sites
  • Sites of other war-related actions of violence, sacrifice, and loss

2. Inscription

War memorials typically include a description of a particular event and/or the people missing, injured or killed being memorialized. These may include:

  • Dates and actions of a battle or war
  • Names of missing, wounded or dead
  • A dedication describing the sacrifice of the missing, wounded or dead

3. Dedication

The unveiling and dedication of a memorial may also reveal its meaning. Ceremonies for war memorials are somber events in keeping with the remembrance of the sacrifices and losses of those injured or killed or missing.

Although occasionally a war memorial may include a figure, that is uncommon. In a review titled “Moving War Memorials to Visit Around the World” from Architectural Digest(May 25, 2017), no military leaders are featured. In fact, the only figurative statue among the 13 is the iconic memorial of Marines at Iwo Jima.

Instead, war memorials are markers and plaques, engraved walls, obelisks, crosses, artifacts, entire ships (USS Arizona), gravestones and cemeteries. These memorials invite us to remember sacrifice and loss and the terrible cost of war.

The Lee and Jackson statues do not meet the criteria above. The dedications of both the Jackson and Lee statues, in 1921 and 1924 respectively, were pageantry and celebration. They were erected not to mourn their deaths, but to glorify their character. Neither man had any affiliation with Charlottesville either before or during the Civil War. No battle took place in Charlottesville.

If the Lee and Jackson statues are not war memorials, then what are they?

I argue that these two statues belong tothecategory of monuments to heroic figures—or more accurately, people whom those erecting such monuments consider heroic—that may be seen worldwide. These heroic figure monuments are intended to honor and call attention to people who embody the best of human character, as determined bythose erecting the monuments.

The celebrants at the installations of the statues to Jackson and Lee were claiming the two men as heroic figures. They were not mourning their loss.

The fact that both Lee and Jackson are in military uniform, or even that Jackson died in battle, is irrelevant. There are many other such statues of military figures, including those who died in battle, that do not meet those three qualifications — location, inscription, and dedication — and that no reasonable person would consider to be war memorials.

I have a personal interest in this definition even beyond my interest as a Charlottesville resident. My mother’s family all suffered during the Nazi occupation of their country, Luxembourg, as did so much of the rest of Europe. Through the extraordinary sacrifice of American and Allied forces, including my father, they and millions of others were eventually liberated. And today one may see throughout Europeliterally hundreds of war memorials erected by grateful localities, each tended as carefully as if the war had just ended. To equate these memorials and others with the giant statues of Lee and Jacksoninsults these soldiers’ sacrifices and tarnishes the meaning of a war memorial.

I am not arguing that no Confederate statues qualify as war memorials. I agree that most monuments to Confederate soldiers that are placed in battlefields or hometowns of the soldiers or cemeteries, or inscribed with the names of the wounded or dead, qualify as war memorials.

But by common definition; by the examples of hundreds of actual war memorials; and by those three elements of location, inscription, and stated purpose, the Lee and Jackson statues clearly do not belong in the category of war monuments or memorials.

Consider these heroic monuments: Arthur Ashe was a tennis hero, but Richmond’s Arthur Ashe statue is not a tennis memorial. Maggie Walker was a pioneering banking figure, but Richmond’s Maggie Walker statue is not a banking memorial. A statue of George Washington in his general’s uniform sits in Virginia’s Capitol, with replicas in many other locations, including on the University of Virginia’s Lawn. George Washington in uniform is a military figure, but his statue is not a war memorial. Lee and Jackson were considered to be heroes by those who erected their statues, but neither statue qualifies as a war memorial.

By not allowing the arguments to be presented to a jury of community members and by issuing such a dismissive decision, the judge has granted the white supremacists who rally around those statues yet another rallying cry. One may only hope that a higher court will see reason and overturn that decision.

By Frank Dukes

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