Monumental questions: Local statues are a lesson in history and a source of controversy

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General Robert E. Lee: Will he stay or will he go? Blue ribbon commission to advise City Council by the end of the year. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto General Robert E. Lee: Will he stay or will he go? Blue ribbon commission to advise City Council by the end of the year. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

For a city its size, Charlottesville has a truly amazing collection of world-class statuary. Standing at Court Square and two nearby parks, bookending West Main Street and of course liberally sprinkled across the UVA Grounds, they remind passersby of the Old Dominion’s leaders and heroes.

Four in particular—of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and two southern soldiers—call to mind a slice of Virginia history that still evokes passionate debate: the bloody Civil War.

Some folks prefer not being reminded.

Following a 2012 Festival of the Book luncheon speech by Civil War historian Edward Ayers, then Charlottesville vice-mayor Kristin Szakos asked about the city’s Confederate statues. It became, in effect, “the question heard ’round the South.” Should the city, she wondered aloud, “talk about tearing them down or balancing them out?”

The reaction was both immediate and sustained. People seated nearby gasped. She later became the target of nasty phone threats as well as bigoted comments on numerous news websites.

Three years later, Szakos, a former journalist who was first elected to City Council in 2009, has backed off the notion of removing Charlottesville’s Confederate statues—it’s actually illegal in Virginia—but she remains interested in a community dialogue about them, a conversation on how the statues and that history are presented to the public.

The four most controversial city statues went up between the 1890s and the mid-1920s. All were executed by artists connected with the National Sculpture Society and were gifts from Paul Goodloe McIntire (1860-1952), the Charlottesville-born philanthropist who amassed a fortune in the Chicago and New York Stock Exchanges before returning home and sharing his wealth with the city and university. At the time the statues were bestowed, says Szakos, “white southerners were dismantling the advances of Reconstruction through violence and intimidation.” She points out that 1924, the year the Lee monument was dedicated, saw a peak in the number of lynchings in Virginia. And while Szakos and others have speculated that a photo of the statue’s dedication that year shows Klansmen in full regalia in attendance, Margaret O’Bryant, librarian for the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society disputes the notion, explaining that the large number of billowy white objects in the crowd are not KKK robes, but are instead part of the tall caps called “shakos” worn by one of the Virginia state militia units in attendance: the Richmond Light Infantry Blues. Nonetheless, Szakos says the time in which the statues were erected was problematic.

“It was a shameful period in our history,” she says. “[I]s that still the narrative that we want to convey in the 21st century?”

Not everyone sees the Confederate statues in that light.

“I see Lee and Jackson as honorable men, reluctant secessionists who made the difficult decision to remain loyal to their home state and to defend her against an invading army,” says John Kennedy, president of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter, whose ancestors fought in Albemarle County units during the Civil War.

“I understand the controversy surrounding them,” he says. “Perhaps they will spark an interest in people of all ages who see them, to want to learn more about this most critical time in our nation’s history.”

That’s a notion that historians can get behind, and the more information provided, they say, the better.

Ayers, president of the University of Richmond—and former UVA dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences—is among many who see “balancing” the statues as an option. Adding contextual signage explaining “where the statues came from, who paid for them and why and when can help us understand our historical landscape more fully and accurately,” he says.

That’s what was done in 2009 with the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark sculpture at the intersection of West Main Street. Following controversy and protests over the statue’s depiction of Sacajawea crouching behind the men, a plaque was added commemorating her contributions.

UVA historian Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. would like to see similar efforts at other Confederate monuments not only in Charlottesville but across the South. An associate professor and research archivist at Special Collections, Jordan is an African-American author of Confederate history whose books include 19th Virginia Infantry (1987) and Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (published by UVA Press in 1995). He’s been fascinated with Confederate history since the war’s centennial in the 1960s and believes the monuments should stay. 

“We shouldn’t start taking them down,” Jordan says. “That’s a bad precedent to set. What about Confederate statues in cemeteries? Are we going to desecrate those gravesites by pulling those down?”

In fact, Jordan would like to see more than just new signage providing context at existing sites. He suggests erecting new statues to commemorate African-Americans in history.

“This is a big country,” he explains, “there’s plenty of room for more statuary.”

Local historian Rick Britton’s most recent book is Virginia Vignettes (Vol. I): Famous Characters & Events in Central Virginia History.

The city's first Confederate statue was unveiled in 1893, in the midst of the Soldiers' Cemetery at the intersection of Alderman and McCormick roads. An 8' bronze image of an infantryman, it's the work of Bohemian-born Casper Buberl (1834-1899), an accomplished sculptor who immigrated to the U.S. in 1854. Cast by the Henry-Bonnard Bronze Company of New York, it stands atop a 12' stone pedestal. Bronze plaques bear the names of the 1,097 Confederate soldiers who lay in the surrounding glen. They died while being treated at Charlottesville General Hospital, a massive Confederate hospital complex that occupied every available building in the city and the university. The statue's inscription reads: "Fate denied them Victory, but clothed them in glorious Immortality."
The city’s first Confederate statue was unveiled in 1893, in the midst of the Soldiers’ Cemetery at the intersection of Alderman and McCormick roads. An 8′ bronze image of an infantryman, it’s the work of Bohemian-born Casper Buberl (1834-1899), an accomplished sculptor who immigrated to the U.S. in 1854. Cast by the Henry-Bonnard Bronze Company of New York, it stands atop a 12′ stone pedestal. Bronze plaques bear the names of the 1,097 Confederate soldiers who lay in the surrounding glen. They died while being treated at Charlottesville General Hospital, a massive Confederate hospital complex that occupied every available building in the city and the university. The statue’s inscription reads: “Fate denied them Victory, but clothed them in glorious Immortality.” Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
In front of the Albemarle County courthouse's white-columned portico stands a Confederate statue erected in 1909 titled "At the Ready," a generic bronze typical of those mass-produced and posted, like sentinels, on court squares all across the South. The sculptor is unknown. Grouped together with two smoothbore 12-pounder Napoleons--perhaps the war's most well-regarded defensive cannon--it's known as the Confederate Soldier Memorial. During the Civil War, Charlottesville and Albemarle County, out of a population of 25,000, supplied almost 3,000 men and boys for the Confederate war effort. It's a high figure when one considers that slightly over half of the 25,000 were enslaved African-Americans. While this Confederate statue appears defiant standing between two artillery pieces, it's interesting to note that this older rebel soldier is missing an important component of his military gear: his cartridge box containing his ammunition. And it doesn't appear he's stashed his valuable cartridges in his trouser pockets. So, while his rifle musket might indeed be loaded, once he gets off that one shot he's basically holding what amounts to a club. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
In front of the Albemarle County courthouse’s white-columned portico stands a Confederate statue erected in 1909 titled “At the Ready,” a generic bronze typical of those mass-produced and posted, like sentinels, on court squares all across the South. The sculptor is unknown. Grouped together with two smoothbore 12-pounder Napoleons–perhaps the war’s most well-regarded defensive cannon–it’s known as the Confederate Soldier Memorial. During the Civil War, Charlottesville and Albemarle County, out of a population of 25,000, supplied almost 3,000 men and boys for the Confederate war effort. It’s a high figure when one considers that slightly over half of the 25,000 were enslaved African-Americans. While this Confederate statue appears defiant standing between two artillery pieces, it’s interesting to note that this older rebel soldier is missing an important component of his military gear: his cartridge box containing his ammunition. And it doesn’t appear he’s stashed his valuable cartridges in his trouser pockets. So, while his rifle musket might indeed be loaded, once he gets off that one shot he’s basically holding what amounts to a club. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
In the middle of Jackson Park, adjacent to the courthouse, the Thomas Jonathan Jackson sculpture portrays "Stonewall" riding Little Sorrel. It was dedicated in October 1922. The work of New York City-born artist Charles Keck (1875-1951)--who studied at the National Academy of Design and was an assistant to the famed Augustus Saint-Gaudens--the piece is often called one of the world's finest equestrian statues. Backing up this claim are two very difficult statuary features Keck nailed: The correct proportion between rider and mount, and the illusion of movement. Little Sorrel appears ready to trot right off the pedestal. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
In the middle of Jackson Park, adjacent to the courthouse, the Thomas Jonathan Jackson sculpture portrays “Stonewall” riding Little Sorrel. It was dedicated in October 1922. The work of New York City-born artist Charles Keck (1875-1951)–who studied at the National Academy of Design and was an assistant to the famed Augustus Saint-Gaudens–the piece is often called one of the world’s finest equestrian statues. Backing up this claim are two very difficult statuary features Keck nailed: The correct proportion between rider and mount, and the illusion of movement. Little Sorrel appears ready to trot right off the pedestal. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
The two statues that grace West Main Street are of westward-looking explorers, men of the frontier. The Meriwether Lewis and William Clark sculpture at the Ridge-McIntire intersection features Albemarle-native Lewis, Clark and Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who served as guide during the 1803-1806 expedition up the Missouri River to the Pacific. Another piece from the hands of Charles Keck, it was dedicated in 1921 and has been the source of controversy due to its depiction of Sacajawea crouching behind the men. A plaque commemorating her contributions was added to the monument in 2009. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
The two statues that grace West Main Street are of westward-looking explorers, men of the frontier. The Meriwether Lewis and William Clark sculpture at the Ridge-McIntire intersection features Albemarle-native Lewis, Clark and Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who served as guide during the 1803-1806 expedition up the Missouri River to the Pacific. Another piece from the hands of Charles Keck, it was dedicated in 1921 and has been the source of controversy due to its depiction of Sacajawea crouching behind the men. A plaque commemorating her contributions was added to the monument in 2009. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
On the UVA Lawn stands a scaled-down bronze version of the George Washington statue for which Jefferson, in 1785, had commissioned the world's greatest living portrait sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). The Frenchman worked three years chipping the life-sized statue from a solid block of Italian marble. The original draws tourists to the rotunda room of the Virginia Capitol in Richmond. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
On the UVA Lawn stands a scaled-down bronze version of the George Washington statue for which Jefferson, in 1785, had commissioned the world’s greatest living portrait sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). The Frenchman worked three years chipping the life-sized statue from a solid block of Italian marble. The original draws tourists to the rotunda room of the Virginia Capitol in Richmond. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Also on university property, in an often overlooked park, is the George Rogers Clark sculpture, unveiled in 1921. The work of California artist Robert Aitken (1878-1949), it focuses on the mounted Clark—born just north of Charlottesville, William Clark’s older brother—conferring with a Native American chief. While its inscription, “Conqueror of the Northwest,” refers to Clark’s liberation of that region from the British and their Indian allies, it’s also been criticized as racist because several Native Americans are shown kneeling (and thus appear subservient). Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Also on university property, in an often overlooked park, is the George Rogers Clark sculpture, unveiled in 1921. The work of California artist Robert Aitken (1878-1949), it focuses on the mounted Clark—born just north of Charlottesville, William Clark’s older brother—conferring with a Native American chief. While its inscription, “Conqueror of the Northwest,” refers to Clark’s liberation of that region from the British and their Indian allies, it’s also been criticized as racist because several Native Americans are shown kneeling (and thus appear subservient). Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
The Aviator—a depiction of Icarus by Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), best known for the colossal Mount Rushmore—was dedicated in 1918 to former UVA student James Rogers McConnell. Born in 1887 to a well-to-do Chicago family, Jimmy “Mac” McConnell in 1908 entered the university, where he became known for hijinks (see Jefferson Monument, p. 18). When World War I broke out in mid-1914, McConnell first joined the French ambulance service—which motivated him to write of the horrors of war for American magazines—then became one of the first seven pilots of the famed “Lafayette Escadrille.” McConnell was shot down and killed in 1917. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
The Aviator—a depiction of Icarus by Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), best known for the colossal Mount Rushmore—was dedicated in 1918 to former UVA student James Rogers McConnell. Born in 1887 to a well-to-do Chicago family, Jimmy “Mac” McConnell in 1908 entered the university, where he became known for hijinks (see Jefferson Monument, p. 18). When World War I broke out in mid-1914, McConnell first joined the French ambulance service—which motivated him to write of the horrors of war for American magazines—then became one of the first seven pilots of the famed “Lafayette Escadrille.” McConnell was shot down and killed in 1917. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Two of the university’s first statues were sculpted by Richmond native Moses Ezekiel (1844-1917). His Blind Homer and Young Guide was unveiled on the south Lawn in 1907. Often climbed upon by students, the bronze features fine details—“textures of the sheepskin garment, the [lad’s] tousled hair, and the [poet’s] scraggly beard,” as noted by Joseph Gutmann, who edited Ezekiel’s memoirs. Born to a middle-class Jewish family, Ezekiel entered the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington in 1862 and two years later fought with the VMI cadets in the Battle of New Market, a Confederate victory that came at a high cost for the VMI unit: 10 dead and 45 wounded. Following graduation in 1866, Ezekiel enrolled in the exclusive Royal Academy of Art in Berlin, and later set up a studio in the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Two of the university’s first statues were sculpted by Richmond native Moses Ezekiel (1844-1917). His Blind Homer and Young Guide was unveiled on the south Lawn in 1907. Often climbed upon by students, the bronze features fine details—“textures of the sheepskin garment, the [lad’s] tousled hair, and the [poet’s] scraggly beard,” as noted by Joseph Gutmann, who edited Ezekiel’s memoirs. Born to a middle-class Jewish family, Ezekiel entered the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington in 1862 and two years later fought with the VMI cadets in the Battle of New Market, a Confederate victory that came at a high cost for the VMI unit: 10 dead and 45 wounded. Following graduation in 1866, Ezekiel enrolled in the exclusive Royal Academy of Art in Berlin, and later set up a studio in the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Ezekiel’s Jefferson Monument—erected facing University Avenue—depicts a life-sized “sage of Monticello” standing atop the Liberty Bell, from which spring four representational figures: Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood and Justice. Not the original piece, it’s actually the recasting of a 1901 statue he’d executed for the city of Louisville. At the June 1910 unveiling ceremony—with future president Woodrow Wilson in attendance—the cloth covering was removed to reveal a chamber pot enveloping Jefferson’s head. In a twist, one of the students suspended for the prank, James Rogers McConnell, became the subject of a later dedication (see The Aviator, above). Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Ezekiel’s Jefferson Monument—erected facing University Avenue—depicts a life-sized “sage of Monticello” standing atop the Liberty Bell, from which spring four representational figures: Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood and Justice. Not the original piece, it’s actually the recasting of a 1901 statue he’d executed for the city of Louisville. At the June 1910 unveiling ceremony—with future president Woodrow Wilson in attendance—the cloth covering was removed to reveal a chamber pot enveloping Jefferson’s head. In a twist, one of the students suspended for the prank, James Rogers McConnell, became the subject of a later dedication (see The Aviator, above). Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Dedicated in 1978, the university’s most recent statue stands between the School of Law and the Darden School of Business. Created in 1976 by Bostonian Lloyd Lillie—professor emeritus of art at Boston University, where he began teaching in 1961—the life-sized work depicts a relaxed, standing Jefferson. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Dedicated in 1978, the university’s most recent statue stands between the School of Law and the Darden School of Business. Created in 1976 by Bostonian Lloyd Lillie—professor emeritus of art at Boston University, where he began teaching in 1961—the life-sized work depicts a relaxed, standing Jefferson. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Two of UVA’s statues reside on the Lawn in boxwood-enclosed niches. Dedicated on Founder’s Day, April 13, 1915, the seated Thomas Jefferson was the creation of Austrian sculptor Karl Bitter (1867-1915) who’d studied at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. In the U.S., he designed decorative architectural sculptures and later produced statuary for banks, churches and museums, as well as for a variety of public buildings. The 48-year-old died one week prior to his prestigious UVA unveiling when he was struck by a car that jumped the curb as he was exiting New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He was able to push his wife to safety before he was hit. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Two of UVA’s statues reside on the Lawn in boxwood-enclosed niches. Dedicated on Founder’s Day, April 13, 1915, the seated Thomas Jefferson was the creation of Austrian sculptor Karl Bitter (1867-1915) who’d studied at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. In the U.S., he designed decorative architectural sculptures and later produced statuary for banks, churches and museums, as well as for a variety of public buildings. The 48-year-old died one week prior to his prestigious UVA unveiling when he was struck by a car that jumped the curb as he was exiting New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He was able to push his wife to safety before he was hit. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
The university’s first statue—and perhaps still its most famous—was carved from white marble by Norfolk, Virginia, native Alexander Galt (1827-1863), who studied sculpting in Florence. In 1854, the Virginia General Assembly awarded him a $10,000 contract to produce a likeness of Thomas Jefferson for UVA. For research, Galt borrowed pieces of Jefferson’s clothing from descendants. The life-sized piece was unveiled in 1868 in the Rotunda’s Dome Room, the school’s library, but unfortunately, Galt had already died from smallpox during the Civil War while working as a draftsman for Virginia governor John Letcher. On Sunday, October 27, 1895, Galt’s beautiful statue was famously rescued from the blazing inferno that engulfed the Rotunda that day, threatening as well the adjacent structures on the Lawn. While books were tossed from Dome Room windows, a gang of fire-singed students tipped the 1,000-pound likeness onto mattresses, and dragged it down a flight of stairs, feet first, Jefferson’s mighty head breaking every riser as he descended to safety. Thanks to those students, Galt’s Thomas Jefferson—with only minor damage—stands proudly at Special Collections (while the Rotunda is undergoing renovation). The secretive Seven Society can be contacted by posting a letter between the statue’s booted feet. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
The university’s first statue—and perhaps still its most famous—was carved from white marble by Norfolk, Virginia, native Alexander Galt (1827-1863), who studied sculpting in Florence. In 1854, the Virginia General Assembly awarded him a $10,000 contract to produce a likeness of Thomas Jefferson for UVA. For research, Galt borrowed pieces of Jefferson’s clothing from descendants. The life-sized piece was unveiled in 1868 in the Rotunda’s Dome Room, the school’s library, but unfortunately, Galt had already died from smallpox during the Civil War while working as a draftsman for Virginia governor John Letcher. On Sunday, October 27, 1895, Galt’s beautiful statue was famously rescued from the blazing inferno that engulfed the Rotunda that day, threatening as well the adjacent structures on the Lawn. While books were tossed from Dome Room windows, a gang of fire-singed students tipped the 1,000-pound likeness onto mattresses, and dragged it down a flight of stairs, feet first, Jefferson’s mighty head breaking every riser as he descended to safety. Thanks to those students, Galt’s Thomas Jefferson—with only minor damage—stands proudly at Special Collections (while the Rotunda is undergoing renovation). The secretive Seven Society can be contacted by posting a letter between the statue’s booted feet. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto