Last month in New Orleans, city authorities removed a prominent statue of General Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate army during the Civil War. “These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy. Ignoring the death. Ignoring the enslavement. Ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, said in a speech explaining the removal. “And after the Civil War these monuments were part of that terrorism — as much as burning a cross on someone’s lawn.”
While the country debates what to do with the thousands of Confederate symbols that remain in public view, arguably the most prominent of them are located inside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
The National Statuary Hall Collection contains two statues provided by each state in the Union. A statue of Lee in uniform, sword by his side, was donated by Virginia in 1909. Aside from that sculpture, there are seven other statues of Confederate icons that are held for display inside the Capitol — including one of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, which was donated by Mississippi.
“They should absolutely be removed,” Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy, told the Voice. “The NAACP has had policy calling for the removal of these Confederate icons for many decades now.”
Shelton continued, “Under today’s terms, we would consider what these men did to be traitorous. They were fighting for — and killing for — the separation of territories from the Union, and to continue slavery and all the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade.”
Michael Bento, 32, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement in New York City, amplified that message, saying Davis, as the president of the Confederacy, “gave the most bigoted expressions of the Confederacy’s aspirations to build a slave empire based on the subjugation of black people.”
The most recent push to remove Confederate iconography began in 2015, after Dylann Roof murdered nine black parishioners inside a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof said he intended to start a race war with his actions.
Instead, after images surfaced of Roof posing with a firearm and a Confederate battle flag, Alabama and South Carolina stopped displaying the flag at their state capitols, and Georgia renamed two holidays celebrating Confederate Memorial Day and Lee’s birthday as generic “state” holidays.
“At least 60 such publicly funded symbols of the Confederacy” have been removed or renamed, according to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the two years since the Charleston murders. Still, more than 1,400 Confederate monuments remain throughout the United States, the report found.
Like the statue of Lee dethroned in New Orleans, the one of Lee in the national Capitol is rooted in a historical counternarrative known as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, a mythical reframing of the Civil War that seeks to minimize the role of slavery in the conflict. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, chair of the department of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, described the Lost Cause as the idea “that the Slave South had been the ‘greatest’ or most ‘refined’ civilization yet achieved by humanity and the defeat of the Confederacy was brought about by Northern perfidy and superior resources rather than any failings of the Confederacy itself.”
The myth of the Lost Cause was manufactured in part by the widows, wives, mothers, and sisters of dead, disappeared, or wounded Confederate soldiers. “Women were the leaders of the Lost Cause, and part of that was the erection of monuments,” says Karen Cox, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and author of Dixie’s Daughters: United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.
The monuments, Cox explained, are “a way to re-establish the ‘Southern way of life,’ without slavery, but maintaining white supremacy. These symbols do that, whether it’s naming public institutions after Lee or erecting statues to Lee.”
Central to the Lost Cause movement, Cox emphasizes, was the lionization of Jefferson Davis. “Davis is the martyr of the Lost Cause,” she said. “They make analogies between his sacrifice and that of Jesus Christ.”
The Capitol’s statue of Lee is displayed in the Crypt, a rotunda that’s a stop on all Capitol tours. The name reflects the intention to inter George Washington’s remains there (which never came to pass); according to the Architect of the Capitol, the agency responsible for administering the Capitol grounds, the Crypt is a place that honors “prominent individuals from the nation’s original thirteen colonies,” in addition to being “one of the most heavily used circulation spaces in the building…trodden by hundreds every day.”
The statue of Davis, donated in 1931, rests in the National Statuary Hall, a two-story semicircular chamber known as the Old Hall of the House. Three other Confederate icons can be found there: Alexander Hamilton Stephens, vice president; Zebulon Baird Vance, an officer in the Confederate army and the governor of Confederate North Carolina; and Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, Confederate general.
Three additional Confederate icons are displayed in the Capitol Visitor Center: James Zachariah George, a Mississippian who signed his state’s Ordinance of Succession and who served as a colonel in the rebel army; Wade Hampton III, a Confederate cavalry officer and early supporter of the Ku Klux Klan; and Edmund Kirby Smith, the last general in the Confederate army to surrender.
Last year, the Architect of the Capitol removed state flags on display that featured the Confederate ensign after Mississippi congressman Bennie Thompson lobbied for their removal.
Laura Condeluci, a spokesperson for the Architect of the Capitol, declined to provide comment regarding the demands to remove the Confederate statues, pointing to a law passed by Congress in 2000 that lays out a mandatory five-step process for removing and replacing a statue in the collection, which includes the request and consent of both the donating state’s governor and the state’s legislature.
Bree Newsome, 32, an artist and activist who in 2015 climbed a flagpole in front of the South Carolina state capitol and tore down a Confederate battle flag, said that the statues of Lee, Davis, and the rest of the Confederate crew inside the U.S. Capitol should go.
“They should absolutely be taken down. If we acknowledge the history of slavery and the ideology that the monuments represent, how can they be allowed to stand?”
CORRECTION: This story initially quoted professor Karen Cox as saying that the proponents of the Lost Cause myth lionized General Robert E. Lee and compared him to Jesus Christ. After publication, Cox emailed to clarify that she was speaking of Jefferson Davis, not Lee, and we have corrected the story accordingly.