Former Senator Makes Plea To Save Arlington Cemetery’s Confederate Monument

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A former Democratic Virginia senator made a plea to preserve the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, arguing that from the time it was first commissioned, it was a symbol of national healing.

Jim Webb penned an op-ed Friday in the Wall Street Journal urging lawmakers to reconsider plans to remove a large bronze statue commemorating the Confederate dead at the cemetery. The memorial was commissioned in 1898 by President William McKinley and born from a newly discovered sense of national unity in the days following the end of the Spanish-American war, he argued.

As Robert E. Lee’s former home, Arlington National Cemetery was seized by the U.S. government in May 1861. By 1864 it was deemed the perfect spot by Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs to use as a national cemetery for the Union dead.

Arlington National Cemetery

ARLINGTON, VA – MAY 26: A member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment places flags at the headstones of U.S. military personnel buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in preparation for Memorial Day, on May 26, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia. Nearly 1000 service members entered the cemetery at pre-dawn hours to begin the process of placing a flag in front of more than 260,000 headstones. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

During the Spanish-American War, the American flag once again flew proudly in states that had seceded from the Union and former Confederate soldiers donned the “once-hated Yankee blue” to fight for their newly unified country. McKinley, who served in the 23rd Ohio Infantry during the Civil War, chose to further the growing sense of national reconciliation by honoring the Confederate dead.

“In the spirit of fraternity we should share with you in the care of the graves of Confederate soldiers,” McKinley announced in Atlanta in 1898. In 1900, Congress authorized Confederate remains to be reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery in a space designated for them and watched over by a bronze memorial sculpted by renowned artist Moses Jacob Ezekiel.

The 32-foot-tall memorial is crowned with a classical female figure representing the American South, holding a laurel wreath, pillow stock and pruning shears. At her feet, an inscription from the Bible reads, “They have beat their swords into plough-shares and their spears into pruning hooks.” The pedestal below her is dotted with four urns, representing each year of the war. In addition, 14 shields, representing 11 Confederate states and the border states of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri are depicted along with 32 life-sized figures meant to be Southern soldiers and civilians.

Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran and the first Jewish graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, finished his “crowning achievement” in 1914 and was buried at its base in 1921, according to Arlington National Cemetery.

Following the demonstration in Charlottesville in 2017 over the removal of another one of Ezekiel’s sculptures — that of Robert E. Lee — Ezekiel’s descendants penned a letter asking for his memorial in Arlington to be removed, BBC News reported.

“As proud as our family may be of Moses’s artistic prowess, we — some twenty Ezekiels — say remove that statue. Take it out of its honored spot in Arlington National Cemetery and put it in a museum that makes clear its oppressive history.” (RELATED: 160 Confederate Monuments Were Taken Down In 2020)

In 2021, the family’s request was taken to heart when the National Defense Authorization Act empowered a Naming Commission to “remove all names, symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederate States of America … or any person who served voluntarily with the Confederate States of America from all assets of the Department of Defense,” Webb explained.

As such, Arlington National Cemetery was ordered to remove the Confederate Memorial by the end of 2023, though Webb notes the order is reportedly under review.

“If [the memorial] is taken apart and removed, leaving behind a concrete slab, the burial marker of its creator, and a small circle of graves,” Webb warned, a symbol of national unity and reconciliation would be lost. Its removal would send a message — not of national unity, but of “a deteriorating society willing to erase the generosity of its past, in favor of bitterness and misunderstanding conjured up by those who do not understand the history they seem bent on destroying,” he stated.