By Erich Wagner (Photo/Chris Teale)
As one of the biggest state-sanctioned reminders of the U.S. Civil War — the Confederate battle flag — was removed from the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol last week, the debate over references to southern secession in Alexandria was just heating up.
The shooting deaths of nine people at a Bible study meeting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. last month has caused an groundswell in discussions about the prominence of the Confederate flag across the South. Dylann Roof, who allegedly carried out the massacre, had been photographed with the flag at a number of Confederate museums and monuments as well as wearing a jacket with flag patches from the white supremacist African states of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, now present-day Zimbabwe.
Although Union forces occupied Alexandria for most of the war, a number of monuments make reference to the city’s connection the Confederacy. At the intersection of South Washington and Prince streets sits the Appomattox statue, which was erected in 1889 and marks where 800 residents volunteered to join the Army of Northern Virginia. And a plaque adorns the Marshall House — now Hotel Monaco — at the corner of King and South Pitt streets, commemorating where hotel owner James W. Jackson shot and killed Union Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth before being shot by other Union troops during their takeover of the city.
Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, said the idea for the Appomattox statue came from Edgar Warfield, the last surviving member of the group, in 1885.
“After the war, he came back to Alexandria and became a pharmacist and built a pharmacy and apartment building at the corner of North Pitt and King streets,” Mallamo said. “[The site of the statue] is the intersection where they met — about 800 men — that morning after the city voted to secede.
“There were 2,200 men from the Union [Army] and they were totally outnumbered, so they met there and went out to the train station and went to Manassas, leaving their wives and kids behind.”
In addition to the monuments, the City of Alexandria flies Confederate flags at the site of the Appomat tox statue twice each year: Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day. And the name of U.S. Route 1 — Jefferson Davis Highway — also has raised eyebrows in recent years, particularly since south of the city the road is named Richmond Highway.
Mayor Bill Euille said he has instructed city councilors to reflect on all public monuments and references to the Confederacy over summer recess in preparation for a broad discussion with residents in September. But he said there is growing consensus around doing away with the Confederate flag flying at the Appomattox statue at any time.
“The reality is that now may be the time to end that process with regard to the flag and the flag can be properly stored in a museum or something for folks to see if they so choose,” Euille said. “Reflecting on the incident in Charleston, S.C. with the unfortunate murders and so forth, the flag is a symbol of slavery and hatred, and while it’s a part of history and I recognize that Alexandria is a historic city and tourism is our No. 1 industry, I think this is one part of history that its time is past and we have to move on.”
Euille did not commit to any specific proposal, but noted his past opposition to the Appomattox statue.
“Even in high school, as a senior in 1968, myself along with others and faith-based leaders came to City Hall and protested and demonstrated that both the flag and the [Appomattox] soldier should be removed,” he said. “In the end, the compromise we reached was limiting the use of the flag, but we lost the battle with regard to the soldier. Now, with the national conversation we have an opportunity to revisit whatever the policies and regulations are.
“If the city and the citizens so choose, the soldier ought to be removed — not all the way — but moved to another location, either in a park or a building or museum.”
In order to move or alter the Appomattox statue in any way, the city would need approval from the Virginia General Assembly. The same goes for any changes to the name of U.S. Route 1, since it is a state road.
City Councilor Justin Wilson said it might be easiest for the city to focus on things it can change unilaterally and without permission from Richmond.
“There seems to be a growing consensus about the [Confederate] flag thing, and we could change some of the other streets, like Beauregard, Eckels and Taney Avenue if we wanted to, but the flag thing is easy to do,” Wilson said. “There are people who want to change the statue or different streets, or even the name of T.C. Williams. So there are all kinds of things that are out there, but we just need to step back and collect information to see what people think is the best way to move forward.”
Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg said she endorses the plan to cease flying the battle flag at the statue’s location on Confederate holidays, but said she wouldn’t take a position on other aspects of the issue until after the summer recess.
“I think these matters are going to be considered by the council in September, and the Jefferson Davis [Highway name] is a state legislature issue and the statue is also up to the legislature,” she said. “This has become part of a much larger conversation nationally because of the unthinkable tragedy in Charleston. … I welcome the community input and I want to respect the mayor’s wishes that we reflect on it and then discuss it in September.”
And City Councilor John Chapman said he also would prefer to wait until September to comment in detail, citing the heated nature of recent discussions on the issue, particularly over social media.
“Some of these comments and arguments on Facebook and other media aren’t necessarily helpful in us as a community coming to grips with the harder parts of our history,” he said. “We need a greater dialogue on our shared history and how that differs, as well as what are some things that we need to try to bring about in a more common-sense way.”
In talks with residents, Wilson was surprised by the positions of many residents on the issue — opinions did not break down along standard historic preservation lines, he said.
“You’ll have a group of people who said: ‘My great grandfather was one of those soldiers and yes it was a different time, but this is a memorial to dead soldiers so don’t touch it,’” he said. “And then I’ve heard people who say, ‘Oh my God, I revile the Confederacy but it’s part of our history and having it there helps teach it to the next generation.’
“And there are still others that have said, ‘My ancestors were slaves and [the Confederates] fought to keep them enslaved. The statue is an offense every time I see it.’ It’s just a real array of opinions.”
Wilson added that the best way to find a compromise is not to take away monuments, but to add more in a way that better reflects the various perspectives on Alexandria’s complicated relationship with slavery and the Civil War.
“For me, one of the things that might be most productive is look at the totality of history and try to move toward equality of how we present it,” he said. “That’s what was so exciting about the opening of Freedman’s Cemetery. It told a story that heretofore had not been told.
“There are stories we need to tell that we haven’t been telling, and there are ways to tell them to give a more complete view of our history.”