‘A False Memory’–As Confederate Monuments Topple, Some at VA Cemeteries Still Loom Large

BY RANDEE HOWARD & SONNER KEHRT

At Finn’s Point National Cemetery, in New Jersey, an 85-foot granite obelisk honoring the Confederate dead from the prison at nearby Fort Delaware dwarfs a nearby monument to Union soldiers.

In Springfield National Cemetery, in Springfield, Missouri, a statue honoring Confederate soldiers reads, “Those who die for a right principle do not die in vain.”

And in Chicago, not far from where thousands of Confederate soldiers died at Camp Douglas, their remains are marked by a 40-foot-tall statue of a Confederate soldier who peers out above the graves of prominent Black leaders buried in the adjoining cemetery, including the journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, as well as Bishop Louis Henry Ford, who gave the eulogy at Emmett Till’s funeral. Four outward-pointing canons flank the base of the statue.

A plaque on an 85-foot-tall obelisk to the Confederate dead in Finn’s Point National Cemetery in New Jersey shows the federal government erected the monument in 1910. Today, Veterans Affairs maintains it.

Photo by Michaele Kehrt for The War Horse.

 

This past March, in a carefully worded statement, Arlington National Cemetery announced it would remove its Confederate memorial, a 32-foot-tall bronze-and-granite statue honoring the Confederate dead, which had stood for more than a century among the graves of Confederate soldiers buried there.

But Arlington falls under the Department of the Army—as does just one other cemetery, the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington. Veterans Affairs administers the majority of the nation’s nearly 200 other national cemeteries and soldiers’ lots, and on those grounds, 34 monuments or markers commemorate Confederate soldiers. VA also maintains nine Confederate-only cemeteries or gravesites.

The 2021 Naming Commission, as mandated by Congress, examined military assets commemorating the Confederacy or Confederate soldiers. In addition to removing Arlington’s statue, the commission’s recommendations included renaming nine Army bases and two Navy ships. But VA was not subject to the Naming Commission’s rules.

“Confederate monuments are not consistent with VA’s commitment to serve all veterans with dignity and respect,” a VA spokesperson said. “While VA maintains the Confederate gravesites and monuments in accordance with federal law, we are considering all of our options.”

At least six of VA’s Confederate memorials were erected in the past 30 years. But the majority of their memorials, like Confederate monuments across the country, were placed during the Jim Crow era, when “Lost Cause” mythology attempted to recast the Civil War as a conflict over states’ rights—rather than slavery.

The VA-maintained memorials have largely remained out of the national conversation about the legacy of Confederate monuments. While several have seen local efforts to have them removed, these attempts have not been successful in part because community leaders point out that the statues are under the jurisdiction of the federal, not local, government. Several communities have removed similar memorials in local or private cemeteries, but VA-maintained memorials remain.

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“Confederate monuments are not consistent with VA’s commitment to serve all veterans with dignity and respect,” a VA spokesperson said in response to questions from The War Horse. “While VA maintains the Confederate gravesites and monuments in accordance with Federal law, we are considering all of our options.”

Many of the VA-maintained memorials are small plaques or markers, merely noting where Confederate soldiers are buried, and most of the memorials commemorate soldiers who died in prisoner-of-war camps in the North. But not all of these are simple acknowledgements of the fallen.

“Whenever something that is so disproportionately large compared to the rest of the gravestones or the memorials sort of dominates the landscape, I think that does beg the question of, ‘Does this fit?’” says Jeremy Neely, a history professor at Missouri State University who studies the memory of the Civil War. “What does that discrepancy say?”

‘It’s Changing the Narrative of the Civil War’

The sprawling Oak Woods Cemetery covers 184 green acres in Chicago’s impoverished South Side. It’s the final resting place for Black luminaries like Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor and an Army veteran; the Olympian Jesse Owens; and Arthur Brazier, the reverend, activist, and Army veteran who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.

For decades, though, the private cemetery refused to sell plots to many Black families. When it did, it charged exorbitant rates it did not charge white people. In the 1960s, the cemetery finally began to offer equal services to Black Americans, after crowds rallied at the cemetery gates when it refused to cremate the body of a young Black woman.

 

A 40-foot-tall statue of a Confederate soldier towers above the American flag in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. The monument was erected in 1895 by Confederate associations with approval from the War Department.

Photo: Randee Howard/The War Horse

 

But long before that, on a spring day in 1895, crowds flocked to the cemetery for a different reason. While Oak Woods Cemetery was private, the War Department, the predecessor of today’s Department of Defense, had approved the installation of a towering monument to Confederate soldiers who had died at nearby Camp Douglas, a Civil War prison camp. Some 100,000 people attended the monument’s dedication, and guests of honor, including President Grover Cleveland, feasted on a 10-course meal and mingled in a room bedecked in Confederate and American flags.

nfantry camp, 71st New York Infantry, at Camp Douglas, 1861. Photo by Mathew Brady, courtesy of the National Archives.

Infantry camp, 71st New York Infantry, at Camp Douglas, 1861. Photo by Mathew Brady, courtesy of the National Archives.

The initial wave of Confederate memorials in the United States appeared immediately after the war and typically were specifically to honor the dead, creating spaces for mourning and memorial. A second wave of monuments—including the statue in Oak Woods Cemetery—were installed beginning in the 1890s as Jim Crow policies expanded and membership in white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan swelled.

“We come out of reconstruction and the Southern sympathy strategy starts,” says Shermann “Dilla” Thomas, a Chicago urban historian. “[It’s] changing the narrative of the Civil War being fought over owning human beings and converting it into this sovereignty issue.”

Almost all of the Confederate monuments VA maintains were erected during this second period. Many of them look like the initial wave of memorials, with simple plaques noting fallen Confederates, and many memorials were installed before VA assumed oversight of the cemeteries. But they remain in national cemeteries and lots reserved for U.S. veterans and their families. Some make explicit references to the idea that the Civil War was just a disagreement between states, or that the South was a cause worth fighting for.

In Elmira, New York, in Woodlawn National Cemetery, a 1937 statue of a Confederate soldier refers to “the war between the states.” A 1910 statue in Ohio’s Confederate Stockade Cemetery uses similar language to describe the war and features a Confederate soldier standing on a base with the word “Southern” at the top and “C.S.A. 1861-1865” on the bottom—referring to the Confederate States of America.

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At Rock Island Confederate Cemetery in Illinois, an obelisk to the Confederate dead installed much later, in 2003, reads, “Let no man appease the memory of our sacred dead. They were men who died for a cause they believed was worth fighting for and made the ultimate sacrifice.”

At Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery in Ohio, where Confederate soldiers died while imprisoned, a statue of a Confederate soldier stands atop an imposing stone arch marking the entryway to the graveyard, engraved with the single word “Americans.”

“To just say, the North versus the South, or the Union versus Confederacy, I think sort of … legitimates the Confederacy,” Neely says. “They were fighting against the United States.”

The confederate memorial in Springfield National Cemetery reads, in part, “Those who die for a right principle do not die in vain.” Russ Bray for The War Horse.

The Confederate monument in Springfield National Cemetery.” Russ Bray for The War Horse.

“It’s a false memory,” says Michael Zimecki, a lawyer and author who has written about learning his ancestor is memorialized on the Confederate monument in Oak Woods Cemetery. “The Lost Cause—this idea that these people were fighting for a genteel, highly romanticized way of life—it’s a fiction.”

Sixteen years after its dedication, in 1911, the congressionally appointed Commission for Marking the Graves of Confederate Dead raised the Oak Woods monument up onto a massive granite base. It has remained a towering 40-foot-high memorial to Confederate lives lost for more than a century.

“It kind of says ipso facto that they’re worthy of public celebration,” Zimecki says. “I don’t think that the life of my great-great-grandfather and the other men that are interred there are worthy of public celebration. … .[His] was a life that was part of human trafficking.”

‘It’s Very Much About the Present’

In 2020, the defense spending bill, which passed in the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, included a provision that the military examine its bases, buildings, ships, and statues named after Confederate soldiers—like Fort Bragg in North Carolina, named after the slave-owning Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, and the USS Chancellorsville, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser named after a Confederate victory considered Robert E. Lee’s crowning battle.

Initial legislative efforts to examine publicly funded Confederate memorials also included the Departments of Veterans Affairs and of the Interior—the National Park Service maintains more than 200 Confederate memorials.

Ultimately, the congressional mandate directed only the Defense Department to reconsider its memory of the Confederacy. But this year, VA Secretary Denis McDonough changed the name of the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center to the Richmond VA Medical Center. McGuire was a Civil War physician who pushed to treat medical workers as noncombatants and who amputated Stonewall Jackson’s arm at the Battle of Chancellorsville. After the war, he continued to lament the end of slavery and opposed Black Americans’ right to vote.

A statue of a Confederate soldier stands in Springfield National Cemetery in Springfield, Missouri. One one side, “Those who die for a right principle do not die in vain,” runs above a confederate battle flag.

Russ Bray for The War Horse.

 

The medical center was the only VA facility named after a member of the Confederacy, although four other VA medical centers are named after legislators who signed the Southern Manifesto, a document opposing racial integration, in 1956—Carl Vinson, James Haley, John McClellan, and Overton Brooks.

A VA spokesperson told The War Horse that because these facilities were named by Congress, renaming them would require a congressional mandate.

In 2017, after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing protestor Heather Heyer, VA was spending millions of dollars on security contracts to guard its Confederate memorials, The Associated Press reported.

An 80-foot-tall federal memorial to Confederate soldiers at Point Lookout Confederate Cemetery built in 1911 towers over the original obelisk erected by the state of Maryland in 1876.

Kelly Kennedy/The War Horse.

 

In Ohio, the Confederate statue atop the arch engraved with “Americans” was pushed over and beheaded in 2017. In Springfield National Cemetery, vandals covered with red paint another towering Confederate soldier honoring those buried in that section of the cemetery, many of whom died in the Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek.

(In response, one Missouri lawmaker, Warren Love, wrote he hoped the vandals were “found & hung from a tall tree with a long rope.”)

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A Confederate battle flag and the words, “They fought for the right of self-government” appear on one side of the Springfield statue’s base. On the other side it reads, “Those who die for a right principle do not die in vain.” In the center is the bust of Sterling Price, the slave-owning commander of the Missouri State Guard, who refused to surrender when the Confederacy lost the war, marching with some of his troops to Mexico, where he settled in a colony of Confederate exiles.

In response to questions about the Price statue, the VA spokesperson noted that the statue was installed in a Confederate cemetery a decade before it was made part of the Springfield National Cemetery by Congress in 1911, but said the department was considering various options.

“These discussions reflect the times in which people live,” says Neely, the history professor. “It’s very much about the present, not just the past.”


This War Horse feature was reported by Sonner Kehrt and Randee Howard. It was edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Jess Rohan, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Headlines are by Abbie Bennett.

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Randee Howard

Randee Howard is the operations associate for The War Horse. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, she earned her bachelor’s of arts in urban studies from Columbia University in 2021. She was the women's veterans representative for two academic years and volunteered as a nonfiction writing tutor to incarcerated women at Rikers Island. Prior to her enrollment, she served four years on active duty in the United States Navy as an aviation electrician on helicopters in San Diego, California. She deployed on USS Makin Island (LHD-8), an amphibious assault ship to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. She also volunteers as the director of policy for Black Veterans Project.

Sonner Kehrt

Sonner Kehrt is an investigative reporter at The War Horse, where she covers the military and climate change, misinformation, and gender. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, WIRED magazine, Inside Climate News, The Verge, and other publications. She studied government at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and served for five years as Coast Guard officer before earning a masters in democracy and governance studies from Georgetown University and a masters of journalism from UC Berkeley. She has also worked as a lecturer at UC Berkeley, teaching classes in writing, reporting, and ethics. In her free time, she is trying to learn to windsurf. She can be reached at sonner.kehrt@thewarhorse.org and occasionally on Twitter @etskehrt.

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