Judge weighs removal of Confederate memorial at Arlington Cemetery

by Tommy Grant

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A federal judge expressed strong misgivings Tuesday about extending a restraining order that is blocking Arlington National Cemetery from removing a century-old memorial there to Confederate soldiers.

At a hearing in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. District Judge Rossie Alston said he issued the temporary injunction Monday after receiving an urgent phone call from the memorial’s supporters saying that gravesites adjacent to the memorial were being desecrated and disturbed as contractors began work to remove the memorial.

He said he toured the site before Tuesday’s hearing and saw the site being treated respectfully.

“I saw no desecration of any graves,” Alston said. “The grass wasn’t even disturbed.”

While Alston gave strong indications he would lift the injunction, which expires Wednesday, he did not rule at the end of Tuesday’s hearing but said he would issue a written ruling as soon as he could. Cemetery officials have said they are required by law to complete the removal by the end of the year and that the contractors doing the work have only limited availability over the next week or so.

An independent commission recommended removal of the memorial last year in conjunction with a review of Army bases with Confederate names.

The statue, designed to represent the American South and unveiled in 1914, features a bronze woman, crowned with olive leaves, standing on a 32-foot (9.8-meter) pedestal. The woman holds a laurel wreath, plow stock and pruning hook, and a biblical inscription at her feet says: “They have beat their swords into plough-shares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

Some of the figures also on the statue include a Black woman depicted as “Mammy” holding what is said to be the child of a white officer, and an enslaved man following his owner to war.

Defend Arlington, in conjunction with a group called Save Southern Heritage Florida, has filed multiple lawsuits trying to keep the memorial in place. The group contends that the memorial was built to promote reconciliation between the North and South and that removing the memorial erodes that reconciliation.

Tuesday’s hearing focused largely on legal issues, but Alston questioned the heritage group’s lawyers about the notion that the memorial promotes reconciliation.

He noted that the statue depicts, among other things, a “slave running after his ‘massa’ as he walks down the road. What is reconciling about that?” asked Alston, an African American who was appointed to the bench in 2019 by then-President Donald Trump.

Alston also chided the heritage group for filing its lawsuit Sunday in Virginia while failing to note that it lost a very similar lawsuit over the statue just one week earlier in federal court in Washington. The heritage groups’ lawyers contended that the legal issues were sufficiently distinct that it wasn’t absolutely necessary for Alston to know about their legal defeat in the District of Columbia.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who disagrees with the decision to remove the memorial, made arrangements for it to be moved to land owned by the Virginia Military Institute at New Market Battlefield State Historical Park in the Shenandoah Valley.

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