Community Values

So, it looks like Alexandria legislators have decided to leave a famous statue of a Confederate soldier in historic Old Town at the intersection of Prince and Washington streets, opting to keep their powder dry for other issues.

Theoretically, communities’ actions reflect their values. That being the case, it’s worth exploring why the Appomattox statue is at that intersection in the first place, along with some parties’ concerns of whether “moving” was (and still might be) simply a first step to “removing.”

Today, the statue is largely ignored as cars zoom past. It’s unlikely many people hazard the traffic to get close enough to read the inscriptions on its base. The north side reads, “They died in the consciousness of duty faithfully performed.” The south side reads, “Erected to the memory of Confederate dead of Alexandria, Va. by their Surviving Comrades, May 24th 1889.” The east and west sides bear lists of Alexandrians who died during the war.

The lists probably don’t mean much to the average passerby, even one motivated to get close enough to read them—just unfamiliar names to skim through, perhaps finding one’s own surname in coincidence or connection.  But each name represents a person, someone who—at some point—was cherished and sorely missed.

One name blends in with the others: Hayden Fewell of Company H. He wasn’t famous, even in his day. He was, in fact, a 17-year-old boy. Chances are, he wasn’t worried about holding on to his family’s slaves or particularly well versed in tariff issues. He was probably more interested in girls than politics and went to war because his contemporaries expected him to—it would have been extremely difficult to do otherwise. He and his twin, Lucien, both enlisted as privates on April 6, 1862.

If you’ve read my book, you know that Lucien made it home and Hayden didn’t. Less than three months after enlisting, before turning 18, Hayden would be dead, killed at the battle of Glendale (or Frayser’s Farm, as the Confederates called it). His family received $87.16 for his service, about $2,000 today. A tally sheet of his effects at time of death lists the boy as “17, gray eyes, brown hair, 5 feet 8 inches tall; student.”

Edgar Warfield, also a private in the 17th, likewise lost his brother in that battle—George Warfield and Hayden Fewell shared a mass grave at the site, buried by another Alexandria native, Dr. Harold Snowden, who would return home and serve as editor of the Alexandria Gazette for decades. Warfield would run a drugstore in Alexandria for 40 years after the war and become the city’s oldest living Confederate veteran.

Many, if not most, of these stories are forgotten, or they suffer for being interpreted through a modern sensibility. The community of Alexandria is not what it was in 1861, nor even in 1961, and it is fair to discuss whether the monument represents current values. But in doing so, it is also fair to bear in mind what the monument originally represented—honor for those who made the greatest sacrifice for their community and did what their families and friends expected of them. Although it may be perceived as such now, the statue was not erected as a paean to an offensive (and lost) cause, it was a marker of grief still felt for lost souls 20 years after their passing.

In April 1885, Warfield proposed to the United Confederate Veterans that a monument be erected to the Confederate dead of Alexandria. In November 1888, the group approached the City Council about placing the statue at the intersection of Washington and Prince Streets, the point from which Alexandria troops left the city, and the Council quickly granted permission. Even then, the United Confederate Veterans foresaw that controversy might arise and petitioned the Virginia House of Delegates “that such monument shall remain in its present position as a perpetual and lasting testimonial to the courage, fidelity and patriotism of the heroes in whose memory it was erected” and that “its erection shall not be repealed, revoked, altered, modified, or changed by any future Council or other municipal power or authority.”

The area around the monument at one point measured 40 feet by 60 feet, bounded by a fence. As traffic increased, the island dwindled. Attempts were made in the 1980s to remove the statue altogether for much the same reasons cited today: Its presence was an offensive reminder of slavery, its location impractical. The emotional argument then reflected a larger debate: In its efforts to move toward greater equality and understanding, is the community better served by acknowledging its history and upholding free speech—even offensive free speech? Or is it more effective to eradicate markers and memorials that are, for many, offensive and painful reminders of the worst kind of oppression?

That time, like this time, the statue remained at its location. But the ongoing fate of this monument—now and 100 years on—will speak volumes about the community and its values.

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About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
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