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How the Franklin County Confederate statue is historic

How the Franklin County Confederate statue is historic

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The Roanoke Times

One spring day in 2008, the Franklin County Board of Supervisors made history, whether it intended to or not.

In May 2008, the board agreed to put up a new Confederate statue in front of the courthouse, replacing one from 1910 that had been smashed to bits the year before by an errant driver in a pickup truck. There had been some debate preceding the vote on whether Franklin County really ought to be putting up a new Confederate statue. However, local history buffs called the original statue “central to the identity of the county” and its loss akin to a “death” in the family. So naturally, Franklin County supervisors were going to put it back up. They kicked in $500 of taxpayer dollars, accepted a $500 donation from a former state legislator, and hoped that insurance money would cover the rest (which it did).

What Franklin County supervisors didn’t know then, and what they didn’t know when the new statue was dedicated in 2010, was that they were putting up what seems to be the last Confederate statue erected on public property in Virginia — and one of the last in the country. Maybe that was obvious — there sure haven’t been a lot of Confederate statues going up lately.

The big surge was in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which coincided with the rise of Jim Crow laws, and a second wave in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which coincided with Southern resistance to integration orders. You can draw your own conclusions about cause-and-effect there. In any case, with the current movement to go the other way — and take down some of those monuments — it becomes a matter of historical curiosity to look at what was the last one to go up.

This is an easier question to ask than answer. There is no master list of Confederate monuments. The Southern Poverty Law Center maintains what appears to be the most complete list, but it’s still incomplete because we found some Virginia monuments that aren’t on it.

Here’s what we can say. The Franklin County statue is not the last Confederate statue erected in Virginia. There was one that went up in Campbell County in 2016 — but it was built on private property, a key distinction. It’s possible, though, that the Campbell County monument — an obelisk with the phrase “lest we forget” and some words about the “courage and patriotism” of rebel soldiers — is the most recent Confederate monument erected anywhere in the United States. The SPLC list doesn’t list any since then (it also doesn’t list that monument). We found at least six others that went up after the Franklin County statue — one on courthouse grounds in Texas in 2015, one on private property in Georgia in 2012; two on courthouse grounds in Tennessee in 2012 and 2011, one on courthouse grounds in North Carolina in 2011 and one in South Carolina on private property in 2011. Now, here’s where things become difficult — or not, depending on your point of view.

Some monuments are clearly celebratory in spirit. Others are not. The massive statue of Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue is clearly in the former category. It literally makes the man larger than life. However, some of the Confederate monuments that have gone up in recent years are plain blocks of granite that simply list the names of local Confederate dead. For the sake of argument, let’s assume we no longer wish to honor the leaders of the Confederacy. Is it still permissible to mourn, in some official way, those who lost their lives in that war even if they were on what we now recognize was the wrong side?

If the answer to that question is “no,” then how do we apply that to other wars we find objectionable? We mourn those who perished in Vietnam regardless of how we feel about the rightness or wrongness of that war. Should the Civil War count differently because it involved secessionists who rebelled against the United States so that they could preserve slavery — even if ordinary soldiers might have felt no stake in slavery and signed up for other reasons? It’s possible to take a class-based view of the war and consider those soldiers victims as well — victims of the political aims of the Southern planter class. If the answer to the original question is “yes,” that we can acknowledge the dead, then does it matter what context in which we do so? For instance, the 2011 monument in North Carolina reads simply “Honoring Mitchell County’s Confederate Dead.” On one side. On the other side, it reads “Lest We Not Forget: These Men Died For Their Freedom and Independence.” That, of course, raises a question about those who were not free — and whose freedom would have been denied if those soldiers had prevailed.

If some acknowledgement of Confederate dead is socially permissible, but the context matters, how do we judge the generic rebel soldier that stands atop the Franklin monument — and monuments in front of many other courthouses? Is that too celebratory — too heroic? Based on the petitions to take those statues down, the answer is “yes,” but these seem distinctions worth talking about so that whatever we do is deliberate.

We began with a historical curiosity: Is the Franklin County statue the last Confederate statue to go up in the state or country? No, but it does seem the last one to go up on public property in Virginia. However, we’ve now stumbled into a bigger question: What standard should we apply to monuments? It’s too facile to say that statues should stay because they’re “part of history.” King George III is part of our history, too, but New Yorkers eagerly pulled down his statue in July 1776, and Americans regarded that as a patriotic act. Why, then, are statues to those who lost the Civil War acceptable, unless we’re trying to say they should have won? However, it also seems too facile to say we should expect perfection from our men (and they are mostly men) in marble, granite and bronze. Lots of historical figures did things we’d disapprove of today. We’ve argued that the standard should be “what was this person best known for”? By that standard, Thomas Jefferson stays because he wrote the Declaration of Independence even if we consider his personal life today worthy of condemnation. By that standard, the name of Turner Ashby High School in Rockingham County must go, because Ashby’s only two claims to fame were as a Confederate officer during the war — and a vigilante leader before the war who chased Virginia’s most prominent abolitionist out of the state.

As for the Franklin County statue, think of the trouble supervisors in 2008 would have saved their successors today if they had decided to spend that insurance money a different way.

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