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How One City Took Down Its Confederate Monuments: A Stealth History Lesson

| August 17, 2017

confederate monuments

It’s mourning again in America: a Confederate statue in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg. (Natalie Maynor)

We were all in the dark, on the edge of the wooded park known as Wyman Dell, opposite the Baltimore Museum of Art. It was 2 a.m. Wednesday, and despite the presence of a couple of dozen workers in hardhats, a huge crane, a flatbed truck and a couple of other pieces of heavy machinery, the work site, surrounded by police tape, was remarkably still.


All of us — the workers, the cops, the mayor, scattered reporters and onlookers — watched the focus of the work, an imposing sculpture of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, each on his horse. The crane lowered a big harness dangling from a red metal hook. One worker clambered up on a ladder to fit the harness around the prodigious girth of the generals’ steeds. There was much adjustment and anticipation.

Suddenly, with a lurch, up Lee and Jackson went, wrenched loose from the stone base where they had rested for nearly 70 years. They dangled a bit and then came the big swing up into the trees, making their horses look like nothing so much like flying twin Pegasuses with warriors mounted on their backs. And then they dropped to the ground, where, off of their stone base and in the shadow of the trees, the generals really did look awfully life-like, as if they might still be trotting across the battlefield at Chancellorsville.

This was what a stealth operation against one of the darkest legacies of American history looked like.

The fate of the double-equestrian statue had been in question for more than two years, ever since a white supremacist shot to death nine black churchgoers in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. It set off a citywide debate over four Baltimore monuments to the Southern cause in the Civil War. Then the deadly violence in Charlottesville last weekend, perpetrated by white supremacists trying to preserve a statue of Lee, galvanized the Baltimore City Council, which after a vigorous debate in open session voted unanimously on Monday to proceed with the removal.

The post-Charleston debate in Baltimore had been quite open, complete with letters to the editor, a task force and commission report, which had recommended the removal of the two most prominent of the four monuments.

But the actual removal was anything but public, which was a telling sign of what extraordinary divisions still linger from a war that concluded at Appomattox more than 150 years ago.

And yes, those divisions linger even in a city that was, technically, on the Union side in the Civil War. If anything, the complexities of war’s legacies in Baltimore demonstrate just how deeply those legacies are woven into the fabric of the country as a whole, and not only in the Deep South.

Why Baltimore?

Some historical context is in order. Maryland was still a slave-holding state at the outset of the Civil War, but Baltimore itself had, by virtue of being an industrial city that had grown up around mills and shipbuilding, relied far less on slavery than the plantations in the southern and eastern reaches of the state, a difference which had long caused friction between the upstart city and the plantation owners who dominated state government.

What slavery did exist in the city often took on an idiosyncratic nature, a fact that Frederick Douglass commented on when he arrived there from Maryland’s Eastern Shore — slaves in Baltimore were often held on a term basis resembling indentured servitude, or “worked out” to shipyards by owners who, in some cases, would let the slave keep some of his wages to save up toward purchasing freedom. By 1860, Baltimore had the largest concentration of freed blacks of any city — in the 1860 census, more than 90 percent of blacks counted in the city were free.

Regardless of its relative lack of reliance on slavery compared with cities further south, though, the city was, by 1860, starkly divided between unionists and secessionists; many of its merchant elite hailed from further south and entertained romantic sympathies for their home region. Politically, the city was so dominated by conservative Democrats (“Copperheads”) that Abraham Lincoln got fewer than 1,000 votes there in the 1860 election. The Baltimore Sun called his election an “offensive triumph,” labeled him an “exclusively sectional candidate” and warned that he would “rule with authority over the people of the sovereign states, who reject his principles and avowed policy as in direct conflict with their constitutional rights, their institutions, their interests, their equality in general confederacy, their honor, dignity and self-respect.” Not for nothing was Lincoln slipped secretly through Baltimore under the guard of Pinkerton detectives en route to Washington.

The rumblings of war greatly heightened the city’s internal tensions. When Lincoln called in April 1861 for 75,000 troops to protect Washington, a regiment from Massachusetts and unarmed volunteers from Pennsylvania were met with fierce resistance as they tried to transfer from one train station to another in Baltimore. Violence flared and, by day’s end, about a half-dozen soldiers and dozen local resisters were dead — that April 19 riot was, by some reckonings, the first blood of the Civil War. Maryland’s pro-slavery governor moved to destroy rail bridges into the city to bar further troops, but Lincoln trumped him by ordering that troops from then on bypass Baltimore by ship.

The state remained in the Union, but barely. Secessionist leaders pushed for a convention to vote on the matter, but there were by that point so many federal forces in Annapolis and Baltimore that the convention had to be held in Frederick, to the west, in relatively pro-Union territory. The vote failed, and on the train back east, federal forces arrested some pro-secession delegates, helping set in motion the debate over Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. Baltimore’s mayor and police commissioners were also jailed. To further make his point, Lincoln famously had the cannons on Federal Hill, which protected Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, turned inward onto the restive city.

Twilight of the Confederacy, again. (Ryan Schultz)

Twilight of the Confederacy, again. (Ryan Schultz)

By some estimates, as many as 30,000 Maryland men are estimated to have fought for the Confederacy — though in making the case for the removal of two of the statues last year, the city’s task force on the issue asserted that those serving in the Union Army from the city had outnumbered those heading South by a 2-1 ratio. Regardless, the most consequential Confederate sympathizer lurking in the city was not a rebel soldier in arms but a native of nearby Harford County, John Wilkes Booth.

The tensions outlived the war. When Confederate soldiers returned home to the city, Unionists argued for their expulsion. Meanwhile, the city swelled with African Americans liberated from the plantations of Southern Maryland and points south, to the consternation of city leaders. “History furnishes … no record of a successful intermingling between the great divisions of mankind,” warned the Sun in 1865. Two decades later, the paper argued that the best solution would be to “let the colored people dissipate away.” But they did not: By 1890, 67,000 of the city’s 440,000 residents were black. By 1940, after the first wave of the Great Migration, Baltimore had the highest proportion of blacks of the country’s 10 biggest cities — a fifth of the city, 168,000 people. The mobilization for World War II brought tens of thousands more.

Throughout these post-Civil War decades, the ghosts of the war lingered in the city, and concrete evidence for this were the monuments erected by wealthy Southern-sympathizers as they sought to rebrand the Lost Cause away from the defense of slavery and toward the defense of state’s rights. A statue of Roger Taney, the Supreme Court justice who authored the Dred Scott decision, went up in Annapolis in the 1870s; a replica eventually ended up in the heart of Baltimore’s elegant Mount Vernon Square, not far from the column that is the Washington Monument.

But the monument building far outlived the last Confederate widows: The biggest of them all was the double-equestrian sculpture of Lee and Jackson, and it was not commissioned until the 1920s and not completed (by a female sculptor, Laura Gardin Fraser, on a base designed by noted architect John Russell Pope) until 1948. It was hardly an accident that this giant piece (the first double-equestrian sculpture in the U.S.) was being constructed as Baltimore’s growing black population was forcing the issue around the city’s profound segregation, which was exacerbated by redlining and explicitly racist city ordinances and was already, by the 1940s, taking the next ugly turn toward panic-selling, block-busting and rampant white flight.

And the war did not just live on in the monuments. One year after the Lee-Jackson sculpture was completed, in 1949, Matthew Crenson moved into his family’s new home, near Chinquapin Park in the northeast part of the city. He recalls that the other boys in the neighborhood immediately demanded that he reveal his rooting sympathies — and it had nothing to do with sports.

“I was asked to declare if I was Union or Confederate,” he told me. “And when we’d divided up, we’d throw rocks at each other. So it was still alive then.”

The Final Decision

By the late 1980s, Baltimore was majority-black and had elected the first of several black mayors. Today, it is more than 60 percent African American and, in presidential elections, it votes overwhelmingly Democratic. Yet the monuments had remained — even as the Lee-Jackson one became, over time, a favorite meeting point of the Sons of the Confederacy.

Crenson, who recently retired from a career of teaching political science at Johns Hopkins and is about to publish a major work on Baltimore’s political history, sees the endurance of the monuments as a sign of one of Baltimore’s starkest characteristics: its avoidance of difficult conversations about race. Baltimoreans are fixated on race, but, he says, have generally preferred to keep the discussion private, under wraps — more so than is the case in, say, Chicago.

Of course, that discussion was thrown into the open in the spring of 2015 with the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody, and the protests and unrest that followed, which have, in turn, been followed by a devastating, unprecedented spike in the city’s already high rate of gun violence. Then, in June 2015, came the Charleston church shooting by a young Confederate sympathizer. Community leaders and activists in Baltimore joined their counterparts elsewhere in calling for the statues’ removal. Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appointed the task force, which recommended that Taney and Lee-Jackson come down, and the matter was left to the next mayor, Catherine Pugh, to resolve.

Pugh has been preoccupied with other matters, notably the ever-spiraling homicide rate. Until this week — with the deadly violence in Charlottesville and the strikingly ambiguous response from President Donald Trump. “This is a debate that has now been forced into Baltimore from other parts of the country,” says Crenson. “The pattern of Baltimore from very early was not to talk about race and slavery but to equivocate about it.”

The dispatch with which the council and then the mayor acted this week has caused wry amazement in a city accustomed to much slower response on everything from the homicide rate (it has taken Pugh months to develop a comprehensive plan to address the violence) to a faulty sewage system to the construction of bike lanes. But the city was facing the real prospect of strife over the monuments — an activist group was organizing to topple them, and it was not hard to imagine that virulent defenders would arrive en masse, as happened in Charlottesville.

Early Wednesday morning, as we watched the statues being lifted, in a final indignity, onto a humble flatbed truck, the few onlookers who remained cheered. One lone agitated opponent, a local man who had come to watch with his wife, loudly insisted that the money to do the work would have been better spent on other things in a city overwhelmed by crime, drugs and lackluster schools.

The generals sat forlornly on the trucks for quite some time. A few fits and starts by the truck, and then, right around 4 a.m., they finally pulled away, southbound along Art Museum Drive toward Howard Street, to a location and fate that the city declined to disclose.

The mayor, looking on in blue jeans, said nothing before getting back in her black SUV to be driven home. But a few hours later, she had this to say to the Sun: “We moved quickly and quietly. There was enough grandstanding, enough speeches being made. Get it done. It’s done. They needed to come down. My concern is for the safety and security of our people. We moved as quickly as we could. … I did not want to endanger people in my own city.”

A few hours earlier, after the monument was driven off and the cops were gone, a few activists had clambered up onto the base for a victory pose. They were amused to find three small St. Jude medallions — St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. “That’s some 1948 moss,” one activist said, looking at the green scrub where the generals had stood.

But the moment had an anticlimactic feel. Maybe because the activists were hoping to topple the monument on their own. Maybe because the tragedy in Charlottesville still hung in the air, alongside the growing bewilderment of the Trump presidency. Maybe because they knew the city still faced so many, less easily solvable ills. Or maybe because the monument’s removal was so very long overdue that the accomplishment of that act was, after all, a hard thing to celebrate.

–Alec MacGillis, ProPublica

For more coverage, check out ProPublica’s project on Documenting Hate.

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25 Responses for “How One City Took Down Its Confederate Monuments: A Stealth History Lesson”

  1. r&r says:

    These people have become poppets to the civil rights requests And forgetting the hundreds and thousands of men and women who are buried around the world defending this country. Those people never contributed anything toward this country.

  2. Veteran says:

    The civil war was a tragic event but is an important part of history. Tearing down these statues is erasing the history of this great country. Since Washington and Jefferson were slave owners should we remove all monuments to them?

  3. Rick Belhumeur says:

    Thanks for the history lesson on the evolution of slavery in Baltimore. From now on when I go back through that neighborhood I’ll be lost. It was actually was a very nicely done statue. We’re erasing our history folks, good or bad, it was in the past and shouldn’t affect how we treat each other today!

    As far as removing it at night, I guess they took a page out of the Robert Irsay playbook when he stole our beloved Baltimore Colts in the middle of the night and took them to Indianapolis. The biggest difference? It wasn’t snowing last night.

  4. woodchuck says:

    What’s next? Jackhammering George Washington’s face off Mt.Rushmore?Stop the crap it;s all about history, some good some bad- it ALL matters.

  5. PCer says:

    @r&r – they were not defending this country. They were defending the Confederacy.
    @Veteran – these statues were not put up to memorialize these soldiers, but to remind others that they were not equal – regardless of what the Supreme Court ordered.

  6. Pogo says:

    @FL & Alec MacGillis, ProPublica

    Thank you.

    The statues belong in cemeteries.

    But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.
    – Matthew 8:22 KJV

  7. Anonymous says:

    Every person who has defended and is defending the USA should revolt and be heard. This is disrespectful and will never erase our history. Like Trump said, what’s next. It shouldn’t be long and museums should be closing. Cities are being sneaky like thieves in the night and quietly and quickly removing statutes. SHAMEFUL THAT THE PEOPLE IN THE USA HAVE NOTHING MORE TO BE UP IN ARMS ABOUT. When war breaks out on this soil we’ll see who’s offended then and how they will run like little bitches.

  8. Jordyn says:

    The argument that removing statues erases history is absurd at best, and a lie masking hatred at worst.
    History is in books, museums, news articles, and documentaries.

    Do you need a statue of Hitler built to tell you the history of the Holocaust and World War II? Of course not.

    Confederates were traitors that fought for slavery. “States’ Rights” you say. Sure, states’ rights to continue slavery. “My heritage” you say. Yes, your heritage of human rights violations will still be yours without a statue.

    All history does matter. Those that defend propping up monuments to traitors and slave owners show that they did not learn the right lessons from their history classes. Perhaps those classes were taught by statues.

  9. Stanley Wolak says:

    Remember one thing in History!!The rich Blacks in Africa sold their own Black People to the Slave Ships.I call this greed of the very rich in Africa!! I’m sure we have many Blacks in America that can’t realize that this ever happened.Read the History Books.

  10. Lou says:

    Did anybody researched how the Eastern European countries handled the statues of Stalin and Lenin?
    Perhaps we could learn from their experience.

  11. Percy's mother says:

    Jordyn
    The primary reason for the Civil War was SUCCESSION . . . NOT slavery. It was only after the Civil War became extremely unpopular due to heavy loss of life of Union soldiers was it decided to add abolition of slavery as a war goal (in addition to reunification) . . . IN 1863!!! Succession was considered illegal; hence, the Civil War. This is regardless of what you may have learnt from TV news, social media, college campuses, college courses, various social counter-movements, etc.

    If you are a history buff, I invite you to obtain the book, “The Opium of the Intellectuals” by Raymond Aron (1957), and it can be ordered from Amazon.

    Apart from that, if you’re not into reading and learning the truth, and you are looking to learn without using your mind, you may want to take a look at the movie, Dr. Zhivago (1965, directed by David Lean, a British director). It’s all about the Bolshevik revolution in Russia about 100 years ago. It’ll give you an idea of where we’re headed if people like you don’t learn the truth and the repercussions of society being swept up in propaganda.

    Good reading and/or viewing as well as learning the truth.

  12. djwhite077 says:

    Here’s what Robert E. Lee thought about Confederate monuments http://a.msn.com/01/en-us/AAqdaUZ?ocid=st … FlaglerLive and all media would do our country and the world a tremendous service if they would re-publish and publicize this interview with Lee’s biographer. Hopefully it will get some press in addition to MSN and PBS. Very surprising and insightful:

    “Debates about the removal of Confederate statues have been ongoing for many years, and opponents of removing the monuments often decry such attempts as an attempt to erase history. 
    In light of all this, it’s probably best to remember one relevant historical fact: Robert E. Lee was opposed to Confederate monuments.
    “It’s often forgotten that Lee himself, after the Civil War, opposed monuments, specifically Confederate war monuments,” Jonathan Horn, a Lee biographer, told PBS.
    After the Civil War, Lee received a number of letters requesting support for the erection of Confederate memorials, according to Horn. 
    In June 1866, he wrote that he couldn’t support a monument of one of his best generals, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, saying it wasn’t “feasible at this time.” 
    “As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated,” Lee wrote in December 1866 about another proposed Confederate monument, “my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; [and] of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.”

    Not only was Lee opposed to Confederate memorials, “he favored erasing battlefields from the landscape altogether,” Horn wrote.
    He even supported getting rid of the Confederate flag after the Civil War ended, and didn’t want them them flying above Washington College, which he was president of after the war. 
    “Lee did not want such divisive symbols following him to the grave,” Horn wrote. “At his funeral in 1870, flags were notably absent from the procession. Former Confederate soldiers marching did not don their old military uniforms, and neither did the body they buried.” 
    “His Confederate uniform would have been ‘treason’ perhaps!” Lee’s daughter wrote, according to Horn. 
    “Lee believed countries that erased visible signs of civil war recovered from conflicts quicker,” Horn told PBS. “He was worried that by keeping these symbols alive, it would keep the divisions alive.”

  13. r&r says:

    PC and Pogo you are SO very wrong. It’s that attitude that’s driving this country into a socialist country and will be ruled by the anti USA and not the people.

  14. George says:

    Confederates wanted to keep slaves and would kill other Americans to keep that terrible trade. We aren’t trying to erase history, no one will ever forget what happened. We are just erasing monuments to racist slave owners, I’m totally OK that.

  15. fredrick says:

    I keep praying that California to become it’s own country. We can then remove all reference to them from our history books. They are nothing but traitors to the United States.

  16. Tampa Native says:

    @Percy’s mother.

    The southern states wanted to secede from the nation because they feared that the institution of slavery would be eliminated with the election of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln received not one single vote for president in the 1860 election and was not even on the ballot in most of those states. In the debates he had with Stephen F. Douglas in 1958 he became popular because of his anti-Slavery stance. To say that secession Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Florida was not over this is erroneous. They were seceding for the purpose to keep the institution of slavery intact. Watch this attached video by Colonel Ty Seidule head of the History Department at West Point. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcy7qV-BGF4. By the way this website is traditionally very conservative in their ideology.

  17. Jordyn says:

    Percy’s mother, I assume you mean Secession, not Succession. And my point is that slavery was the major reason for secession, and therefore, for the civil war. I strongly encourage that you not just read the books written by many of varying attitudes since, but go straight to the source, the declaration of cause written by the states themselves at the time of secession:

    Beginning of the declaration of cause from the state of Georgia:
    “The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. ”

    Beginning of the declaration of cause from the state of Mississippi:
    “In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

    Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. ”

    Feel free to look up the rest. The point is that the states’ position for slavery was the major reason for secession, making it the major reason for the civil war.

    Taking down statues doesn’t erase history. Putting up statues of Confederates was an attempt to erase history, to normalize their actions and honor them. That people still think Confederate states’ rights wasn’t about slavery, or that there is any way to justify slavery shows that it worked.

    They do not deserve honor or glory. They do not deserve to be normalized or memorialized. Abolitionists and victims should be memorialized.

  18. can'tfoolme says:

    History is history and can’t be relived and changed. However, there is no one alive today who owned slaves or was a slave. Surely a century is long enough to move on with our lives, and with the real threat to our country coming from outside sources such as North Korea, ISIS, and Iran, do we really need division in our country over statues and events from over 100 years ago?

  19. Pogo says:

    @Dead-enders and other Republicans

    After trump resigns, along with the footnote in history of worst disgraces, I believe the monuments to him found on bathroom walls will be his most lasting remembrances. So cheer up – be happy.

  20. Makeitso1701 says:

    So,for those who think we should keep the statues of these traitors because you say it’s part of our “history”, well how about we erect a statue of Timothy MacVay in Oklahoma, or may a a statue of the 911 terrorist in New York. It sounds ridiculous, but essentially that is what you people are basically arguing in favor of.
    Those statues belong in a museum, period!

  21. Veteran says:

    Funny how these monuments have been around for 50+ years but suddenly after one demonstration they all have to go. I guess the democrats are finally embarrassed enough about erecting them in the first place.

  22. A tiny manatee says:

    Personally, I think we should replace them all with statues of sherman.

  23. tom dooley says:

    To all that think southerners we’re “traders”? What about all those who fought against the British “4 score and 20 years” prior? We’re we all not “traders” to the queen? Washington,Jefferson,Adams,etc. all slave owners. So how far back should we go to removing monuments? Just leave Custer’s alone; love seeing what the natives did to them. Go Redskins! Oops sorry Native Americans.(little humor ok with ya’ll? Oops my southern tongue burning from these “collard’s and grit’s”). Lighten up people; there are way more problems to deal with then monuments from a war over 200 years ago. Look at the Jews,Christians,Muslims still killing/dying for something that happened over 2,000 years ago. Surely we won’t be even discussing this 2,000 years from now will we? It’s up to us; we the people! Make it a great day! Just my “2 cent’s”.

  24. Just sayin' says:

    What about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and MANY others? They ALL owned slaves! Get over it it’s part of history! If you hate slavery and the past SOOO much why are you all digging it up?

    Are all african americans and anyone affected by slavery going to stop using our currency, I mean those bills have slave owners ALL OVER THEM!

  25. Sadden by all of this says:

    All the gains that have been made over the last 50 years are fading away. This is so sad those statues are a reminder, a reminder of how bad things were, how far we all have come (both African Americans and Whites) and the opportunities that we have now do to the wars that have been fought. Next they will be going to our museums and removing anything which represents that time period. What about all forms of art? Are we now going to sensor what art people create and display. It is all insane. I personally enjoy looking at the statues found in public parks. To look at the beauty and the detail an artist has put into his/her work to depict a piece of history or a person that should not be forgotten. I also enjoy reading the plaque which often gives the historical value of the statue. So sad….

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