They may sit on public land. But not all Confederate monuments are publicly owned.

By: - July 2, 2020 12:03 am

The headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy on Arthur Ashe Boulevard in Richmond. The organization owns more than a dozen Confederate statues in Virginia. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

The statue came down quietly, in the early hours of a Tuesday morning in June. 

The scene was decidedly anticlimactic. There were no cheering crowds. No charges of disorderly conduct or arrests. Instead, police and passersby simply stood and watched as a crew lifted down from its pedestal the bronze figure of the Confederate soldier known as “Appomattox” that for 131 years had sat near the heart of the city of Alexandria. 

As public fury over systemic racism and police brutality have crescendoed, the Confederate monuments that litter the South have begun to topple like dominoes. In Virginia, they have been pulled down by protesters or removed by officials citing public safety concerns to skirt laws that until this week banned localities from getting rid of war memorials. 

But the “Appomattox” removal was different. It was done at the behest of the group responsible for erecting it, the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The group’s June 2 move to recover the statue highlighted an unusual angle of the fight over Confederate monument removal that has plagued Virginia for decades. In some cases, the monuments themselves — the carved stone, the plaques, the bronze — aren’t owned by local governments, even if they sit on public land and have long been protected by state laws. Instead, their ownership remains in the hands of private groups, often the UDC, with restrictions and limitations laid out in century-old agreements or articulated only in sources like meeting minutes or contemporary accounts.

“We just have to approach it that each case is unique, and we’re going to have to get some help from the counties if it’s an ownership issue to help us research that,” said Jim Hare, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ Division of Survey and Register. 

But, he noted, “we only can go on what we are told, either by the county or by the UDC. They don’t have to present a deed of ownership.”

In August 2017, weeks after the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville exploded into deadly violence, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring acknowledged the complexity of the legal web that enmeshes Virginia’s monuments in a formal advisory opinion responding to a request from DHR Director Julie Langan. 

Robert Lee, a great nephew of Robert E. Lee, reiterated his support for removing a six-story tall monument to the Confederate general in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Many of the state’s Confederate monuments were authorized by legislative act, he pointed out, while “other legal constraints might limit the ability of a locality to remove or relocate a war or veterans monument.”

“A monument may have been donated to the locality subject to reversionary terms or conditions in the transfer instrument triggered by the locality’s attempt to remove or disturb the monument,” Herring wrote in his Aug. 25, 2017 opinion. “Or, the locality might have received funding for the acquisition, maintenance, preservation or enhancement of the monument through a grant program that places restrictions on any alteration of the monument.”

Or, it’s become clear in recent weeks, the monument might never have been donated or transferred at all. 

Following Unite the Right, Gov. Terry McAuliffe turned to the Department of Historic Resources for assistance in gathering information about Virginia’s Confederate-related historic resources. Since then, the department has been attempting to track exactly what rebel monuments the commonwealth has, although a lack of dedicated staffing and the fact that almost all documentation of local monuments is held in the state’s 133 circuit courts have made the process slow. 

Today, DHR has documented the existence of more than 380 Confederate monuments in Virginia. Of those, department records show about a third are privately owned — many located in cemeteries — with more than a dozen belonging to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. These monuments vary from elaborate statues like “Appomattox” to Jefferson Davis Highway markers bearing local UDC chapter names.

Still, Hare cautioned, research is still underway, and so these findings are preliminary. The department’s spreadsheet bears a handful of “Undetermined” entries in the “Ownership” column, and at least one monument listed as having local ownership is in fact UDC property. 

That monument is the Confederate memorial in Leesburg on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds. On Friday, the Loudoun chapter of the UDC sent a letter via its attorney to Phyllis Randall, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, requesting the return of the memorial to the group after a majority of the board stated they would back its removal. An attached memorandum from the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter also expressed support for the monument’s return to the UDC.

“As you may be aware, the UDC, not the County, is the owner of the statue,” the letter said before outlining the evidence for the group’s ownership: Loudoun Board of Supervisors meeting minutes from 1901, 1906 and 1907.

“They erected a private statue on public grounds. It is no question that it is theirs,” said Randall, who has been fighting for the memorial to be taken down for some two decades. “I have no issue at all with them retrieving their statue.” 

Whether the United Daughters of the Confederacy will continue to repossess the statues it constructed throughout Virginia and still owns is an open question. The close-mouthed organization that was one of the main purveyors of the Lost Cause myth rarely speaks to the media and did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Nevertheless, if the UDC is seeking to safeguard the monuments still legally theirs, the coming months may prove busy ones. Beginning Wednesday, individual localities are now allowed for the first time in more than a century to decide whether they want their Confederate monuments to stay in place. That very day, Richmond kicked off the process with the removal of the Stonewall Jackson monument before a crowd that erupted into cheers despite a heavy downpour. 

In areas of Virginia less scrutinized than Richmond, figuring out the provenance of each of the Confederate monuments may be a weighty task. As Herring concluded his 2017 advisory opinion, “careful investigation of the history and facts concerning a particular monument in a given locality” will be necessary for local governments “to determine what, if any, restrictions might apply.”

In Loudoun, Randall said she doesn’t care where the Leesburg statue goes once the UDC takes it back — as long as it isn’t on public property. 

“I am happy for so many people that this statue will not be sitting on the courthouse grounds,” she said. “There are generations of African Americans who have fought this statue sitting there.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.