Remove Jefferson Davis, Add Contraband Slaves to Memorial Arch

Yesterday work crews removed the letters on the Jefferson Davis Memorial Arch located at Fort Monroe in Virginia. The arch was dedicated in 1956 shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. I still find it bizarre that a memorial to Davis was placed on the very ground where he was briefly imprisoned at the end of the war.

But there is something fitting about its removal on the 400th anniversary of the introduction of the first enslaved people to Virginia.

Rather than simply remove the letters, I would recommend adding the names of Frank Baker, James Townsend and Shepard Mallory. On May 22, 1861 these three men rowed over to Fort Monroe from Hampton hoping to gain their freedom. As we all know they were designated as contraband by General Benjamin Butler, but it did begin the long and slow process of turning a war to save the Union into one that would eventually end the institution of slavery.

It would be fitting to honor these three men as opposed to a man whose efforts throughout much of his life were wrapped up in the continued enslavement of African Americans.

In related news, a monument located in Orange County, California and dedicated in 2004 has been removed. It has been vandalized numerous times in recent months. The Atlanta History Center is leading an effort to add historical markers to four Confederate monuments.

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7 comments… add one
  • paineite Aug 3, 2019 @ 4:57

    Thank you for the update and the encouraging news. No monuments for traitors and war-criminals.

  • Diane Hyra Aug 3, 2019 @ 5:00

    I really like the idea of adding the names of Baker, Townsend and Mallory to the arch. We don’t know the names of enough individuals who liberated themselves. People would read their names, wonder who they are and why they are so honored and then learn about them. The emphasis has too long been on Lincoln freeing the slaves or a “benevolent” master freeing his slaves. Let’s talk about the enslaved people freeing themselves.

  • Louis Drew Aug 3, 2019 @ 5:27

    I agree with Ms. Hyra. Perhaps a plaque explaining who those men were and what they did could be added as well.

  • Terry Klima Aug 3, 2019 @ 8:23

    My understanding is that the Memorial Arch was dedicated in May of 1956, two years after the landmark Brown versus the Board of Education Supreme Court decision delivered on May 17, 1954. Is there any evidence that these two events were somehow connected?

    For the sake of understanding and historical accuracy, it should be noted that Jefferson Davis was not “briefly imprisoned” at Fort Monroe but rather was incarcerated there from May 22, 1865 until May 13, 1867.

    It was not until 1868 that the United States attempted to bring charges of Treason against Davis, which likely would have brought the issue of the constitutionality of secession to the forefront. The question of the Confederate President’s guilt was never adjudicated. The United States Attorney entered a “Nolle Prosequi” with the Court, indicating an unwillingness to prosecute the case, on February 15, 1869.

    Accordingly, Davis was neither legally charged or convicted of being a “war criminal or a traitor”

    • Kevin Levin Aug 3, 2019 @ 8:27

      I was simply placing the Memorial Arch in relationship with broader response to Brown, which included honoring Confederate leaders at schools, etc. I know of no direct connection between the two events. By “imprisoned” I was simply referring to the fact that he was placed behind bars.

  • Ace-of-Stars Aug 3, 2019 @ 13:46

    …Only in America and North Korea can we tolerate and elevate a native-born evil regime and take offense at anyone whose desire is to wipe the memory of such unflattering icons from open public spectacle! We reveled in the cheers of the Iraqi People when our U.S. soldiers helped them to tear down their public monuments dedicated to their brutal regime and its figurehead… but when we in America even so much as “discuss” the idea of possibly removing those from our own historical dark period there’ll be no shortage of frenzied and rabid defenders angrily rallying for the preservation– and continued promotion –of the visual representations of this most shameful stain on our existence as the supposed “Land of the Free” — and if that is not the definition of “irony,” then I don’t know what is.

  • Sean Michael Chick Aug 11, 2019 @ 20:51

    Davis’ imprisonment was bungled. His treatment at Fort Monroe was seen as torture. It was a major reason he was not tried, and was a major blunder on the part of Stanton and Miles. They managed to turn the most hated man in America, north and south, into a martyr, something he rode out for the rest of his life. Few men of that era were as adept as Davis at using pity to his advantage.

    Why exactly they put up the Davis arch is debatable outside of hard evidence. Was it due to desegregation or the approaching centennial? Was it both? When I saw it I thought of it as a nod to reunification (the narrative we have lost) and an acknowledgement that his imprisonment was a dark spot on the Reconstruction. Not that he did not deserve to be imprisoned or tried (I would have voted for guilty) but that we tortured a prisoner. That though is just my personal thoughts when I saw the arch and not necessarily why it was put up.

    I have not commented on this blog since the wave of Confederate statue removals started in 2015. Since that time it has played out as expected. Most were removed from big cities while small towns in the South have mostly kept them. Most compromises were ignored and nuance was ground underfoot. Monuments to common soldiers and the dead, once considered taboo, were removed. Some graves and battlefield monuments were desecrated. Monuments to peace and unity such as in Nashville are still vandalized repeatedly. Madison and Santa Ana removed cemetery monuments to the dead and there are hushed calls for removing similar stuff in New Orleans. Nothing loud for now but give it time. After all, if you are offended do you want to see Albert Sidney Johnston riding “Fire-Eater” every time you drive down I-10? Or the Greenwood monument to unknown Confederate dead? At the same time, other removals have occurred for non-Confederates, with slave-owning Founders like Washington getting small but noticeable abuse. This will only accelerate given the current drift of rhetoric and ideas.

    Beyond that, nothing has changed in New Orleans. The number of black people in the city continues to decline as gentrification continues unabated. VICE news even sent a photographer to document New Orleans black culture “before it is gone” in their words. Since 2015 the Treme, oldest integrated neighborhood in America (Beauregard lived there after the war) and the birthplace of Jazz is currently a giant AirBNB. Defeating inanimate objects is easy and flashy. It is much harder to address poverty and education. Since those things will not be addressed due largely to the prerogatives of neoliberal capitalism, the process will continue. In the 1990s the school names in New Orleans were changed from men such as Francis T. Nicholls to Frederick Douglass. Nothing got better. In fact, the school system got worse (lots of money was stolen) until it was privatized post Katrina, which itself has not delivered much. The same has been true after Beauregard and Lee came down, and the same will be true if the streets are renamed and Confederate Memorial Hall is closed for its Lost Cause and reconciliation narrative. After that, there is not much left to change that will give us the illusion that we are making things better. Besides, by that time global warming means we may finally become beach-front property.

    For those who support statue removals with the glee of Byzantine iconoclasts, I do wonder how they will feel if we remove statues to Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and the other Union generals for what they did to the tribes of the Great Plains after the American Civil War. Having read The Earth is Weeping by Peter Cozzens, the case against them is compelling. Yet, here I am with Sherman as my icon, although as a native of New Orleans with Chickasaw blood I am supposed to hate him. At least I was taught to. Like most men he was neither good nor bad, he was gray and he lived in a time far removed. I like some things he did. I do not like others. It is easy to condemn the past from a perch of present moral superiority. My only consolation is that when the economy fails, the seas rise, and this unsustainable civilization collapses, they will look upon our iconoclasm harshly. They will condemn us for having these priorities in the face of a disaster we see right before us. Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee, the Titanic’s hapless watchmen, had far better excuses than we do.

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