The relocation of Albemarle County’s Confederate soldier statue, cannons and cannonballs to a Civil War battlefield is an excellent outcome.
The Board of Supervisors voted to give the artifacts to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. The organization interprets and provides visitor services at Civil War battlefields and other sites in the Shenandoah Valley, according to its website.
The majority of the Civil War took place in Virginia — due in part to the Confederate capital having been placed in Richmond. In addition to much fighting around Richmond, many battles and skirmishes also occurred in the Valley, a rich source of provender for the Confederate Army.
For Albemarle’s artifacts to go to the nearby Valley is historically fitting.
The cannon and cannonballs are expected to go to a battlefield, where they are appropriately in context.
The statue dates to 1909, but in spirit is more suited to a battlefield than a courthouse lawn.
Of course, such statues were displayed throughout the South to commemorate the war.
That was then; this is now.
Critics have argued with eloquence, and with increasing effectiveness, that emblems honoring Confederate soldiers or the war itself are wrong in public spaces such as Albemarle’s courthouse lawn.
They imply approval of a cause that, had it succeeded, would have perpetuated the immorality and injustice of slavery in the South.
And they often do so — as in this case — at locations that should instead signal justice for all. Society has advanced; subtle or not-so-subtle messages that African Americans might receive biased treatment inside those courthouse walls are no longer acceptable.
Additionally, some critics object simply to emblems that recognize war, regardless of the cause. Although earlier generations might have derived comfort from these symbols of military strength, others today believe those emblems send a wrong message regarding global violence.
Whatever their sources, a confluence of attitudes and events has made the removal of the courthouse artifacts possible.
Charlottesville has played a leading role in that trend of change.
Here, activists began demanding removal of the heroic statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — beside which the county artifacts, located nearby, pale in grandeur.
Calls for removal of such statues weren’t a new phenomenon. To counteract such sentiments, the General Assembly already had enacted legislation ensuring that Civil War memorials — whether recognizing the South or the North — were included under the state’s protections for military and war memorials.
When the issue of removal heated up in Charlottesville, with City Council voting to take down first one statue, then eventually both, a private group stepped in with a legal challenge, invoking the state law.
The effort then moved to the legislative arena, where activists began seeking changes to that law.
That effort gained power after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, at which white supremacists congregated ostensibly in support of the statues, but with a hidden agenda of sowing terror. Righteous backlash against the white supremacists accelerated a change in legislation.
The General Assembly now has given localities the right to make their own decisions about the fates of such statues. That has long made sense to us, since it was the localities — often with the help of local private groups or individuals — that erected the statues in the first place. The disposition of local property should not, for the most part, be a concern of state government.
The new law went into effect in July; the Board of Supervisors made its initial vote in August to move the artifacts; the removal was accomplished in September.
The state law requires that localities seek a museum, battlefield or similar location for such artifacts. This wisely allows for the opportunity for such items to be preserved, but in a more suitable location. Ultimately, however, the law gives final say on disposition to the county or city.
Charlottesville, meanwhile, is not quite in the same position to act as was the county. Its heroic monuments, in addition to being of greater artistic merit, remain the subjects of the lawsuit. Until that suit is resolved, the city doesn’t have the same freedom to act.
But Albemarle could and did act — and in a way that fairly serves the greatest number of interests.
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