Judge Halts Dismantling of Confederate Memorial at Arlington Just as Removal Work Begins

Confederate Memorial in Section 16 of Arlington National Cemetery
Confederate Memorial in Section 16 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, July 13, 2020. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released)

A federal judge on Monday issued a temporary restraining order to halt the removal of the Confederate memorial at Arlington National Cemetery the same day workers started the process to dismantle the monument.

Reached by phone Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for the cemetery declined to comment on the restraining order, instead telling Military.com that any comment related to removal of the monument would be posted on the cemetery's website. No updates had been posted on the website as of publishing time.

Judge Rossie Alston, a Trump appointee in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, issued the temporary restraining order blocking "any acts to deconstruct, tear down, remove, or alter the object of this case."

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Alston also scheduled a hearing for Wednesday morning on whether to extend the restraining order, which is set to expire Wednesday evening.

The restraining order was issued in a lawsuit filed Sunday by a group calling itself Defend Arlington. The group is affiliated with an organization called Save Southern Heritage Florida that describes itself as a "voluntary association of individuals who revere the South, Southern history and heritage."

Earlier Monday, video and photos posted to social media by conservative commentators showed a worker being raised on a construction lift to the statue's head and other construction equipment surrounding the monument, and a cemetery spokesperson confirmed to Military.com that removal work had begun.

The monument is being removed following recommendations from the Naming Commission, which Congress created in 2020 to provide suggestions on scrubbing Confederate names and other honorary symbols from U.S. military bases and property. Under the law that created the commission, the Pentagon is required to implement its recommendations by next month.

Erected in 1914, the memorial at Arlington was funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which promoted the "Lost Cause" narrative of the Civil War during the Jim Crow era in part by erecting monuments primarily in the South honoring the Confederacy. The Lost Cause myth romanticizes the Confederacy as fighting to uphold Southern values while downplaying the horrors of slavery.

The Arlington monument features a bronze woman crowned with olive leaves who is meant to represent the South. Underneath her is a frieze with 14 shields -- one for each of the 11 Confederate states, plus Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, which were border states that did not secede to the Confederacy.

Below the shields are 32 life-sized figures of mythical gods, Confederate soldiers and two enslaved African Americans. One of the slaves portrays the stereotype of a "mammy" holding the infant child of a white officer, and the other is a man "following his owner to war," according to Arlington's website. Also engraved on the monument is a Latin phrase that translates to, "The victorious cause was pleasing to the gods, but the lost cause to Cato."

"The memorial offers a nostalgic, mythologized vision of the Confederacy, including highly sanitized depictions of slavery," the Naming Commission wrote in its report recommending the statue's removal.

While the commission considered alternatives to removal, including adding signage to explain the context of the memorial, the group ultimately decided that "contextualization was not an appropriate option," it said in its report.

Cemetery officials have previously said that only the bronze elements of the memorial will be removed and that the granite base will remain in place to avoid disturbing any nearby graves.

While creation of the commission received bipartisan support after the 2020 racial justice protests sparked a recognition that it was far past time for the U.S. military to stop honoring those who fought against the United States to preserve slavery, a contingent of Republicans has been fighting to halt implementation of the commission's recommendations.

Last week, 44 House Republicans sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arguing the commission "clearly overstepped its legislative authority when it recommended that the Department of the Army remove the Reconciliation Monument from Arlington National Cemetery."

The lawmakers also claimed the memorial "commemorates reconciliation and national unity" rather than honoring the Confederacy.

"The radical Left doesn't want reconciliation and national unity. They want division and destruction," Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., who organized the letter, posted Monday on X, formerly known as Twitter, about the removal beginning.

The lawsuit that led to Monday’s restraining order argues that removing the monument "will desecrate, damage, and likely destroy the Memorial longstanding at ANC as a grave marker and impede the Memorial's eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places."

Defend Arlington previously tried to block removal of the monument in a lawsuit in federal court in D.C. that was dismissed last week. In dismissing the earlier lawsuit, Judge Beryl Howell, an Obama appointee, determined that the law that created the commission "leaves DoD no discretion on the question whether to comply" with its recommendations.

Editor’s note: On Monday evening after publication, a spokesperson for Arlington National Cemetery released the following statement: "The Army began disassembly of the monument atop the Confederate Memorial prior to the court issuing the temporary restraining order. The Army is complying with the restraining order and has ceased the work begun this morning."

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