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Barton A. Myers column: Why the Stonewall Jackson statue belongs at Chancellorsville

Barton A. Myers column: Why the Stonewall Jackson statue belongs at Chancellorsville

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In late October, Virginia Military Institute’s Board of Visitors voted to remove the statue of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson from the post in Lexington.

Jackson, a Confederate army general remembered by many people for his Civil War command decisions and military service, lived in the Shenandoah Valley town during the 1850s while serving as a faculty member at the institute.

As a strong advocate of our National Historic Landmarks Program, I’m writing to suggest the placement of the statue at a location directly connected to its meaning and historical importance. While I recognize that the board might quickly suggest placement at New Market Battlefield and its Virginia Museum of the Civil War, I would like to suggest another possible location directly connected to the statue itself.

I encourage VMI and the commonwealth of Virginia’s leadership to work with the National Park Service to find a suitable home for the statue at a historical site under its care and supervision. Furthermore, as a historian of the Civil War era, I can think of few places better suited to this than Chancellorsville Battlefield, part of the larger Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (FRSPNMP).

This park’s historians long have educated the American people in an inclusive manner about the Civil War era, and it currently has one of the finest staffs of historians of this era. Chancellorsville Battlefield also includes very few Civil War-era monuments as important as the one VMI currently is planning to remove.

Furthermore, as a historical figure, Jackson made some of his most important contributions to the Civil War’s events within the confines of the FRSPNMP’s boundary lines. In particular, his May 2, 1863, flank attack march and assault wrecked the Union Army of the Potomac’s 11th Corps, just prior to his own accidental mortal wounding at the hands of North Carolina troops.

This famous attack contributed to the battlefield victory by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and subsequently became that army’s most daring victory of the entire war. Jackson died at Guinea Station at a historical site also administered by the National Park Service at FRSPNMP.

While Jackson’s historical connection to VMI is undeniable, and his importance to the National Historic Landmark district at the institute was critical to its two designations on that list, the actual statue under consideration was not listed as a constituent property of the original site surveys completed by the Department of the Interior for placement on the National Register of Historic Places or the National Historic Landmarks Program during the 1960s and 1970s.

These site surveys, which often are highly specific, relate primarily to the historic campus buildings and their educational value in VMI’s case. Clearly, the statue has a direct historical connection to the VMI site on the parade ground where it currently stands, and the statue’s sculptor, Sir Moses Ezekiel, was an 1866 graduate of VMI.

But, it also makes an enormous amount of sense from a public history and scholarly standpoint to place it at a site connected to the service of VMI faculty and alumni at the 1863 battle that garnered Jackson historical acclaim.

The specific quotation on the front of the statue, “The Virginia Military Institute will be heard from today,” also signals an appropriate location for it to reside.

A version of this statement was offered by Jackson during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

As VMI moves forward with its planning, I hope that it will give careful thought to preserving the historical integrity of its NHL properties and move with care in the placement of this particular statue to a site where it can receive further context and be used as an inclusive, educational tool for all Americans.

Barton A. Myers, Ph.D., is Class of 1960 Professor of Ethics and History at Washington and Lee University and the author of “Rebels Against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists,” among other books on the American Civil War era. Contact him at: myersb@wlu.edu

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