The artistry of John Adams Elder, one of Fredericksburg’s 19th-century leading lights, received state recognition Thursday.
And thanks to action by the Board of Historic Resources and State Review Board, an Alexandria statue inspired by Elder is now in line for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
But whether that will matter in Alexandria’s ongoing dispute over moving the 1889 statue of a Confederate soldier is unclear. The monument’s listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the national register is honorary, and doesn’t accord it physical protection.
Still, officers of the United Daughters of the Confederacy—which sought its placement on the registers—were clearly delighted by the boards’ unanimous decisions.
The boards voted Thursday during a joint meeting at Gari Melchers’ Home and Studio in Falmouth, itself a national historic landmark and the former estate of a famed American artist.
Their action immediately places the 7-foot-tall bronze statue on the state register and recommends it to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s keeper of the national register for federal recognition. The boards accorded the same honor Thursday to a stone monument in Harrisonburg that marks the spot where Confederate cavalry commander Turner Ashby was killed in 1862.
Only a few Confederate statues are individually named to the state register, said James Hare, director of VDHR’s survey and register division. But dozens of Confederate monuments and four Union monuments are included as contributing elements in historic districts across Virginia.
Elder, the son of a bootmaker whose lifelong home still stands in downtown Fredericksburg, achieved renown as a painter of Civil War scenes—most memorably the 1864 Battle of the Crater in Petersburg—and a portraitist of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other Confederate noteworthies.
In tribute to Alexandria soldiers who died in the war, the R.E. Lee Camp No. 2 Confederate Veterans commissioned the Alexandria statue, based on Elder’s plaster model of the central figure in one of his best-known paintings, “Appomattox.” Elder was at Appomattox when Lee surrendered his army to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, according to a profile written by the late Fredericksburg magazine publisher Barbara Crookshanks.
“The Appomattox statue is unique in Virginia’s documented Confederate iconography,” states the register nomination, which calls it “the work of a master” possessing “high artistic value.”
“Unlike many mass-produced or stock statues that present soldiers armed or in the midst of battle, this statue represents a simple unarmed private,” the nomination says. “His head is downcast, his uniform is rumpled and his expression is pensive as he surveys the destruction four years of war has caused to Virginia. The [R. E. Lee Camp] men wished to erect a monument to their fallen comrades, not a monument to what was already becoming known as the Lost Cause. The statue was not intended to glorify an ideology, but to remember those who sacrificed all.”
Versions of Elder’s painting, which may have been his most popular work, were purchased for the collections of the Virginia State Library and the Virginia Historical Society. Elder rests in Fredericksburg’s Confederate Cemetery.
The Alexandria statue was unveiled to fanfare on May 24, 1889, 28 years after the local militia companies marched out of town. Later, it was copied for similar Confederate statues in other Virginia localities, the first being Toms Brook in the Shenandoah Valley.
The bronze figure was sculpted by Casper Buberl, a Bohemian immigrant whose best-known work locally is the 1,200-foot-long frieze of marching Union soldiers that adorns the Pension Building in Washington, now the National Building Museum.
The Henry Bonnard Bronze Co. of New York, the late 19th century’s pre-eminent foundry, cast the sculpture. Bonnard cast the works of top American sculptors, including Augustus Saint–Gaudens, George Grey Barnard, Frederic Remington, and Daniel Chester French, famed for his statue of the 16th U.S. president inside Washington’s Lincoln Memorial.
“Appomattox” marks the site where Alexandria militia units left to join the Confederate army’s 17th Virginia Regiment on May 24, 1861. Its soldier faces battlefields to the south where his comrades were killed. The names of Alexandria Confederates who died in the war are inscribed on the base of the statue, which occupies the middle of a busy intersection next to the U.S. courthouse.
Last September, the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously to ask the Virginia General Assembly for permission to move the statue.
It went beyond the recommendations of a task force that studied what to do about the city’s controversial Confederate symbols after a lone gunman, trying to spur a race war, murdered nine parishioners inside a historic African–American church in Charleston.
The council seeks to relocate the statue from Prince and Washington streets, where thousands of motorists pass it each day, and move it to the adjacent lawn of The Lyceum, a local history museum. It also wants to add signage with contextual information about the statue so people can put its history into perspective.
Several state lawmakers have said it is unlikely that the council will succeed in moving the statue, according to The Washington Post. Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg met cordially last fall with UDC chapter President Deborah Mullins, but they didn’t find common ground on the issue.
The UDC owns the monument, which is on city land.
In a Feb. 22 letter to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Alexandria’s city manager supported the statue’s inclusion on the state and national registers, but wrote that the city will continue pursuing its relocation.
”I believe that the shifting the statue’s location ... will not affect the statue’s overall integrity, and in fact will enhance it,” Mark B. Jinks wrote.
The council also voted last fall to rename the city’s section of Jefferson Davis Highway. A group of students at the University of Mary Washington suggested the same idea, but Fredericksburg’s City Council declined to appoint a task force to study the idea.
Last November, Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Monuments Work Group issued a statewide report on the overarching issues, declaring that decisions about “the appropriate treatment of monuments rests within the communities that house them.”
Last month, the Charlottesville City Council voted 3–2 to move an equestrian statue of Lee and to rename its site, Lee Park. Many community members view the statue as a symbol of white supremacy.
On Feb. 25, the Library of Virginia hosted a daylong symposium on such monuments—titled “Lightning Rods for Controversy”—at which scholars shared their thoughts on how communities commemorate Civil War history, C-SPAN3 broadcast the lectures and discussions, which can be viewed online.
Next week, the University of Virginia School of Architecture will host a symposium—“Race and Public Space: Commemorative Practices in the American South”—to discuss how race, memory and commemoration intersect.