Monument Removal: Stonewall Jackson

Rumbling and roaring heavy equipment rolled into the intersection of Arthur Ashe Boulevard & Monument Avenue and Richmond sheriff’s deputies deployed to close traffic; the towering monument to General Stonewall Jackson casting its last shadow on this intersection as the circling machines positioned around the junction of two grand boulevards.

This historic moment was set in motion by a cascade of events enabled by an act of the legislature and a mayor acting in his desire to both protect the public and remove the confederate symbols glorifying The Lost Cause.

For decades state law forbid local governments from modifying or removing confederate statues with severe penalties for anyone engaged in the process. When political fortunes shifted in Richmond after the 2019 legislative elections Democrats took over both the house and senate. These newly elected representatives were motivated to act after the fatal and violent clash in Charlottesville during the summer of 2017 which was in part a response to the blocked efforts by the city to dismantle their statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  In the 2020 session of the General Assembly the legislature amended the state code outlining a process for local governments to remove confederate monuments.

The legislation was signed into law by Governor Ralph Northam in April and became effective on July 1. Outlined in the legal process for removing statues was a requirement that governing bodies provide 30 days notice for a public hearing where interested persons may present their views after which the leaders may vote to “remove, relocate, contextualize or cover the monument.” Prior to performing any of those acts the locality must offer another 30 day period for museums, battlefields, historical societies and other governments the opportunity to express interest in obtaining the statues however the locality still has sole authority in final disposition of the monument.

The new law was also amended as such that criminal penalties would no longer apply to city officials or employees who engage in the removal of a confederate monument – a key change that would have major implications for Richmond.

On June 22nd a day after demonstrators attempted to topple the giant J.E.B. Stuart statue, Mayor Levar Stoney joined two members of city council in calling for the immediate removal of confederate iconography from the public sphere. He informed city council that his administration’s legal counsel was exploring legal options to move faster than the prescribed process in the newly enacted legislation.

“If I had Superman strength and could go and arrive at Monument Avenue and remove them [confederate statues] by myself and get slapped with a class 6 felony, I would have done that yesterday.”

But any city employee or contractor who aided the removal could face charges, as well, City Attorney Haskell Brown said; a risk Stoney said he did not want to take. -- Richmond Times-Dispatch | June 22, 2020

This mindset hinted that Mayor Stoney was open to exploring monument extraction options that would move expeditiously even if they ran afoul of the letter of the law.

At the June 25 city council meeting City Attorney Haskell Brown explained how the new state law would apply in Richmond and the process the city should follow to lawfully remove the confederate statues. As soon as July 2nd the council could pass a resolution calling for the statue removal initiating a public comment period and starting the clock on the 60 day process. Frustrations mounted as people realized the city could be stuck with a lengthy process precluding the statues from moving before the beginning of September.

“The biggest fear, if litigation results, is that you end up with an indefinite injunction prohibiting the removal of the monument,” Brown said. “In my opinion, any attempt to try to short cut this process is likely to greatly increase the risk that the statues will remain in place on their pedestals much longer than the time I’ve described before.” -- Virginia Public Media June 25, 2020

Leading into the end of the month the drumbeat of city councilmembers Jones & Lynch intensified as they repeated calls to take emergency action and remove the statues on Monument Avenue. Heading into the end of June there were also several clashes between law enforcement and demonstrators as state authorities announced restrictions on the Robert E. Lee monument grounds.

On the night of June 30 rumors circulated that an out of town crane company had arrived in the city and would begin taking down confederate monuments at midnight causing interested parties to monitor the activities on Monument Avenue well into the night. Despite the rumors no cranes or other heavy equipment were spotted near the monuments.

On the morning of July 1 city council gathered virtually for a special meeting to discuss the removal of confederate statues in the city. Mayor Stoney requested that the council cast a symbolic vote to support his emergency authority to remove the statues immediately.  

“I am asking for your expedited consideration and unanimous approval of a resolution to support the immediate removal of Richmond’s monuments to the lost cause. My administration is ready to make this happen and turn this page in history beginning today. I bring this opportunity before you for two reasons.

First, failing to remove the statues now presents a severe, immediate and growing threat to public safety. For the last 33 consective days people have been gathering in large numbers in our city as the covid pandemic continues to surge the protestors attempts to take down the statues themselves or confront others who are doing so the risk grows for serious illness, injury or even death. We have an urgent need to protect the public.

Second it’s just time. Since the end of Richmond’s official tenure as the capital of the confederacy 155 years ago we have been burdened with that legacy. The great weight of that burden has been placed on minority residents of the city.

By removing them we can begin to heal and focus our attention on our future. In march the general assembly passed an amendment empowering Richmond to remove these statues, the law took effect today. It provides for 60 day administrative process for which the city will welcome public input into the ultimate fate of the statues. Today we need to set the schedule for this process. We can and must conduct that process WHILE the statues are removed and placed in temporary storage. We are confident in our legal authority to proceed immediately to remove the statues.

There’s nothing in the law that takes effect today that during the process of determining where the statues are placed that they must remain on their pedestal. In addition, multiple acts of this council and the governor provide such authority. In 2017 this council passed legislation naming the mayor as director of emergency management, on May 29th city council consented to my declaration of emergency relating to the recent civil unrest. Two days later the governor issued an executive order proclaiming state of emergency in Richmond for the same reasons.”

Despite the mayor’s pleas for a vote the council deferred to the city attorney’s opinions that such a move would be unwise, open the city to litigation and could further complicate matters.

“We’re talking 24 hours. We’ve got a lot going on. The broader issues of social justice we still have to take on. We are obliged to operate within the guidelines of this body,” said Council president Cynthia Newbille.

She added, “We’re with you on the need to remove the statues but we’re wanting to have opportunity for the appropriate public comment and the city council’s guidelines.”

Mayor Stoney reiterated “Time is of the essence because of public safety. Waiting another 24 hours or week puts public safety at risk. What I’m asking for today is consensus from the governing body of this city to step up and support our effort to remove the monuments beginning immediately.”

The meeting ended around noon with an agreement to meet on the following afternoon to take action on legislation beginning the monument removal process. Ultimately the purpose of this followup meeting would be rendered moot as less than an hour after the council adjourned statue dismantling crews dispatched from their hiding spot and arrived at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Heavy equipment including a crane, lift and 18 wheeler truck surrounded the General Stonewall Jackson statue and sheriff’s deputies established makeshift roadblocks to prevent traffic from approaching. While roadblocks kept cars from the scene no physical perimeter was established to keep people at a distance and soon this intersection would be absolutely swarming with crowds.

Around 1:05 PM local media and curious residents began gathering around the intersection to witness the historic removal of the towering Stonewall Jackson statue. No one on the ground had any idea how long this would take and what would be involved in the dismantling process but it quickly became clear this would be a challenging project for the workers involved.

Observers on the ground noted the crane and other equipment were marked with out of state license plates indicating they were from Connecticut and emblazoned with the Constitution State nickname. The large crane was transported from the Smedley Crane & Rigging Company of Branford, CT. According to the website of this company the family owned business was established in 1860 and is the oldest continuous rigging and crane company in the United States.

According to reports from Governor Northam’s maneuvers to remove the Robert E. Lee statue it was impossible to find a Virginia based company willing to take on the public pressure and risks associated with dismantling the confederate monuments. The workers from this Connecticut based company had no reservations about the matter and proudly wore hardhats with the United States flag and even displayed the union flag nearby some of the equipment. Throughout the operation workers with the company embraced their celebrity status giving triumphant waves & thumbs up as the crowds would cheer on their progress.

By 1:20 PM the statue dismantling team established their working positions on the ground with heavy equipment beeping as it reversed and engines revving with hydraulic lifts elevating skyward. Initially there were only several dozen onlookers on the scene but minute by minute the headcount grew as word spread throughout town that the biggest show of the summer in Richmond was happening at the Jackson monument. Ultimately several thousand people would brave the summer sun and scorching heat to witness history in the making. People watched with children and pets in tow marveling at the unusual scene of workers scaling the graffiti covered confederate monument.

Around 1:40 PM workers climbed to the metal base of the statue and began cutting rectangular holes to free the statue from the 18 foot granite pedestal. The workers performing the job wore heavy protective gear both to shield them from the hazards of sharp metal but also to protect them from the threat of violence from those who did not wish to see the statues removed.

Just before 2 PM workers added crane mounted stabilizing straps around Stonewall Jackson’s horse Little Sorel. Ultimately these straps would be used to lift the statue from the pedestal but for now they would provide stability and safety as workers struggled with the hundred year old mounting bolts holding the statue in place. This process of adding straps and tensioning them proved complicated by the awkward and bulky structure of the horse and it took several attempts to get it structured to their satisfaction.

Around 2:45 PM a somewhat well-known local social media personality and confederate enthusiast dashed into the crowd and towards the statue carrying a “Protest Confederate Monuments” flag. Unsurprisingly he was not given a particularly friendly welcome with demonstrators and sheriff’s deputies quickly circling him near the statue pedestal. Someone in the crowd tossed water on him as deputies took his flag away while hauling him off. Another member of the crowd grabbed his now liberated flag which was burned not long afterwards. The pro-confederate protester was escorted by sheriff department deputies into a nearby car and taken away to a location where his presence would not likely lead to a confrontation or jeopardize public safety. Despite the commotion on the ground the workers atop the monument continued their operations without interruption.

As the clock neared 3 PM crowds had seemingly quadrupled with several television news crews on the scene as well as nearly a half dozen drones circling overhead. For the next hour spectators watched and listened as the specialists grinded through the thick metal of the statue’s base. The noise from the loud equipment echoed off the nearby buildings like a giant dentist’s drill tackling a cavity in an equally giant tooth.

Closing in on 4 PM the streets surrounding the statue were uncomfortably packed with onlookers with craned necks looking upwards at the ongoing activity atop the Stonewall Jackson statue. Up to this point the afternoon had been blazing hot but now the skies were darkening as towering cumulonimbus clouds blossomed overhead. Workers were now racing along trying to finish before the approaching inclement weather could jeopardize their task.

At 4:15 PM workers shifted around and started using a sledgehammer to drive wedges between the 18 ft statue and the granite base. Working around the pedestal from both sides the teams of workers on a lift pounded away to pry the 113 year old hulk free. Not long after they workers shifted their efforts the stormy winds shifted direction with cool blustery gusts arriving in advance of the approaching storm. Around 4:25 PM a scattering of massive raindrops transitioned to a virtual waterfall as the dark skies opened up over the enthusiastic crowd. Despite the torrential rainfall the gathered masses didn’t scatter and instead embraced the cooling precipitation with many upping the tempo and chanting “No Justice, No Peace!”

Just 5 minutes later at 4:30 PM intense lightning flashed illuminating the skies and causing thunder to echo off the nearby masonry buildings joining the soundtrack of revving construction equipment and cheering crowds. Rather than dashing off in fear the thousands of gathered spectators were energized by the electric moment. Workers too showed no fear despite being elevator 30 feet in the air next to giant metal monument during a lightning storm. One would not fault them for being superstitious and opting to take a break until the passing of the storm but they soldiered on with their mission.

Just as the clouds seemed like they couldn’t release anymore rain an almost tropical deluge drenched Monument Avenue and it was at that moment that the signal was given to the crane operator: “GO!”

The straps affixed to the equestrian sculpture tightened as the crane applied power and for a split second the might statue swayed then began to rise above its granite base. For the first time in 113 years daylight shined on the top of the Stonewall Jackson’s pedestal and a century of dust and dirt would get washed away by a 21st century downpour. The crowd of several thousand gathered embraced the historic moment with an enthusiasm you would expect from a rock concert releasing powerful cheers that could surely be heard halfway to downtown Richmond.

With the crane fully extended into the air and Stonewall Jackson soaring above the intersection a brilliant flash of lightning lit up the intersection and released a powerful thunderclap that sent the jubilant crowds into an even greater state of euphoria.

Circling around with the statue hanging from its harness the crane gently lowered General Stonewall Jackson’s memorial to the ground and for the first time he was at eye level with the people of Richmond. Many in the crowd swarmed closer for their opportunity to see the soaking statue up close and momentarily overwhelmed Richmond sheriff deputies who struggled to maintain a perimeter.

With the statue on the ground and the rains not relenting many in the crowd headed for shelter. Nonetheless a substantial number of Richmonders stayed on the scene to watch what would happen next as crews stabilized the statue on the ground.

Crews worked through the remainder of the rainstorm which lasted another 30 minutes before stormy skies gave way to the summer sunshine around 5 PM. In order to transport the giant statue through the city streets workers laid it horizontally on a giant “lowboy” tractor trailer. This process of safely positioning it for transport took another 90 minutes with crews on the scene until around 7 PM. This allowed even more residents to show up and see the once towering Jackson statue lay down as if to take a nap from his many exhausting years on Monument Avenue. In addition the spectacle made for perfect live tv shots for the 6 PM newscasts all across Virginia.

With nightfall arriving the workers wrapped a giant tarp over the trailer hauling the statue and sent it on its way. Out of an abundance of caution for safety reasons city authorities would not disclose the destination of the statue and discouraged reporters from sharing their whereabouts. Nonetheless it was determined by a few intrepid journalists that Stonewall Jackson would be the first of many statues to be stored at the safe and secure facilities of the Richmond Wastewater Treatment Facility off of Maury Street. Coincidentally the street's namesake Matthew Fountaine Maury would have his confederate statue dismantled on the following day and he too would join Stonewall Jackson at their new home in southside Richmond.

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Unrest Rating For This Situation

Peaceful Demonstration: Protest with marching, street closures and/or car parade.

Day of Unrest in RVA