Charlottesville’s Courthouse Confederate Soldier Statue

Jalane Schmidt
18 min readAug 12, 2019


10 Reasons to Get Rid of Johnny Reb

Ghost of Johnny Reb, Albemarle County Courthouse, Charlottesville, Virginia

People who have attended the monthly downtown Confederate monument walking tours that I lead with Dr. Andrea Douglas often ask where to find more information about Charlottesville’s Confederate statues, and if I am writing about this history. I am, and plan to eventually publish my findings in a book. Until then, here is a sample chapter: an expanded version of a (rather long, with links to citations) memo which I originally submitted to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.

TO: The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors

FROM: Jalane Schmidt, University of Virginia Associate Professor of Religious Studies, resident of Charlottesville

DATE: 1 December 2018

RE: Albemarle County courthouse “Johnny Reb” statue in historical perspective

Constituents have requested that the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors include a request for local control over the disposition of Confederate statues in its 2019 annual legislative packet submitted to Richmond. In the conversations which have been sparked since the October 2018 launch of the petition to remove Johnny Reb, I have heard (re-)circulate a number of the same arguments against removing the statue which were broadly debated in Charlottesville during the city’s 2016 Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Space process. In this document are ten common arguments made by Confederate monument defenders, with rebuttals based upon my historical findings about the 1909 installation of Johnny Reb Confederate soldier statue.

American colonists in New York pulling down the statue of King George III in 1776.
  1. “If we tear down Confederate statues, we would be no better than the Taliban or ISIS iconoclasts. We’d forget history”: Although part of the intent of monuments is to project an idealized image of august historical antiquity and political immutability, no landscape is permanent. Communities regularly alter the symbols of their surroundings to express their evolving values of who “We” are or aspire to be. Days after the 1776 Declaration of Independence, American colonists in New York pulled down a statue of King George III — because the glorification of Great Britain’s royal authority marked public space in a manner that directly opposed these patriots’ aspirations for liberty. Yet there is little risk of forgetting the history of the United States’ War for Independence. United States troops and post-war Germans destroyed monuments to Third Reich leaders, and built monuments to their victims. No one (other than hateful far-right groups) bemoans the absence of Nazi memorials and worries that this will lead to Germans’ forgetting their nation’s history in the Second World War. Few people shed tears when U.S. troops (and many overjoyed Iraqis) pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein after this dictator’s 2003 defeat, and supporters of freedom everywhere cheered with former Eastern Bloc countries as they removed their nations’ emblems of Soviet domination. None of these iconoclasts are castigated as rash vandals. To the contrary, their dismantling of offensive statues is praised as decisive action that heralded a shift — and affected further change — in the community’s values. So why should a Confederate statue which lauds the soldiers of a short-lived, slavery-supporting, losing confederation of renegade states remain sacrosanct? White supremacy accounts for this appalling lack of empathy for Black Lives. Our public displays should support the universal value of human freedom.
Advertisements for late 19th century Northern foundries, with their interchangeable products in Dallas, GA; Lexington, NC; Savannah, GA; Raymond, MS; Loudoun, VA; Charlottesville, VA; and being removed in Chatham County, NC.

2. “But it’s art, removing it would be censorship”: Charlottesville’s Johnny Reb statue was one of hundreds of cheap mass-produced cast bronze Civil War soldiers made in the late 19th and early 20th century by profiteering Northern foundries in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and, in the case of Johnny Reb, in Chicago, Land of Lincoln. A poem by W. Samuel Burnley (son of a local slaveholding family) which he read at Charlottesville’s 1909 Johnny Reb statue unveiling admitted that “though fashioned by Yankees, the work was well done,” and assured listeners that the Confederate soldier had bravely confronted the Northern enemy: “in the dread days of conflict you taught them to ‘feel,’ by the daring and doing and the thrust of your steel.”

Johnny Reb mail-order advertisement. As Phil Varner has noted, Charlottesville selected the “At Ready” model, rather than the less bellicose “At Rest” pose.

When ordering Civil War soldier statues, buyers could alter the generic statue to their regional preference: the belt buckle inscribed with “US” for Northern purchasers, or “CSA” for the more numerous Southern customers in the former Confederate States of America.

Fueled in part by the early 20th century “City Beautiful” urban planning movement, a certain “Keeping Up With the Joneses” mentality saw Southern towns compete with one another to adorn their downtown areas with public statuary. But unlike Charlottesville’s commissioned fine art equestrian sculpture of General Stonewall Jackson (the attempted removal of which is the subject of an on-going lawsuit) that was installed a decade later, the “At Ready” statue lacks artistic merit. Johnny Reb is as non-descript as a G.I. Joe figurine. There is an aesthetic argument to be made for removing Johnny Reb: its banal design is unbecoming for display in a prominent downtown location of a 21st-century “world-class city” which imagines itself to be a progressive, sophisticated university community. It isn’t “censorship” to remove a paltry statue from a public space and place it in a museum where it may be properly interpreted in a manner that recognizes the humanity of black community members who were intimidated by the statue’s installation. Johnny Reb is just plain tacky. There. I said it.

Black legislators in the 1887–88 Virginia General Assembly, 22 years after the end of the Civil War.

3. “You shouldn’t erase history”: The Johnny Reb statue was itself meant to erase the history of Reconstruction (1865–1877) — that hopeful post-Civil War period of bi-racial governance in former Confederate states. Johnny Reb’s champions said as much when they put the statue in place:

Much of Virginia’s white leadership class was anxious about the biracial coalitions of radical Republicans and Readjusters that swayed Virginia’s Reconstruction-era and post-Reconstruction state legislature until 1885. In 1867, the Charlottesville Chronicle direly predicted that “you will have a Constitution that will make this State too hot for any man with straight hair and a plain complexion. It will literally be universal Negro rule.” Virginia’s Reconstruction-era state Constitution, which was passed in 1868 by a biracial Constitutional Convention, and then ratified in 1869 by an overwhelming majority of voters, had enfranchised black men. In Charlottesville, powerful white detractors vowed to regain the upper hand, and they denounced Virginia’s twenty years of post-war political reforms as “Negro domination.” Black Virginians had outnumbered whites in Albemarle County and Charlottesville until 1890, a statistic which apparently still lurked in the perceptions of local whites who had opposed Reconstruction-era black suffrage.

Flyer reports on a October 1901 meeting which explained the goals of Virginia’s 1902 state constitutional convention: the re-consolidation of white political power through black disenfranchisement.

Charlottesville’s downtown Johnny Reb statue at the Albemarle County Courthouse was installed in 1909, only seven years after Virginia’s all-white constitutional convention overthrew the gains of Reconstruction to pass the new 1902 Virginia state constitution. Most black Virginians were disenfranchised by its poll taxes, which took effect in 1904. This reversion represented, for conservative white Virginians, a triumphal political re-ordering that was still fresh at the time of Johnny Reb’s 1909 Charlottesville unveiling.

The occasion’s headliner speech by a Confederate veteran amplified the bitter complaints of many white Southerners that the rights gained by the formerly enslaved had overwhelmed the proper racial regime. Emancipation was overrated, the veteran contended, since “slavery was not abolished” by the Civil War, but rather had “changed in form and degree and in its victims. It is more widely distributed than the slavery of the blacks, since it is a change from the blacks to all.” Echoes of this false notion of white victimization reverberate today in the alt-right’s aggrieved slogan, “You will not replace us!”

Johnny Reb statue unveiling speaker: The South Will Rise Again

The 1909 orator warned the audience — comprised of thousands of townspeople, veterans, UVA students and faculty, and 1200 public school childen waving Confederate flags and singing “Dixie” — of the need to curtail the potential tyranny of the majority. (Adults in the audience would have understood this majority to refer to Virginia’s Reconstruction-era coalition of Republicans, and poor whites and blacks in the Readjuster Party, and population statistics locally, where Blacks had comprised the majority of residents until 1890.) The veteran proposed that “real freedom is to come out of the past through the re-establishment of the public virtues which unhallowed and wicked power [i.e., Union victory and the subsequent biracial state government] has destroyed.” Nursing his post-Civil War white Charlottesville audience’s sense of victimhood, the speaker offered a solution straight out of the grievance politics playbook: Make Virginia Great Again.

Though “we are the minority,” the previously “overthrown ideas” exemplified by the honorable Confederate dead “and the noble history of this State” would be “restored,” the speaker insisted. In the context of 1909, this restoration took the form of the Jim Crow laws which were being instituted in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling which held that “separate but equal” was constitutional, and the 1902 Virginia state constitution.

So the legal system firmly supported the speaker, who continued: “The majority needs restraining, it needs law. In this land the constitution is the law and the restraint. When the majority revels against that, it is a tyrant.” The speaker invoked law and restraint selectively, rebuking accusations that Confederate monuments honored “treason,” since, he noted, not one former Confederate had been convicted.

Johnny Reb, standing “at ready,” soothed the shame of white secessionist Southerners’ military defeat, while it erased the post-war Reconstruction era’s temporary two decade political chastening of white supremacy. Furthermore, Johnny Reb’s placement on the courthouse lawn announced that the Rule of Law was a white preserve (recall that no one was prosecuted for the 1898 lynching of John Henry James), effectively warning black Virginians entering the courthouse to expect injustice therein. Johnny Reb is an intimidating piece of propaganda.

“Craftivists” from The Kudzu Project prepare to “yarn bomb” Charlottesville’s Johnny Reb Confederate soldier statue with knitted kudzu vines, November 2017. (Photo: Henry Graff)

4. “But it honors Albemarle County and Charlottesville soldiers, who were just men of their time. Taking down Johnny Reb is being ‘politically correct.’ Just add more statues”: Removing Johnny Reb would be *demographically* and historically correct. At the time of the Civil War, 52% of the residents of our community were enslaved, and another 2% were free blacks. That is, the outright majority of the local population was relieved and jubilant when Union troops arrived on March 3, 1865 and 14,000 enslaved people began the process of liberating themselves. This is arguably a more representative history of the Civil War experience in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. According to the University of Virginia’s Nau Center for Civil War Studies, more than 240 black men from Albemarle County enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops, and a number of white residents were Unionists who volunteered for the U.S. Army. If there is concern for remembering the history of the Civil War and honoring veterans, we should highlight the local soldiers whose sacrifice preserved the United States of America and freed 4 million enslaved African Americans. There is no public tribute to their service. The Johnny Reb statue in Charlottesville produced a dominant historical narrative which privileges the perspective of the 46% of the local population (actually, even less, when the Unionists among the 12,000 white residents are subtracted) who supported secession and the maintenance of slavery. The statue’s inscription extols Confederate soldiers as “defenders of the rights of states” and hails their military campaign as one of “valor” and “heroism.”

For 17 years Virginia honored the leaders of the 19th c. Confederacy and the 20th c. Civil Rights Movement with one shared, strained official state holiday.

The moral injustice of this laudatory representation of the Confederacy is not resolved (in a public space, outside of a curated museum exhibit) with a simplistic “additive” solution. Supplementing the area around Johnny Reb with a “balancing” counterpoint monument to African Americans would imply an amoral equivalency between enslavers and enslaved in which “both sides” share space and are “held in tension” for consideration. (The U.S. did not dedicate monuments for General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, nor ennoble the Tories who remained loyal to the British Crown. We highlight the accomplishments of the Continental Army in our public landscape.) The proposed “let’s just add more markers, not subtract” solution would be the monumental equivalent to the awkward Lee-Jackson-King Day that Virginia observed between 1984–2000. Fortunately the commemorative absurdity of honoring these three “defenders of causes” was abolished when enough state legislators admitted that the holiday’s moral contradiction was untenable. Given the limited supply of centrally-located public spaces which can accomodate large-scale statuary, it is best to “remember history” by privileging the perspective of an inclusive narrative of liberty and freedom that we profess to value.

5. “Let’s re-contextualize it in place”: The courthouse Johnny Reb is already re-contextualized. Before the 1894 founding of the Daughters of the Confederacy, white Southern ladies memorial associations erected Confederate statues mainly in Confederate graveyards, such as the Confederate soldier memorial installed in 1893 in the University of Virginia’s Confederate cemetery. As UVA Nau Center for Civil War History director Caroline Janney has documented, Confederate statues placed by LMAs had been associated with bereavement for fallen soldiers and veterans. But after the founding of the UDC, historian Karen Cox has noted, the statues migrated, like a Trojan horse, out of Confederate cemeteries and into the public square, where their connection with mourning transmogrified into victorious proclamations of the Lost Cause narrative. These are not Civil War memorials; they are Jim Crow monuments. The historically appropriate way to contextualize these statues is in a museum or (as even some members of the UDC now advocate), to retreat to their original place in Confederate graveyards.

A plaque recently affixed to the base of the century-old Confederate soldier monument at Ole Miss makes hedging reference to “the univerity’s divisive past.” The inscription does not mention white supremacy (its original drafted-by-committee wording omitted mention of slavery), nor does the plaque visually interrupt the imposing 29-foot landmark.

The courthouse, however, should contain only symbols that promote equal justice and respect for the Rule of Law as defined by the United States Constitution. It is contradictory to represent the forces that tried to overthrow the U.S. Constitution at the courthouse. The path-of-less-resistance solutions of simply lowering the Johnny Reb statue off its pedestal (a physical position which requires the viewer to look *up* in veneration), or surrounding it with new interpretive plaques full of apologetic caveats, are hand-wringing half measures which avoid ripping off the bandaid to make the necessary intervention: removal. If the monument is so morally problematic that it requires a wordy disclaimer in small font, then the statue should not be publicly displayed in the first place, and would be better contextualized in a museum. If Johnny Reb remains, it would trivialize any new markers or modules placed in its proximity (such as that commemorating the lynching of John Henry James) by cluttering such a small space with an equivocal “both sides” presentation. Immoral positions do not deserve places of honor. Full stop.

6. “Removing it is revisionist history, and we must ‘preserve’ history”: No, the statue itself is revisionist history which preserves the “fake news” of the Lost Cause (the notion — contrary to recorded evidence — that slavery was not the root cause of the Civil War, and that, in any case, slavery was a benevolent “peculiar institution”). Green metal Johnny Reb preserves a distorted version of history that glorifies white supremacy, and the statue’s removal would serve to *reveal* our history. The installation of such Confederate monuments — protested at that time in a Virginia African-American newspaper and dismayed by beleaguered white Southern Unionists— became anchors of what appears as a timeless landscape of benign social consensus. In reality, their erection was part of the early 20th-century effort, headlined by Southern legislatures’ Jim Crow laws, with extra-legal reinforcement by Ku Klux Klan terrorists, to re-assert white supremacy by defining public space as “white” and restricting the movement of black bodies in these spaces. The repression was so extreme that millions of black Southerners became refugees in their own country and fled to the North during the Great Migration of the interwar period. In the case of our community, the African American proportion of the population has plummeted — a decline that the relieved white editor of Charlottesville’s Daily Progress (who had served as a delegate to the 1901 Constitutional Convention) noted approvingly in 1902— from 54% in the 1860s to today’s 19% (Charlottesville) and 9% (county).

7. “You can’t undo history”/ “it’s part of Our history”/ “don’t hide the bad parts of history” / “let’s learn from this history”: We can choose, and change, *who* and *what* parts of our history to prioritize and praise for the edification of the public — which is the role of public statues. There are better ways to remember history than to glorify its villains and intimidate their victims in public venues at taxpayer expense. Some argue that the statues’ meanings can morph, from one that lauded the Confederacy, to now serve as teachable reminders of the evils of segregation and remind “us” of “how far we’ve come” (a dubious argument considering the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville’s 2017 Summer of Hate, and the current virulent racism nationally). This stance, however, would still center whiteness, in that the statues would be maintained for the benefit of a white gaze, as a self-flagellating cautionary tale to promote the moral development of whites. For people of color (and for neo-Confederates, for that matter), the statues would continue to have the meaning they have always carried. Maintaining a Confederate statue in a public place is poor civic pedagogy. We do not recommend that aspiring artists apprentice in the studios of bad artists, nor are medical students sent to shadow incompetent surgeons who have lost their professional licenses. Similarly, “We” do not need, or deserve, to be subject to daily physical reminders at the courthouse of how the Confederate States of America, and their successor segregationist Southern U.S. state governments, have oppressed us. These statues can be placed in suitable repositories where the public can learn about history: museums.

Nighttime for Johnny Reb: recontextualized with knitted vines of kudzu, that quintessentially Southern plant which “grows on things that are abandoned and no longer relevant.”

8. “The Confederate flag is heritage, not hate”: The Johnny Reb statue in Courthouse Square honors the men of Albemarle County and Charlottesville, Virginia, who fought in Confederate armed forces (infantry, artillery, and cavalry), the majority of whom served in the 19th Virginia Infantry as part of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Thus, the front base of the statue features the familiar “Southern Cross” rebel flag. Twentieth-century Klansmen, lynch mobs, and segregationists have repeatedly brandished this Confederate battle flag in support of their white supremacist cause. The 2015 Charleston, SC, assassin, and neo-Confederate contingents who attacked Charlottesville during the 2017 Summer of Hate waved this menacing emblem. Recently, the Charlottesville City Schools banned the symbol from its dress code because its well-established hateful associations create a hostile learning environment for students of color. In the 21st century, it sends the wrong message to maintain this irredeemably toxic 19th century symbol, in a public space, and in front of the courthouse at that.

9. “But the statue doesn’t have the same meaning today”: No decent public official would entertain the thought of installing a statue that honors the white supremacists who marauded through the University of Virginia campus and Charlottesville streets in the 2017 Summer of Hate, ostensibly to protest the city’s attempt to remove a Confederate statue. A number of these groups promote Lost Cause ideology, and advocate for Southern secession and the establishment of a white ethno-state, modeled upon a new-and-improved Confederate States of America. Yet long before and after those violent, armed alt-right gangs have come and gone, the county courthouse continues broadcasting their same values of racial hierarchy. The fact that many Charlottesville residents regard Johnny Reb as inoffensive, and do not associate Confederate symbolism with the hatred that marched through our community in 2017, is a testament to the statue’s perverse effectiveness as propaganda. Proponents of a romantic “Gone with the Wind” nostalgia for the so-called “Old South” (which was in reality a violent system of chattel slavery) succeeded in normalizing white supremacy, until the statue seems to be an enduring, innocuous feature of the landscape.

Consider this: would the Board of Supervisors welcome the Johnny Reb statue to stand on the lawn of the county office building? Would the county historical society want to place the statue in its garden courtyard? I suspect that the leaders of both of these entities would be reluctant to display the Johnny Reb statue on their own property, because Confederate symbolism is associated with racial heirarchy. If the thought of having a Confederate monument on your own property gives you pause, this begs the question: why is Johnny Reb at the county courthouse?

10. “We should focus on other, more important priorities”: Yes, removal may take an extended amount of time that requires multiple steps. Do not be deterred. An exclusively white group of local and state government officials and private organizations began in 1899, and worked on and off for a decade to erect this statue. Dismantling it may take half as long.

The Johnny Reb monument committee was chaired by prosecutor Micajah Woods (a Confederate veteran who never charged anyone from the unmasked 1898 lynch mob that murdered John Henry James), and joined by two representatives of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors (R.H. Wood and S.A. Calhoun), three city councilors, and members of the local Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) chapter and Confederate veterans. Authorization of public funding for the statue was granted by an act of the Virginia General Assembly in 1900, a special tax was levied by Albemarle County (which paid for over half of the cost), and general revenues were contributed by the City of Charlottesville, in addition to private funds raised by the UDC.

A ten-year process of fundraising, resolving contract disputes, acquiring the granite, and weathering controversy about the statue’s placement ultimately led to the 1909 installation of Johnny Reb. As UVA architectural historian Daniel Bluestone noted in his 2011 study of Charlottesville’s Court Square, there was considerable debate between city and county officials about the statue’s location. The General Assembly allowed for $2,000 in state funds for the Confederate soldier monument, with the understanding that it be placed at the county courthouse. But the Charlottesville City Council and the local Daughters of the Confederacy chapter promoted a site on West Main Street in front of all-white Midway School. In early 1909, the UDC complained that they were “overwhelmed by unfair and arbitrary methods” of an Albemarle County faction of Monument Committee, led by Commonwealth’s Attorney Micajah Woods (who that year ascended to the presidency of the Virginia Bar Association). The Woods camp prevailed in securing the courthouse location. Though these courthouse advocates were in the minority, they claimed to speak for “nearly all the veterans and voters of Albemarle County” that the courthouse was “sacred and hallowed by the tread of the many great men of this County and of the ancestors of all the people of this region.” Actually, though, the outright majority of “the ancestors of all the people of this region” had been enslaved, and the courthouse was not considered “sacred and hallowed” by the many enslaved people who had been bought and sold there at auction. County courthouse proponents nudged the city’s Midway School advocates to “cheerfully acquiese” to the argument that the courthouse “is a spot that will be visited monthly and almost daily by Confederate veterans and their descendants.” African Americans were not envisioned to be among those descendants.

In short, the Albemarle County courthouse Johnny Reb monument was installed by leading white residents to honor white veterans who fought a war to keep the majority of the local population enslaved.


In 2019, we will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans to Virginia, observe 154 years after the end of the Civil War fought over slavery, mark 142 years after the overthrow of Reconstruction, and pass 110 years after the installation of Johnny Reb. Johnny Reb symbolizes the wrongs of white supremacy, representing the promise to white Southerners — and threat to black Southerners — that “The (racist) South will rise again.”

In July 2018, while on the #CvillePilgrimage, some members of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and celebrated the bravery of civil rights activists of the 1960s such as John Lewis, who marched for justice and equality. I hope that the Board of Supervisors will exhibit leadership and muster the political will to take the first steps to remove Johnny Reb from what is supposed to be our community’s seat of justice.

UPDATE: In the November 2019 state election, Democrats won majority control of both houses of the Virginia General Assembly. After much lobbying in Richmond by Take ’Em Down Cville activists and advocates from around the state, the 2020 Virginia General Assembly passed a bill which allows local governments the authority to decide upon the removal of war memorials. The governor signed the bill into law, which took effect on 1 July 2020.

Workmen remove Johnny Reb on 12 September 2020. (Photo credit: Zach Wajsgras/Charlottesville Tomorrow)

On 6 August 2020, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing about the Johnny Reb statue, and then voted unanimously to remove it. On 12 September 2020, “At Ready” was extracted from the Albemarle County Courthouse lawn and transferred to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation for placement at a battlefield in Winchester, Virginia. The following day, local African American religious leaders organized a gathering at the former site of the Confederate statue, where community members held a cleansing ceremony to reclaim and restore the earth.

At the site where Johnny Reb stood for 111 years, Larycia Hawkins sprinkles water in a purification ritual. (Photo credit: Erin Edgerton, Daily Progress)



Jalane Schmidt

Religious but not spiritual, #UVA professor, #BLM activist, anti-fascist, mom, Cuba-phile. Author: “Cachita’s Streets.”