Hours after workers began removing a towering Confederate memorial from Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, a federal judge issued an order temporarily halting the effort to dismantle one of the country’s most prominent monuments to the Confederacy on public land.
The memorial has been criticized for its sanitized depiction of slavery, and the plan to remove it from the country’s most famous cemetery is part of a militarywide effort to take down Confederate symbols from bases, ships and other facilities. Dozens of Republican lawmakers have opposed removing the memorial.
On Monday, as the work to remove the monument was getting underway, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order that had been requested by a group called Defend Arlington.
The group, which is affiliated with an organization called Save Southern Heritage Florida, sued the Defense Department in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on Sunday, arguing that the Pentagon had rushed its decision to take down the monument and that it had circumvented federal law by not preparing an environmental-impact statement. It also said that the work would damage the surrounding graves and headstones. A hearing on the matter was scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Safety fencing was installed around the memorial over the weekend, and a spokeswoman for the cemetery said the disassembly work, which was expected to take several days, began on Monday morning before it was halted when the judge’s order was issued.
“The Army is complying with the restraining order and has ceased the work begun this morning,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
The memorial was the latest such monument to be targeted for removal since the public backlash in 2020 against Confederate statues after the killing of George Floyd. That movement helped push Congress to establish the Naming Commission in 2021 to devise a plan to rid the military of statues and monuments commemorating the Confederacy.
The Defense Department mandated that the Confederate memorial at Arlington National Cemetery be removed by Jan. 1, 2024.
It will go into storage until its fate is determined, the cemetery spokeswoman said.
The monument was funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group that took a prominent role in mythologizing the Civil War as a “Lost Cause,” depicting the Confederacy’s rebellion as a noble defense of Southern values and painting slavery as benign. Like other monuments that the group funded, the Arlington memorial promotes the false narrative of the “loyal slave,” which has been used to justify and perpetuate white supremacy.
The monument stands in a section of the cemetery where the remains of Confederate soldiers are buried. It was dedicated in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson, who had given his cabinet secretaries permission to segregate their departments, halting Black professional development in the federal government.
More than 40 Republican members of Congress signed a letter last week demanding that Lloyd J. Austin III, the defense secretary, stop the removal of the monument. They argued that the memorial did not commemorate the Confederate States of America but rather the “reconciliation and national unity” between North and South.
The memorial, they wrote, was commissioned by the government to honor the “country’s shared reconciliation from its troubled divisions” and complemented a previous gesture in which Confederate remains were relocated to the national cemetery.
But to others, including the members of the Naming Commission, the intricate images and inscriptions etched into the bronze venerate the narrative of the Lost Cause. The memorial features a woman who represents the American South standing atop a 32-foot pedestal, according to the cemetery. Near the base are dozens of life-size Confederate soldiers alongside mythical gods and two enslaved African Americans.
One is a “mammy” holding the child of a Confederate officer, and the other is a man “following his owner to war,” according to the cemetery’s description.
“It’s the clearest example of a Lost Cause statement in a public space in the form of a monument,” said Kevin M. Levin, a Civil War historian who often gives tours of the cemetery. “Most confederate monuments are large equestrian monuments that honor a specific person.”
“I think what the United Daughters of the Confederacy wanted to see in Arlington was a nonapologetic vindication of the Confederacy,” he added.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy began planning for the memorial in 1906, said James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association. The group, composed of descendants of men who had served in the armed forces or government of the Confederacy, raised money for scores of monuments and memorials that presented a romanticized view of the Confederacy and a sanitized take on slavery.
“The statue was a way of reminding Americans who was in charge in the South and what the true traditions of the South were,” Dr. Grossman said. “It’s one of hundreds of statues that were created across the South in the first two decades of the 20th century whose purpose was to make sure that everybody knows that this is a white country, and that slavery was legitimate and benign.”
Plans for the monument drew fierce opposition from civil rights activists and groups, notably the N.A.A.C.P. The depiction of the “mammy,” in particular, diminished the harm inflicted upon women whose families were destroyed under slavery, they said.
The monument at Arlington was among the most prominent memorials that the United Daughters of the Confederacy funded, and the symbolism of the location was potent. The cemetery was established on a former plantation that was seized from Gen. Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Nearly 200 enslaved people lived and worked on the plantation when Lee lived there, according to the cemetery.
Since 2020, hundreds of Confederate memorials have been renamed or removed from state and municipal lands. One such monument, a statue of Lee astride a horse, was taken down two years ago in Charlottesville, Va.
This year, it was melted down to be repurposed into public art.
Jalane Schmidt, a professor at the University of Virginia who helped lead the campaign to melt that statue, said the argument for removing the Confederate memorial in Arlington was the same as for any other.
Monuments on public land, she said, “need to tell a story that’s inclusive of everyone and matches up with our democratic values.”
The cemetery will still include monuments to Confederates, in the form of hundreds of graves of fallen soldiers and the Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns, which is believed to contain remains of combatants from both the North and the South.