District of Columbia

By Emma Monzeglio ’24

Historical Context

Washington, D.C. was established as the nation’s capital on July 16, 1790, as a part of the Compromise of 1790. It was agreed that the Federal government would assume the Revolutionary War debt, and in exchange, the nation’s capital was to be moved south of the Mason Dixon Line. D.C. had a long and complicated history with slavery, which caused tensions to grow in the buildup to the Civil War. Being wedged between two slave-holding states (Virginia and Maryland) while having to represent an entire country that was divided over the issue slavery posed many challenges.

Washington D.C. from the grounds of the Capitol Building in 1800 (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Slavery had existed in the District since the inception of the capital. D.C.’s location allowed it to flourish as a major domestic slave trading hub. Slaves could be conveniently sold into slavery in the Deep South or north to Maryland from markets in D.C., Georgetown, and Alexandria. Slaves from the Chesapeake region who were sold to slave dealers were forcibly kept in pens in the district. The Yellow House, one of D.C.’s most notorious slave jails owned by William H. Williams, was located just a half a mile from the Capitol building. Slave owners visiting D.C. for business or politics held their slaves in the Yellow House temporarily. The Yellow House also served as the last location slaves resided in before being sold into bondage in the Deep South.

By 1800, African Americans made up a quarter of D.C.’s population, most of whom were enslaved. Unlike in the Deep South, slaves did not live on large plantations in sizable populations of men, women, and children. Most of the slave population lived together in small numbers or individually. They worked a variety of jobs, from skilled labor to domestic servitude, while others were leased to the countryside to work in agricultural fields. In the early years of the capital, there was a high demand for both unskilled and skilled laborers. Slaves helped fill this labor void and were used to build both public and private works and were leased to build both the White House and Capitol building. Washington, D.C.’s job opportunities also attracted many free African Americans. By 1808, the freed black population began to rise. Pro-slavery residents and politicians of the District were threatened by this increase and passed the Black Codes to suppress the rights of African Americans and strengthen the institution of slavery within the city. These codes prevented African Americans to be on the streets after 10:00 at night and, if found breaking curfew, they were fined and then whipped if the fine was not paid. Freed African Americans were required to register with the government and carry certificates of freedom with them at all times. These codes were strengthened again in 1821, making the process of achieving and proving freedom much more difficult. Each freed African American needed to appear before the mayor of D.C. with documents signed by three white people confirming their good character, and they had to pay a twenty-dollar peace bond to a “respected” white man to verify this good behavior. These codes both limited the movement of African Americans within the District and sought to control both freed and enslaved populations.

Undercurrents to abolish slavery in the nation’s capital could be felt as early as 1805; however, they did not gain much momentum until the late 1840s. In 1848, the citizens of Washington, D.C. witnessed one of the most significant attempted slave escapes in United States history, when seventy-seven slaves boarded the Pearl, a cargo schooner, and sailed towards freedom in the Northern states; however, the ship was intercepted at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. This event heightened tensions between the North and South. Following the incident, a bill was introduced the same year in Congress by Joshua Giddings of Ohio proposing the gradual emancipation of slaves in the district. The Compromise of 1850 temporarily solved the question of slavery in the capital. To delay the permanent question over the future of slavery in D.C., the Compromise of 1850 admitted California into the Union as a free state and banned the slave trade in D.C.; in exchange, the Fugitive Slave Law was strengthened. Both federal and local law enforcement in both slave and free states were forced to arrest suspected fugitive slaves, and anyone aiding escaped slaves was required to pay a fine or imprisoned. Although an active slave trade persisted just across the Potomac in Alexandria, the enslaved population in Washington, D.C. dramatically declined. Without an active trade in slaves within the district, slave imports from the Chesapeake region to D.C. halted and slaveowners, finding it to be less profitable to own human chattel in D.C., began to sell their slaves in Alexandria for an instant profit. In 1820, 6,400 slaves lived in D.C.; by 1860, that number was reduced to 3,100. 

Construction of the Capitol Building during the Civil War (courtesy of U.S. Senate website).

The Civil War transformed Washington, D.C. significantly. During the antebellum period and until the onset of the Civil War, D.C. was a relatively small city where mainly government workers resided, having recently lost the area now known as the city of Alexandria to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1846. The streets of the city were unpaved, and horses, swine, and cattle roamed freely. One of the only prominent structures in the city was the Capitol building, and the White House was more of an over-glorified countryside mansion. However, the city was teeming with America’s political leaders. Many of the city’s most prominent antebellum politicians, such as Jefferson Davis himself, would go on to become major leaders and generals within the Confederate States of America.  A significant number of the District’s politicians inhabited the Pennsylvania Avenue area, as it acted as a direct corridor to the Capitol building. Many of these politicians were merely temporary residents who often left their wives at home due to the crime and filth of the city. However, D.C.’s small size produced a fairly tight-knit community with an active cultural and social life in certain sectors. Members of what would become the Confederate States of America interacted with congressional members of the Union on a daily basis during religious ceremonies, philanthropic events, clubs, theatrical performances, and state banquets. The lines between social and political life in D.C. were often blurred, with politicians engaging in political debates with allies and opponents alike both inside and outside of the Capitol building and infusing the culture of the nation’s capital with a unique blend of Northern and Southern traditions that would continue to shape D.C. society during the Civil War and postwar years.

After Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers, following the April 12, 1861, bombardment of Fort Sumter, to end the Southern insurrection—an action which, in turn, caused Virginia to secede from the Union–the city began a process of quick and necessary expansion and modernization. D.C. was positioned in a precarious location, directly bordering a Confederate state; its fate now hung in the hands of Maryland, a slave state that chose to remain neutral. Lincoln took harsh measures to prevent the capital city from being surrounded by Confederate states. He expanded his presidential power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus between D.C. and Philadelphia in order to grant military officials the authority to silence rebels or secessionists in Maryland as part of his plan to help preserve Maryland’s status as a “buffer” border state.

In 1861, Washington, D.C. found itself extremely vulnerable to an attack. The city was located less than one hundred miles from the Confederate capital and only defended by one fort, sixteen miles from the city center. Some of the first defenses of the city were earthen forts like Fort Runyon and Fort Corcoran. However, the Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861, just thirty miles south of Washington, DC, deeply shook both Lincoln and Congress, who quickly determined that the city needed to be defended at all costs. Major General John Barnard was tasked with fortifying the city. Barnard determined that the only way to defend the capital was to erect a circle of fortifications around the perimeter. Between the winters of 1861 and 1862, Barnard’s Army engineers, prisoners of war, freed slaves, and soldiers built a network of thirty-seven earthen forts. Each fort was designed to absorb heavy artillery and boasted a barricade of sharpened tree trunks, known as abatis. Between each fort, a twenty-mile network of rifle pits was built. Throughout the war, ninety-three artillery batteries were equipped with more than eight hundred cannons to arm those entrenchments, and the ring of forts was connected by newly built military roads. D.C. had successfully become one of the most fortified cities in the world.

Civil War defenses of Washington at Fort Lincoln (courtesy of the National Park Service).

Largely due to these formidable fortifications, D.C. did not see significant combat during the war. However, its population mushroomed. At the start of the war, the population was roughly 75,000; that number would quickly swell to 200,000 at its peak. Soldiers, politicians and their families, refugees, and war-industry workers accounted for much of the boom. Many escaped slaves or freed blacks flocked to D.C. for job opportunities. Fortifying the city offered jobs for African Americans and the city’s proximity to the border state of Maryland created a hub for slaves escaping bondage. Contraband camps were established to account for the influx of African Americans in the city, such as Camp Barker. These locations were unsanitary, unforgiving, and overcrowded. Life in the District was grueling during the 1860s. With the sudden population boom, waves of smallpox ravaged the city, and the civilians were constantly on edge about a Confederate insurgence, both from outside or within the District proper.  However, their number one priority was to provide resources to wounded and sick Union soldiers who were arriving in the city from battlefields on a constant basis. At the height of the Civil War, the District boasted upwards of eighty-five hospitals to treat the influx of wounded soldiers, and civilians such as Clara Barton rushed into the city to care for the wounded.

The Union army sought to keep the war far from D.C. and focus their efforts on taking Richmond. Due to Washington’s expansive fortifications, Confederate forces could never launch a direct attack on the city. Instead, the Confederates made multiple false advances towards the city to try to threaten and intimidate Lincoln. The first of these advances was the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862, followed by the Battle of Gettysburg, in July of 1863. The closest the Confederates got to the city was in July of 1864, when Lieutenant General Jubal Early attacked Fort Stevens to divert the North’s attention from besieged Petersburg to Washington, D.C. The assault occurred just four miles from the White House. During the skirmish, Lincoln was nearly killed by a sharpshooter while observing the fighting. The skirmish only lasted two days until Early was pushed back from the city limits. The citizens fell into hysteria during the siege. Rumors of the Confederate army standing 50,000 strong and surrounding the city spread rapidly. Civilians took cover in their houses. However, towards the end of the siege, the civilians of D.C. gained the courage to picnic outside to cheer on their defenders, similar to the onlookers of the Battle of Bull Run in 1861.

Unsurprisingly, Washington, D.C. was a political battleground during the war. The persistent debates over the future of slavery, both in the District and throughout the divided nation as a whole, continued to permeate Congress. Lincoln entered the Civil War fervently seeking to maintain the Union and protect the principles the founding fathers bequeathed to the nation by any means necessary. By the late summer of 1862, he began to realize that it would likely require emancipation to help strip the South of its resources and secure the fate of the Union. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect, freeing all slaves in rebelling states. Many Northerners were outraged by the Proclamation because, in their minds, Lincoln had abruptly changed the war’s focus from Union to emancipation. In D.C. proper, politicians were charged with the difficult task of maintaining public morale amidst heightened political tensions and a series of Union military defeats. The politicians needed to frame battlefield defeats in ways that would preserve public opinion and support for the war. Politicians began emphasizing how the individual citizen could contribute to the war’s cause and therefore, the outcome of a battle. For example, supporting the war effort in any way and paying taxes was framed as being patriotic. If there was a battlefield defeat, civilians then needed to contribute more. 

As the war waged on, the demands placed on civilians were becoming increasingly difficult. By the end of the Civil War, the water supply had begun running low due to the rapid population growth in the city. The Army Corps of Engineers built a large aqueduct to remedy the city’s water dilemma. The formation of the aqueduct was just one of many ways through which the Civil War helped thrust D.C. into a new era of modernization. The city needed to account for a massive influx of civilians seeking refuge in the most fortified city in the country, in addition to the freed blacks, government workers, politicians and their families, and both garrisoned, active-duty and convalescing soldiers in a relatively short period of time. DC was no longer a small city that government workers and politicians inhabited; it was now home to a diverse population of Americans. Contraband camps were established along the outskirts of the city and makeshift hospitals were set up for the incoming wounded soldiers. Public works were still rudimentary in D.C. due to the government’s focus on funding the war effort. However, the population boom in D.C. helped lay the groundwork for infrastructure improvements in the post-war era, such as the leveling and paving of streets, the planting of trees, and the addition of streetlights. By expanding the urban population of the District significantly, the Civil War helped create a significantly more sizable and more vocal citizenry that would pressure the government to accommodate them after 1865. 

Just five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in D.C.’s own Ford’s Theater by actor and southern sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth. The goal of Booth’s plot was to assassinate Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward to send the U.S. government into complete chaos and disarray. Flags were quickly lowered to half-mast in the city and the joy and happiness of a Union victory was quickly replaced by mourning and uncertainty once again. While white civilians wondered whether the victories of the war would be overturned and feared for the security of a newly reunited nation, freed communities feared what the president’s death would mean for them, and if they would descend into slavery once again. African American poured into the churches within the District, delivering sermons and prayers to the “Great Emancipator.” 

Despite the political uncertainty after Lincoln’s death, D.C.’s Black population continued to expand in the post war years. D.C. served as a location where formerly enslaved African Americans could transition to a life of freedom and escape the violence of the Deep South. Although many fled to other northern urban hubs, crowded cities like Boston and Philadelphia had more limited job opportunities than did the expanding national capital that had come into its own during the war. Many Blacks attempted to carve out spaces for community development in former contraband camp districts. The Freedman’s Village on the Arlington estate, located only a half-mile from Robert E. Lee’s former residence, was a community established in 1863 by the Chief Quartermaster of the Department of Washington and served as one such model community for freed Blacks. The Freedman’s Village and the Reno City area are just two examples of how African American populations could carve out their own areas within the district and leave a lasting imprint. Howard University, which was was established in 1867, also created a place for learning and community. African Americans seeking political offices after the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were attracted to D.C. and Howard University enticed African American professionals to move to the city. Washington D.C.’s African American community soon teemed with prestige and promise.

However, the unique composition of D.C.’s Black community resulted in the development of a rather strict social hierarchy among African Americans; because D.C. was located between the Union and former Confederacy, impoverished freed slaves from the South as well as more established, literate, and prominent free-born or long-free African Americans migrated to the city.  Class differences and diverging social and political goals often delineated these groups. Blanche Bruce is an example just one of D.C.’s Black success stories in the postwar years.  Born into slavery, Bruce escaped to Kansas during the Civil War. He later became one of the first African American representatives in Congress and one of the leading households of the African American community when he purchased a grand house near Mount Vernon Square in the District. Many of the black representatives resided in the upper-class Black neighborhoods that developed near Howard University. Poorer Blacks tended to live in the Northeast and Southeast areas of D.C. such as Anacostia and LeDroit Park, and found themselves more preoccupied with gaining an education, a living wage, and a healthy and sustainable housing situation than their wealthy Black peers who were busy courting political appointments and proving their respectability to wealthy whites.

Despite the many opportunities for African Americans in the city, there was, unsurprisingly, widespread discrimination. Many of the African American elite and Black politicians received second-class treatment and were forced to pay higher rent and higher prices at local restaurants than their white counterparts. In some cases, after the end of Military Reconstruction in 1877, mobs of white men who feared the growing rights of African Americans engaged in vigilante justice without judicial processes and lynched innocent African Americans. Additionally, only a handful of African Americans (all Republicans) managed to serve in Congress.  The fact that these Blacks were so blatantly breaking down the historic social and racial barriers that had long existed in the United States in the heart of the capital made them easy targets for criticism, and their credibility and personal character constantly fell under scrutiny.

Similar to the Civil War, World War I transformed the capital city. On April 4, 1917, the United States intervened in World War I to protect democracy and freedom yet was conspicuously denying those same rights to half of the country’s population. World War I provided African Americans and other minority groups with the opportunity to promote their cause of equality and prove their dedication and devotion to the United States. The population of D.C. swelled from 350,000 to over 526,000, as job opportunities to support the war increased. Housing and facilities became scarce and living expenses rose as a result of the rapid population growth. Chaos erupted in D.C. when the influenza epidemic first emerged in military camps surrounding the city and quickly spread to the bubbling populations within the city. Public institutions and city schools quickly shut down and only slowly re-opened. More women began joining the workforce and entered into jobs that were typically “male” jobs. A new generation of women suffragists emerged in D.C. who were more vocal and assertive with their demands. Meanwhile, African American activists hoped their dedication to wartime services would make them equals in society; however, they were quickly disappointed. Therefore, alongside promotion of women’s rights, African American activism intensified. 

During the Jim Crow era in D.C., segregation laws routinely infringed upon African Americans’ mobility and civil rights. Segregation was mandated in recreation areas and public schools, but not in public transportation like streetcars or public libraries. President Woodrow Wilson also segregated all federal government agencies. Tensions between whites and blacks reached a boiling point in 1919, during the D.C. Race Riots. Bessie Gleason, a white woman, had claimed she was attacked by an unidentifiable Black man, which unleased a furious response against the Black community in the District. The city broke out into complete hysteria, which was fueled by newspapers and the media. Hundreds of innocent African American men were arrested as a way to reestablish white rule in the city. Not long after Bessie Gleason was allegedly attacked, Mary Saunders, another white woman, was assaulted just over the District’s border in Maryland, allegedly by the same perpetrator. On July 18, another white woman claimed she got into a confrontation with two African American men on her way home from work. The woman’s husband employed a mob armed with clubs and lead pipes to find one of the suspected men, Charles Ralls. When the mob marched across the National Mall, they discovered Ralls walking with his wife and beat them both. When the couple fled into their home, the mob surrounded the house, assaulting anyone in the home’s vicinity and firing shots at the home. The police and a Marine detachment responded to the riots and ended up arresting more blacks than whites. The Marines’ involvement emboldened the mob, which grew more aggressive overnight. Black women, men, and children were attacked going about their daily lives. After four days, the riot left thirty-nine people dead, and one hundred-and-fifty people injured. The Race Riots of 1919 served as a haunting reminder of the long shadow of slavery and white supremacy in D.C., the fear in which African Americans were forced to live, and the violence that could be openly committed against them.

U.S. Cavalry responding to the 1919 Washington Race Riots (courtesy of the Smithsonian Magazine).

On June 14, 1922, five thousand African Americans marched past the Capitol building and White House carrying posters condemning lynching. Missouri Representative, Leonidas Dyer had sponsored an anti-lynching bill that was pending in congress. The bill would make lynching a federal crime and require families to be compensated for the loss of a loved one. The NAACP intensely lobbied the House to pass the anti-lynching bill. Southern opponents attempted to vigorously obstruct the debates over the bill. On multiple occasions, Southern representatives even refused to come to the House Chamber. As a response to the delays, the Speaker of the House, Frederick H. Gillett of Massachusetts demanded that the doors of the chamber be locked and employed the Sergeant at Arms to find disobedient members. During debates in the House, African American activists flooded the House Gallery, monitoring the discussions bellow, cheering-on occasional speeches, and even exchanging snide remarks with members below, violating Gallery rules. Despite the efforts, the bill died when Senate Democrats organized a filibuster. Racial tensions in D.C. were growing both in and outside of the realm of politics. African American activists were growing more frustrated with the lack of equality and begun to take more drastic measures.

On August 8, 1926, 30,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan descended on D.C. to parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument grounds. Many of these Klansmen were welcomed by some of the white residents of D.C. who felt threatened by the rise of African American activism. The following day, the Klansmen crossed the river into Arlington to place wreaths on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before burning an eighty-foot cross on the horse grounds of Arlington Park, where they initiated two hundred new members. On September 13th of the following year the Klan returned to Washington for a new march, this time only mustering fifteen thousand members. Many of the Klansmen revealed their faces during the marches, showcasing that they did not fear punishment for their violent crimes and widespread terror, but rather were proud of their actions. The Klan clearly, held a prominent foothold in the nation’s capital during the 1920s. They fostered a hostile environment for the otherwise increasingly vibrant African American communities in D.C., they sought to violently and publicly assert their dominance and white supremacy in the Capital and were met with little resistance.

After the 1929 stock market crash, frustrated, angry, and desperate Americans flooded the Capital to protest. Many disheartened World War I veterans battling the U.S. government for their bonus payments finally reached a breaking point. Presidents Harding and Coolidge vetoed early bills to provide WWI bonus payments to veterans. However, Congress overturned Coolidge’s veto of the World War Adjusted Compensation Act in 1926. Veterans had been promised a bonus based on their length of service, but the bonus would not actually be paid until their birthday in 1945. Beginning in 1927, veterans were allowed to borrow from the bonus, but by 1932 banks did not have credit to give in order to allow this practice to continue. Suffering and jobless World War I veterans organized the Bonus Expeditionary Forces to march on D.C. to receive their payments. The group established a shantytown across the Navy Yard, on the Anacostia Flats, during the peak of D.C. heat and humidity. The camps attracted upwards of thirty thousand veterans and their families who used scrap wood and salvaged resources to build shacks. However, the government still lacked the funds to pay immediate bonuses to the veterans due to the difficult times that had befallen the country.

By July 28, Attorney General William Mitchel ordered District police to remove any protesters from government lands. The police targeted the protesters occupying buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue. Riots quickly erupted, prompting the Army to be called in to restore order. General Douglas MacArthur commanded army troops alongside Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, supported by tank commander, Major George S. Patton. Troops advanced on the unarmed protesters with fixed bayonets, tanks, and tear gas to drive them across the Anacostia River. General MacArthur defied President Hoover’s two orders to not cross the bridge, and continued to press into the Bonus Expeditionary Forces’ camp on the Anacostia Flats, which ten thousand people still occupied. The cavalry and infantry set fire to the shanties and drove off the remaining inhabitants with tanks and tear gas. As D.C. hospitals were soon overwhelmed with the wounded, the incident became a stain on Hoover’s presidency. The press began publishing articles sympathetic to the Bonus Expeditionary Forces and criticized the government for deploying the military to attack unarmed veterans and families.

            As World War I veterans were protesting, both white and black Americans picketed together for wages and work. On International Unemployment Day, on March 6, 1930, a biracial protest broke out to rail against the skyrocketing rates of unemployment in the wake of the stock market crash. The protests began in the afternoon with a few hundred Americans picketing on the sidewalk in front of the White House. Both undercover and uniformed police surrounded the area, feeling increasingly threatened by the fact that whites and blacks were collaborating on such an impassioned protest. Violence escalated when William Lawrence, a Communist Party leader, climbed the fence of the White House to deliver a speech and was promptly attacked by an undercover police officer. Lawrence responded by punching the police officer in the face, sparking widespread aggression amongst the protestors. Officers began clubbing the unarmed protesters, who retaliated by kicking and punching the police officers. Tear gas bombs added more confusion to the chaos. Despite the unrest in the nation’s Capital, President Hoover continued to work quietly in his office, failing to respond. By the end of the protests, hundreds of activists were fined and arrested for battery of police officers.

            By the 1940s, World War II was beginning to bring economic stability to the country and to the Capital. The stability and increase in wartime jobs once again caused another wave of migration to D.C. However, with the government further expanding its job opportunities, housing shortages emerged within the city. Soon, temporary office buildings were constructed along the National Mall and Washington Monument for record- keepers. Despite the economic prosperity, a wave of anxiety descended over the city during the wartime years. Many residents and government employees feared the next attack on American soil would target the nation’s capital. For precautionary measures, auto cannons and machine guns were placed on rooftops of major government buildings and around the National Mall.

            African Americans within D.C. continued to struggle for equal hiring opportunities. African American labor leader, A. Phillip Randolph threatened a march on Washington if African Americans were not given equal consideration in the job hiring process. President Roosevelt, fearing international humiliation and race riots, passed Executive Order 8802, which banned racial discrimination in defense industries. He also established the Committee on Fair Employment Practices to investigate and address discrimination in the workforce. This advancement helped embolden African American activism. Throughout the war years, the NAACP and other activist organizations fought to end discrimination in the military, as many African Americans were still fighting for freedom and equality overseas but were not promised those rights at home.

            The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s had its roots in the 1940s, when African Americans were more assertive with their demands for equality in both civilian and military life and were even winning occasional political victories along the way. On December 5, 1946, President Truman passed Executive Order 9808, creating the President’s Committee on Civil Rights whose goal was to improve how law enforcement, federal governments, and local governments could protect civil rights. In addition, Truman signed Executive Order 9980 and 9981 into effect in 1948, which would institute fair employment practices as well as equal opportunity and treatment in the armed forces; additionally, a presidential committee was established to monitor compliance with these orders. These executive orders, especially Number 9981, received pushback from politicians and military leaders. Some military bases within the South maintained Jim Crow laws and some military leaders claimed that integrating the military would weaken U.S. national security. However, by the Korean War in 1950, the armed forces were fully integrated. Nevertheless, many African Americans still faced disheartening prejudices.

The 1950s served as a tumultuous precursor to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in Washington. In 1954, the Supreme Court passed the monumental Brown v. Board of Education decision, allowing African American children to study in integrated schools. In the summer of 1955, the violent murder of Emmet Till sparked a surge of anti-black violence throughout the country, pushing racial tensions to a boiling point. The following year, a group of Southern congressmen and senators signed the “Southern Manifesto,” pledging their dedication to resisting racial integration through “lawful” means. In response, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 into effect in September of 1957, which protected the voting rights of African Americans, created the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and established a civil rights division in the Justice Department. Despite, these civil rights victories, it was difficult to enforce these measures throughout the country.

One of the most significant moments during the Civil Right Movement was the 1963 March on Washington. A century after the emancipation of 4 million African Americans, two hundred and fifty thousand whites and blacks gathered together on the National Mall, facing the Lincoln Memorial to protest African American inequalities. It is no surprise that Washington was chosen as the location for the protest, as it was the heart of the Federal government and likely would receive the most press. But Washington was also the location where privileged politicians lobbied against civil rights acts, enforced racial inequalities, ignored poor living conditions in black neighborhoods, and condoned racial violence and police brutality. It was at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently delivered one of the most iconic orations in history– his “I Have a Dream” speech. The march was the largest protest in the Capital’s history and was widely publicized throughout the country and around the world. The 1963 protests cleared the way for legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act to be passed.

Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington 1963 (courtesy of NPR).

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, igniting race riots across the country including Washington D.C. Between April 4th and April 8th, widespread violence and looting erupted in the city, with the worst of it concentrated at 14th and U Streets in the Northwest, where the heart of the black community resided. Groups of young activists were angered that nearby businesses did not shut down when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed as they had when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Windows of commercial properties were broken, residential areas were damaged, and fires raged for four days. President Johnson deployed thousands of troops to guard the White House and the District police force were completely overwhelmed by the large crowds. Nearly fourteen thousand U.S. troops were sent to the city to quell the violence, making it the largest military occupation of a U.S. city since the Civil War. It would take D.C. months to recover from the riots, rebuilding residential areas and repairing damage. as well as coming to terms with the conditions that led to the riots. The demographics in the city also began to change as more middle– to-upper-class white families moved to the suburbs, a phenomenon called the “white flight.” With this transformation, the African American population within the city rose but housing conditions did not improve. Frustrated and angry with their living conditions, African Americans hoped the riots serve as a long overdue wake-up call to city officials for immediate, structural change.

Tumultuous times in D.C. continued well into the 1970s. One of the most notable instances was the May Day protests in 1971. In a span of four days, twelve thousand people were arrested while protesting the Vietnam War, making it the largest mass arrest in United States history. The goal of the protest was to temporarily shut down the Federal Government through nonviolent means. their slogan being, “if the government does not stop the war, we will stop the government.” The government was prepared for the protests, having called in the National Guard and ensuring that major roadways and bridges would not be barricaded by the protesters. The protests failed at shutting down the government but succeeded in putting pressure on President Nixon to end the Vietnam War. Additionally, in August of 1978, the March for the Equal Rights Amendment occurred in which over ten thousand people marched for the ratification of the ERA. In 1978, the Longest Walk, a Native American civil rights protests in which thousands of people walked from San Francisco to the National Mall, arrived in D.C. on July 15th.

Racial tension also continued into the 1980s. In November of 1982, the Klan planned to have their first rally in D.C. for the first time in fifty-seven years to protest what they saw as the many ways in which “illegal aliens” were ruining America. The Klan leaders anticipated that two-hundred Klansmen would march from the Capitol Building down Pennsylvania Avenue. However, only a few dozen appeared and were advised by the police to march down an alternate route due to the anti-Klan threats. The Klansmen instead drove in a police motorcade to Lafayette Park with their white robes in plastic bags. The Klan only gathered for fifteen minutes, without their robes on. However, the Klan gathering did not sit right with the residents of D.C., many of whom were planning retaliatory protests. An anti-Klan rally formed in McPherson Square, about a block away from Lafayette Park. People from the crowd began throwing rocks and bottles at police lines, outraged by the police’s protection of the Klansmen. A round of tear gas was fired at the anti-Klan protestors and police on horseback charged the demonstrators to scatter them. The violence ensued for two hours and resulted in twelve police officers injured and thirty-eight protestors arrested. In 1991, another Klan demonstration of around forty members was met by strong anti-Klan protests as well. This time, the damage was relatively small since police officers had learned from the 1982 protests. Clearly, times had changed in D.C. since the first Klan rally in 1926, where 30,000 Klansmen were present. The Klan was met with strong retaliation from the people of D.C. in the 1980s and 90s that forced them to adjust their initial plans. They also lacked the numbers and support they once had decades prior.

Today, Washington, D.C. continues to be the epicenter of activism and change. It is a city characterized not only by its federal institutions, but its historic protests, whether they were advocating for Veteran’s rights, civil rights, or against the Vietnam War. Many of these protests have echoes today. In the wake of the George Floyd murder in 2020, protests erupted in the Capital, and as tensions and violence rose, they were met with rubber bullets and tear gas. In recent years, as more Confederate monuments have been removed, few eyes have fallen upon Washington as a potential source for debate over extant Confederate monuments. In fact, D.C.’s history as the capital of the United States during the Civil War had largely concealed the significant presence of Confederate monumentation in the nation’s capital, which requires unpacking. 

Monumentation is one of the defining characteristics of Washington. Each year thousands of tourists come to the city to visit the Lincoln Memorial, World War II Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, and more. However, when it comes to Civil War monumentation there is no one, large, all-encompassing memorial; rather, Civil War monuments are scattered throughout the city. After the Civil War, D.C. was tasked with bringing together a formerly broken nation and maintaining that Union in perpetuity. Therefore, much of the Civil War commemoration focuses on the general sacrifice of United States soldiers and civilians. For example, three years after the Civil War ended, the Grand Army of the Republic established Decoration Day, later known as Memorial Day. The goal of Decoration Day was to decorate the graves of the dead with flowers on May 30th. The first grand celebration of Decoration Day took place just across the river from D.C., at Arlington National Cemetery. President Grant and his wife attended the ceremonies and members of the GAR strolled down the rows of graves, placing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves.

 In addition, within the District there are smaller monuments to larger national groups such as the Nuns of the Battlefield Monument (1924), the Peace Monument honoring the deaths at sea during the Civil War (1878), the Emancipation Monument (1876), and the African American Civil War Memorial (1998). There are also several individual monuments commemorating prominent Civil War leaders such as General George B. McClellan (1907), Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (1896), and Ulysses S. Grant (1922). D.C. is also unique in that some of its political leaders prior to the Civil War ultimately ended up serving in the Confederacy. Although taking up arms against the United States and serving in the Confederacy’s government were acts of treason, there was still a level of respect for these individuals, such as Jefferson Davis and John C. Breckenridge, for their political service to the United States prior to the war. Additionally, D.C.’s close proximity to the South places the capital in a peculiar position when it comes to Civil War memory that must be explored.

(Courtesy of the National Park Service).


All of the Confederate monuments in Washington, D.C. are concentrated in a singular area of the city, at the Capitol building itself (ironically), with the exception of one. Nearly all the monuments were constructed between 1922 and 1931 by various state governments, with four monuments erected between 1901-1916 by the Scottish Rite Freemasons and the states of North Carolina, Alabama, and Virginia, respectively.

The 8 monuments concentrated in one area are all located in the Capitol building’s National Statuary Hall. ­­­Within the National Statuary Hall are monuments to Alexander Stephens, James Zachariah George, Jefferson Davis, Joseph Wheeler, Wade Hampton, Zebulon Baird Vance, Edmund Kirby Smith, and Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry. The distant monument was erected by the Scottish Rite of Free Masons on Indiana Avenue, in Northwest D.C.


All of D.C.’s Confederate monuments were erected in the early 20th century, the first being the Albert Pike Monument, in 1901. The next surge of monuments started around the 1920s and ended in 1931, all sponsored by Southern state governments. This was an era of enormous complexity for Civil War memory and monumentation. During this period, many former Confederate states were just recovering economically from the Civil War and could at last afford sponsoring the erection of monuments in the Capital. Additionally, this was the period immediately after the Civil War semi-centennial, during which both Northerners and Southerners enjoyed a resurgence of pride in their Civil War history and a concern over the preservation of their respective side’s history with the last Civil War veterans dying out. During this time, reconciliationist sentiments also flourished amongst many groups of Americans who sought to come together over a shared celebration of each side’s martial valor, with little talk over the causes of the war; such sentiments often spurred Blue-Gray reunions, jointly-attended monument dedications, and speeches about how much progress the nation had made since 1865, with speakers celebrating the common “American-ness” of soldiers North and South.  Many of these monuments commemorate individuals who previously served in the United States Congress before joining the Confederacy. States likely sought to honor their heritage, military valor, as well as their leaders’ previous service to the country.  Additionally, following the end of World War II, the country saw a resurgence in martial monumentation that aimed to celebrate the patriotic sacrifice and splendor of the American military, both past and present.

The National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building (courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol).

However, it is also possible that these monuments were built to counter the earlier, pro-Union Civil War monumentation in the District. Many of the early Civil War monuments in D.C. were constructed in the late nineteenth century. Therefore, former Confederate States could have sought to assert their representation and particular side of Civil War history.  Additionally, this period also saw deep-seated racial antagonisms and Jim Crow laws, including in the District, that also could have spurred the slew of Confederate monumentation. What is fascinating about these monuments is the speed in which they were constructed, with a majority of the monuments being constructed in a nine-year period, and all within the National Statuary Hall.

The Albert Pike Memorial, which used to stand resplendently in the Judiciary Square neighborhood, was the first Confederate monument in D.C. (1901) and the only Confederate monument displayed outside. To fully understand the monument, it is important to dig into Pike’s past. Albert Pike was born in Boston in 1809 and spent most of his formative years in Massachusetts. When he was twenty-two, he left Massachusetts and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, attracted to the adventures and opportunities that the West offered. He joined an expedition to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red Rivers which ultimately landed him in Arkansas, where he became a teacher. By 1833, Pike became involved in Arkansas politics and established a law practice. He served in the Mexican American War as a captain. In 1861, he supported secession and became Arkansas’s commissioner to Indian Territory. Because of this role, the Confederate War Department appointed him a brigadier general in the Confederacy. After the war, he lived in New York and temporarily in Canada until he was granted amnesty from President Johnson. Pike’s interests then turned to the Free Masons, as he had helped form the Grand Chapter of Arkansas and was associated with the Scottish Rite of Masons prior to the war. Pike held the position of grand commander of the Supreme Council, Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite Masons until his death in 1891. He was buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery at the Scottish Rite Temple in D.C.

Albert Pike Memorial prior to its removal (courtesy of the St. Laurence Lodge).

The Albert Pike Memorial was constructed and funded by the Supreme Council, Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, which Pike served on. In the 1890s, Masons needed to lobby Congress for a land grant to erect their monument. This effort was met with pushback from the Union Army veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic who were angered by the Confederate monumentation so soon after the war. The GAR petitioned Congress to refuse the request; however, a compromise was struck instead. Pike was to be depicted in civilian clothes rather than his Confederate uniform. Pike was not a well-known Confederate leader; therefore, the monument would highlight his career within the masonry. The monument stood eleven feet tall when it was finished and was placed upon a granite pedestal with the allegorical Goddess of Masonry holding the banner of the Scottish Rite placed just below Pike, looking up at him. Controversy did not surround the monument again until 1992, when protesters involved in the Marxist-inspired LaRouche movement draped a Klan robe over Pike. However, protests over the monument did not gain much traction until 2017, following the Confederate monument protests in Charlottesville. Protesters gathered around the monument shouting, “tear it down.” This grabbed the attention of D.C. politicians, such as Attorney General for D.C., Karl Racine, and delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who asked the National Park Service to remove the statue. In 2019, Norton also introduced a bill to remove the Pike statue. It was not until the wake of the George Floyd murder, when Black Lives Matter protests surged across the country that the monument officially come down.

In the heat of a rally, protesters used ropes and chains to topple the Pike statue and used lighter fluid to ignite it. They then covered the pedestal and monument with graffiti. Currently, only the pedestal remains. Pike’s monument encapsulates the various layers Confederate monuments can have. The Albert Pike monument sought to honor his contributions to the Scottish Rite of Masonry and the area in which he is buried. However, his previous service in the Confederacy sparks controversy around his statue. The pedestal of his statue now serves as a reminder of the difficulties involved in reckoning with the American past as well as the importance of fully understanding a monument and its many layers. Albert Pike provides an instructive example of the past clashing with present day.

The remaining Confederate monuments still standing in D.C. are all concentrated in the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building. The National Statuary Hall was modeled after ancient amphitheaters and draws inspiration from the Greek revival architecture that characterizes D.C.’s buildings. The room eludes power and prominence, as it showcases the nation’s past through monumentation. The room continues to be used for ceremonial occasions such as the honoring of foreign dignitaries and presidential luncheons. However, ironically, the room honors various figures that technically committed treason against the United States. A law was passed in 1864 that granted each eligible state the ability to contribute two statues of distinguished citizens; because Confederate states had seceded from the United States prior to the law, they were not initially eligible to sponsor statues. When a state bestows a statue, the statue acts as a gift from the state. The state legislature begins the process by enacting a resolution that names a citizen to be honored. The citizen’s qualifications are then laid out and a committee or commission is chosen to select a sculptor and provide methods for obtaining the funds. When the statue arrives in D.C., it is then assigned a location by the Joint Committee on the Library.

The first statue sponsored by a Confederate state in the National Statuary Hall was a Jabez Lamar Curry monument, erected by Alabama in 1908. Former Confederate States were eligible to bestow a monument to the National Statuary Hall when they were readmitted into the Union. Immediately after the war, Alabama was still recovering economically and could not fund the construction of a monument until the start of the 20th century.  J. L. M. Curry was born in Georgia to a slaveholding family, who later moved to Alabama. He served in the Alabama House of Representatives where he would serve for a decade. He was a staunch supporter of states’ rights and secession. During the Civil War, he was elected to the Confederate Congress and when he did not secure a reelection, he joined General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia in February of 1864. He was appointed lieutenant colonel and given command of the Fifth Alabama regiment in October of 1864. Curry was pardoned by the federal government shortly after the war but could not run for a federal government position until 1877. During the war itself, Curry became deeply religious and began working at Howard College in Marion (now Stamford University). Through his educational ties he became connected with leaders of the Peabody Education Fund, which, interestingly, promoted education among freed blacks and whites in the south. When the Peabody Education Fund’s general agent died, Curry was nominated to succeed him. Curry began working to establish a public school system, teacher educational programs, and educational systems that included African Americans. He also served as a representative in the post-Civil War era and in 1890. Curry also became the head of the Slater Fund, which furthered industrial education for both blacks and whites in the south.

Jabez Curry’s statue portrays him in civilian clothes rather than a Confederate uniform, possibly to highlight his later contributions to the state of Alabama and education rather than dwell on his service to the Confederacy. However, the statue was removed in 2009 and moved to the Stamford University campus and replaced with a monument to Helen Keller. The removal of Curry’s statue is a result of a new law passed by Congress in 2000 that allows for states to replace their National Statuary Hall monuments. Alabama’s governor, Bob Riley, believed that Helen Keller served as a better representative of Alabama’s history. The process of constructing and replacing the Curry monument took eight years. Currently, the Helen Keller statue serves as the first statue of a child with a disability in the National Statuary Hall. Alabamian politicians had hoped that this statue could inspire and become a destination for children visiting the Capitol. The Curry statue is a unique case because not only did the removal of it occur well before the surge of modern-day Confederate monument controversy, but it demonstrates a state’s desire to update its representation now that it has the power to do so. Like the Pike monument, it also highlights the many complicated layers of historical memory and monumentation. It is important to note that Alabama’s second National Statuary Hall monument is Joseph Wheeler, a former Confederate Veteran. 

The Joseph Wheeler monument was erected in 1925 by the state of Alabama. Wheeler was born in Georgia and attended the U.S. Military Academy in 1859 but resigned to join the Confederate Army in 1861. During the war, Robert E. Lee looked favorably upon Wheeler. After the Civil War, he became a lawyer and a planter, and eventually served in the House of Representatives in the 1880s. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Wheeler volunteered to serve and was appointed major general of volunteers by President McKinley. The following year, he commanded a brigade in the Philippine Insurrection from 1899 to 1900 and was commissioned as a brigadier general. He died in 1906 and is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Wheeler’s statue shows him in a United States Army uniform, proudly overlooking the hall. Wheeler’s story is one of reconciliation. He was a man who committed treasonous acts against the United States during the Civil War but dedicated his later life to serving the United States both politically and militarily. The state of Alabama’s decision to keep the Wheeler statue over Jabez Curry’s statue possibly was made to demonstrate their overarching devotion to the United States, despite their historic Confederate connections.

The removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in the National Statuary Hall (courtesy of NPR).

In 1909, a Robert E. Lee monument was erected in the National Statuary Hall.  George Washington was the chosen honoree for Virginia’s first statue and individuals like Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison were proposed for the second statue; however, Robert E. Lee was ultimately chosen. When news broke to the rest of the country that Virginia planned on erecting a Lee statue in the heart of the nation’s capital, less than fifty years after the war had ended, controversy erupted. People were angered that a leading “traitor” to the nation was going to be honored in the same room that those who sacrificed their life for the United States stood in. Lee was seen as degrading and challenging the integrity and meaning of those statues who deserved to be there. An Idaho senator referred to the act as “desecration” and a Kansas senator threatened to send a statue of John Brown to the Capitol. Regardless of the backlash, the politicians were unable to stop the construction of the Lee monument. According to the National Statuary Hall Law, a state can erect a monument to any deceased individual they deem historic or renown to their state or esteemed in their military or civil services. Thus, it was Virginia’s choice in the matter. The Lee monument cleared a path for other former Confederate States to send former Confederate monuments to the Capitol.

Lee’s statue depicts him standing proudly in his Confederate uniform. Lee was a graduate of West Point and served in the Mexican American War. He had no prior government service in Congress. His statue was likely a deliberate choice to allow Virginia to assert pride in both its U.S. and Confederate past, as well as its long martial tradition within the Capitol building. It also may have been an attempt to overlay a Lost Cause stamp on the national narrative of the Civil War, showcasing pride in a Christian, noble, gallant, and talented leader who fought against overwhelming numbers of “aggressive invaders,” losing on the battlefield but winning on the moral stage of war. Lee is one of the most notable figures associated with the Confederacy. He rose to prominence within the Civil War, becoming a God-like figure within the Confederacy. After the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments reached a breaking point in Charlottesville, the movement to remove these statues spread across the country, and D.C. was no exception. In April of 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation ordering the establishment of a commission that would remove and replace the Lee statue. The commission approved the removal of the statue to the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond. They set plans to replace the statue with one of Barbara Johns, a sixteen-year-old African American girl who rebelled against school segregation in 1951. The House of Representatives voted on the removal and replacement of the statue, which ultimately passed. In December of 2020, the Robert E. Lee statue was removed from the National Statuary Hall. The replacement of the Lee statue was a way for Virginia to come to terms with its past as well as get ahead of the mounting pressures to remove such representations of the state after the protests in Charlottesville and Richmond.

Zebulon Baird Vance’s statue was gifted to the National Statuary Hall in 1916 by the state of North Carolina. Vance was born in North Carolina in 1830. Prior to the Civil War, he worked both as a lawyer and on the North Carolina Senate before eventually winning a seat in the U.S. Congress. Vance was a strong supporter of slavery, so when South seceded from the Union, he returned to North Carolina to support the cause. He became a colonel of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina regiment but left the ranks in 1862 to become the governor of North Carolina. Vance was arrested after the war by federal troops and held in Washington D.C. before being released back to North Carolina after two months and paroled. Vance shared his cell with the former governor of Virginia and petitioned for parole through President Johnson’s amnesty program due to the failing health of his wife. He was not pardoned by President Johnson until 1867; he was frustrated that he was still prohibited from holding public office while African Americans were being awarded the same rights he longed for. As Vance’s aggravation festered over time, his rhetoric became increasingly racist. In 1877, he won the governorship of North Carolina once again, campaigning on racist ideologies and the constant defense of Confederate secession. Vance eagerly pushed for the construction of the railroad across the state of North Carolina. He employed convict labor, and the constant pressure he placed on railroad workers quickly led to extreme abuses of the work force. The Western North Carolina Railroad was built by nearly all African American convicts who were forced to work in inhumane conditions. From 1879 until Vance’s passing, he served in the U.S. Senate where he mediated disputes between the North and South.

Similar to the men featured in previous Confederate monuments, Zebulon Vance had served the U.S. government prior to the war and after. However, Vance was notoriously racist, which made him popular among “unreconstructed” North Carolinians following his tenure as governor during the war. Vance’s statue well could have been erected out of spite to honor a prominent Confederate politician in North Carolina who was outspoken in his white supremacist ideologies, as Jim Crow laws reigned across the South (and even in D.C.) in the time period surrounding its erection. However, the statue also could have been a hearkening back to pride in North Carolina’s state leadership during the Civil War, given that the statue was erected just after the Civil War semi-centennial.  However, the statue also somewhat invokes a reconciliationist tone, which also undergirded many of the semi-centennial commemorations, with Vance possibly honored equally for his post-war service in the U.S. Congress.

In 1922, the state of Florida donated an Edmund Kirby Smith statue to the National Statuary Hall. Smith was born in St. Augustine Florida in 1824. He was a graduate of the West Point class of 1845 and shortly after was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas before serving in the Mexican American War. Smith became a math instructor at West Point before going on active duty once again. Smith was still in Texas serving as the commanding officer at Camp Colorado in 1861 when Texas seceded. He defended the post when Texas State Troops arrived, even threatening to attack the troops. Smith was rewarded with a promotion to the rank of major after the incident; however, he resigned from the military that day and joined the Confederate army. Smith mainly served in the eastern theatre before being transferred to the western theatre, where he would eventually command the entire Trans-Mississippi Department. Smith surrendered the department on June 2nd, 1865. Fearing the repercussions of his role in the Confederacy, he fled into Mexico and then Cuba with other high ranking Confederate officials and officers. After six months, Kirby returned to the United States and signed an amnesty oath. For the remaining years of his life, he served as the president of the Pacific and Atlantic Telegraph Company before becoming co-chancellor of the University of Nashville, and eventually a mathematics professor at the University of the South, where is he buried today.

Shortly after the 2015 Mother Emanuel Charleston Church mass shooting, where nine African Americans were tragically killed by a white supremacist, Florida lawmakers began discussing the replacement of the Edmund Kirby Smith statue. In 2016, lawmakers officially voted to replace the statue with one dedicated to civil rights leader, Mary McLeod Bethune. A debate ensued over the fate of the Smith statue. On September 2, 2021, the Kirby statue was removed from the National Statuary Hall to the Lake County Historical Museum in Florida. Museum curator, Bob Grenier, justified the welcoming of the statue by highlighting Smith’s “career in the Union Army in the Mexican War where he was decorated for heroism.” Grenier went on to laud Smith’s impressive “service in the Confederate Army – he was the last general to surrender in the Confederate army,” and but also noted, “He became an educator. That’s kind of compelling.” The statue’s new location at the Lake County Historical Museum was not in the public eye but rather was tucked away in a gallery, where it was displayed among other military monuments with a marker explaining the central role of slavery in the Civil War. However, the new location of the statue sparked protests in Lake County because many of the residents believed that the statue was not representative of their history and the communities history. Despite being used in an educational setting, the protesters believed the monument was still being honored and commemorated.

Wade Hampton Statue in the National Statuary Hall (courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol).

South Carolina dedicated one of their allotted statues to Wade Hampton in 1929. Hampton was born into one of the wealthiest landowning families in South Carolina in 1818. He attended South Carolina College, now University of South Carolina, before assuming the planter life. In 1852, he was elected to the South Carolina General Assembly, serving until 1856 when he became a state senator. In 1858, Hampton’s father died, leaving his fortune and plantation to Wade, including one of the largest contingents of slaves in the South. During the outbreak of the war, Hampton resigned as a South Carolina legislator and enlisted as a private in the South Carolina Militia; however, impressed by Hampton’s wealth, education, and family influence, the governor of South Carolina, Francis Wilkinson Pickens, offered Hampton the commission of colonel, despite Hampton’s not having any military service experience. Hampton organized and partly funded a unit called “Hampton’s Legion.” In May of 1862, Hampton was promoted to brigadier general, during which time he assumed command of a brigade in Stonewall Jackson’s division. When Hampton returned home after the war, he discovered his estate had been ransacked and burned, and all his slaves had been freed during Sherman’s 1864 campaign. However, interestingly, in the postwar years, Hampton was initially a major proponent of reconciliation because he had lost all of his sources of income and believed that through reunion, he could once again rebuild his fortune and good standing. However, during the introduction of Radical Reconstruction policies, Hampton’s reconciliationist opinions changed and he became a vocal critic of the Reconstruction aims. Hampton and Confederate General, Jubal Early also later became strong proponents of the Lost Cause ideology due to their anger and frustration with the imposing Reconstruction Acts. Hampton played a significant role in the Southern Historical Society, which published the Southern Magazine and was dedicated to voicing a strictly pro- Confederate perspective on the war. Hampton also perpetuated Lost Cause ideology through his post-war speeches and commemorations of the Confederate dead. Many “unreconstructed” South Carolinians saw in him an advocate of their postwar interests. In 1876, Hampton became governor of South Carolina once again amid a controversial election. Hampton’s supporters, known as the “Red Shirts,” were charged with suppressing African American voters. He was declared the winner of the election after the decision went to the South Carolina Supreme Court in 1877. Hampton later served as a senator in Washington from 1879 until 1891. In the remaining years of Hampton’s life, he worked as the U.S. Commissioner of Railroads from 1893 till his retirement in 1897.

The Wade Hampton statue still stands in the Capitol building along with South Carolina’s second statue dedicated to John C. Calhoun, which was erected in 1910. South Carolina’s decision to construct a Wade Hampton statue in the National Statuary Hall can likely be attributed to two seemingly distinct, but often overlapping sentiments: Reconciliation as well as Jim Crow-era racial backlash in the early 20th century. Wade Hampton served as a symbol of South Carolina’s state pride, military might, holistic history, and Confederate heritage, as well as someone who overcame the divisions in the nation and served the United States politically, both before and after the war. During the 1920s and into the 1930s, there was a surge in Confederate monumentation as more states gained the funds to erect monuments and sought to assert white supremacy and/or promote the Lost Cause ideology. Therefore, it is not surprising that Wade Hampton, a successful Confederate officer, was selected for the statue. Hampton embodied the old Southern way of life, being a wealthy, educated, slaveholding planter who lost everything due to “northern aggression.” Even during Hampton’s political career, he maintained some of his antebellum sentiments. Hampton’s paternalistic perception of African Americans permeated his political opinions regarding African American suffrage. He believed African Americans needed to be supervised by whites while making political decisions and he actively supported voter suppression laws like the grandfather clause. However, also Hampton supported funding for building a public educational system that would include institutions for freed blacks. Nevertheless, for the remaining years of Hampton’s life, he attended various Confederate reunions. When he died, Wade Hampton was commemorated as a brave soldier who devoted himself militarily and politically to various causes within both the U.S. and the Confederacy, a complex reputation that would follow him for decades.

In 1927, the state of Georgia dedicated an Alexander Stephens monument to the National Statuary Hall. Stephens was born in 1812 in Georgia. He attended Franklin College, which is now known as the University of Georgia. He graduated at the top of his class and entered into a law career. Stephens got his start in politics in 1836 when he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives and then in 1842 was elected to Congress. While in Congress, Stephens spoke out against the Compromise of 1850 and the Wilmot Proviso because they limited the expansion of slavery. However, when the secession debates were beginning to erupt in the United States, Stephens condemned secession and supported maintaining the union. He voted “no” during Georgia’s own convention for secession; however, he ultimately supported a state’s right to leave the Union if states in the north continued to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act. Eventually, Stephens was elected to serve as Vice President of the Confederacy, where he delivered his renowned “Cornerstone Speech,” in which he declared that the bedrock of the Confederate government was slavery and the idea that an African American was not created equal to the white man. As the war waned on, Stephens sought to find a peaceful way to end it. He outwardly criticized Jefferson Davis and in February of 1865, met with President Lincoln along with two other Confederate commissioners to discuss bring the war to a close, but the attempt at peace failed. After the war, Stephens was imprisoned for five months at Fort Warren, in Boston. He was eventually elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1866, but never took office, as sentiments from the war were still so raw, and Northerners were not willing to let a former Confederate leader sit in the U.S. government. It was not until 1873 that Stephens was able to actually take his seat in the Federal government.  He eventually served as both a Senator and in the House of Representatives before becoming the governor of Georgia.

The Alexander Stephens monument follows the same pattern as many of the other Confederate monuments in the Capitol. Stephens is a noteworthy figure within the Confederacy. His public memory and reputation are forever intertwined with the Confederacy and its controversial memory, which was no doubt a significant part of state’s considerations when selecting Stephens for the statue. The Civil War left a bitter taste in many Georgians’ mouths, especially after the burning of Atlanta, and this anger was passed down generationally and facilitated by Lost Cause ideology. Therefore, erecting a monument to the Confederacy’s vice president could have partially been motivated by spite. In Jim Crow-era Georgia, lawmakers and citizens actively attempted to suppress and intimidate African Americans. Between 1882 and 1930, Georgia had the second highest total of lynching victims, being four hundred and fifty-eight, which was second only to Mississippi; thus, it is no surprise that this monument honoring the former Confederate vice president and author of the racist Cornerstone speech was selected in 1927, the height of the Jim Crow era. However, Stephens also reconciled with the federal government in the postwar years and served in Congress. Thus, while no doubt controversial, Stephens’s story is also, to a degree, one of forgiveness and reconciliation: Stephens was able to overcome the sectional divide and bitter sentiments that reigned well after 1865, working in both the House of Representatives and Senate. Still, Stephens opposed Congress’s Reconstruction policies and spoke out against legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1875. His statue honors his political service prior to and following the war, but also naturally is a distinct reminder of his war-time allegiance to the Rebel South that continued to shape many of his post-war political decisions.

The Jefferson Davis (on the left) and James Zachariah George (on the right) monuments in the National Statuary Hall (courtesy of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society).

Finally, the last two Confederate monuments erected in the National Statuary Hall were donated by Mississippi in 1931. The statues honor Jefferson Davis and James Zachariah George, both of whom have strong ties to the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis was born in 1808 in Kentucky and raised in Mississippi. He attended the U.S. Military Academy before serving a short time in the Black Hawk War in 1832. While stationed in Illinois under Colonel Zachary Taylor, the future U.S. president, he married Sarah, Zachary Taylor’s daughter. Soon after the marriage, Sarah died, leading Davis into a secluded life on his plantation in Mississippi. Davis was a slaveholder and fervently supported the institution. In 1845, Davis served in the U.S. House of Representatives before resigning to serve in the Mexican American War in 1846. He refused the promotion of brigadier general in 1847 when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Davis later served with distinction as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce before returning to the U.S. Senate, where he strongly advocated for states’ rights. When Mississippi seceded from the United States, Davis resigned from Congress. He was selected as the President of the Confederacy for a six-year term, despite not wanting the job. After the war, Davis was imprisoned for two years at Fort Monroe, though was never tried for treason, and was ultimately released on bond in May of 1867. Davis never requested an official pardon form the United States, making him ineligible to serve in any political position. Before his death in 1889, Jefferson Davis encouraged the men of Mississippi to, “lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and to make your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished—a reunited country.”

James Zachariah George, the second honored Mississippian, was known as Mississippi’s “Great Commoner,” due to his “rags-to-riches” life trajectory. He was born in Georgia in 1826 but spent much of his life in Mississippi. George enlisted as a private in the Mexican American War, serving under Jefferson Davis. When he returned from the war, George studied to become a lawyer, eventually becoming one of the youngest attorneys in Mississippi. By 1850, George owned twelve enslaved people, a number which would eventually increase to sixty-five by 1860. He also served in the Mississippi State Senate and prior to the Civil War, served on the board of secession. In the Civil War itself, George served as a colonel. After the war, he became one of the founders of Mississippi State University and continued his political career, eventually serving in the U.S. Senate in 1881. George remained a senator until 1897 when he died. While in Congress, George was committed to returning the South, politically and socially, to its antebellum-era form. He supported white supremacist policies and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Additionally, he helped create the 1890 Mississippi state constitution, which was paved the way for a proliferation of Jim Crow laws in Mississippi and would continue to oppress and intimidate African Americans well through the more modern Civil Rights movement.

Both the Jefferson Davis and James Zachariah George monuments likely serve the same purpose. They were both constructed during the uptick of Confederate monuments and both honor Mississippi’s political and military history. The Great Depression ravaged the already struggling state of Mississippi. The state’s economy was decimated and could not support many of the farmers who were trying to survive their financial woes. In an attempt to bring back the state’s honor and glory, as well as a sense of pride in the state’s heritage, it is unsurprising that the state selected both Jefferson Davis and James Zachariah George as their honorees. Jefferson Davis, the most prominent political figure of the Confederacy and symbol of the nostalgic antebellum era, was one of the state’s adopted “native sons” in whom they could take great pride and around whom they could retreat to the comforts of Lost Cause-infused reflections on and celebrations of their “golden era.”  Alternately, James Zachariah George represented the ideal commoner’s story: He arose from nothing and used what little resources he had to enter into a legal, military, and political career which enabled him to eventually become a slaveholder and individual of great influence. These statues well could have been erected to help inspire those struggling in Mississippi during the Great Depression, as well as remind other politicians working in the Capitol of Mississippi’s brighter, prouder days that still infused the state with pride. The statues would remind passersby as well as common Mississippians learning of the statue of the state’s political and military strength and its past prominence within the nation, while demonstrating that through hard work, one can reach notability. However, it is important to note that during this time, racial violence continued to rage throughout the state of Mississippi, and African Americans were continuously oppressed and suppressed by Jim Crow laws in the state; it would not have been lost on many that both the figures represented by the statues proudly supported and partook in the institution of slavery. George even laid the groundwork for the perpetual suffering of African Americans in Mississippi. Therefore, these statues could also serve as a symbol of enduring white power in the state. Interestingly, Mississippi continues, to this day, to reserve Jefferson Davis’s Senate desk for their senior senator, thus maintaining the nostalgic, myth-like memory of Jefferson Davis that elevates him to a position of continued reverence, encouraging senior senators to live up to the legacy of Davis.


Washington D.C.’s Confederate monuments exemplify America’s complicated past. Currently, in the nation’s capital, there are six extant Confederate monuments. These men took up arms and led governments against the United States yet are honored in the heart of America. The National Statuary Hall provided the formerly Confederate States with the uncontested opportunity to erect monuments of any figure they deemed as heroic, honorable, and patriotic. Nine of the ten original Confederate Monuments were located in the Capitol Building. All of these monuments share a complex interpretive layering and contradictory meanings. Five of the nine monuments that were bestowed to the Capitol Building were of former Confederate officers and leaders who had served the United States, politically, prior to the Civil War. Seven of the nine statues served either politically or militarily prior to the Civil War. Therefore, these monuments encapsulate reconciliationist and Lost Cause ideology as well as the darker, racially motivated sentiments from the Jim Crow Era, in addition to lingering spite and a desire for revenge against the federal government. The presence of these monuments contributes to how America has tried to reckon with its complex past and the legacies and contested memory of the Civil War. It is easy to condemn all Confederate monuments by reducing them to a singular motivation, but taking a deeper analytical look at these structures reveals various layers and intentions that are not immediately apparent at first glance.

The District’s unique geographic location has influenced its history since the inception of the city. Prior to the Civil War, D.C. served as an important location in the slave trade and a location where prominent politicians from both the North and South resided temporarily. With the outbreak of the war D.C. was in a precarious location, straddling the Union and the Confederacy. The city became a location where freed blacks could flee to for a new home and possible employment. After the war, D.C. was a place where both Union veterans, former Confederate veterans, and freed blacks lived and flocked to for work. Throughout history, it has served as the epicenter for political and social protests and continues to do so today as Americans of all stripes reflect on our nation’s past, its purported values, and how to ensure a just and equal future for all that is worthy of its founders. The city’s unique past, intriguing location, and identity as a confluence of individual, state, and federal interests are reflected in its monumentation patterns. The Confederate monuments honor their individual’s devotion and service to the United States prior to the Civil War, either through Congressional work or military service. However, many of the monuments also emphasize their state’s individual history, thus straddling both Union and Confederate identities.

Monuments such as the Robert E. Lee monument were likely placed in the Capitol Building equally out of reverence for state and federal service and out of spite and revenge. Lee, one of the gods of Lost Cause Ideology and renowned symbol of the Confederacy, was controversial during its construction. Although Lee served in the United States military prior to his service in the Confederate Army, there was a clear motive at work in the selection of Lee over individuals like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to represent Virginia. However, other monuments, such as that to Jabez Lamar Curry, are more complex. After the Civil War, Curry served in the House of Representatives and promoted educational systems for both whites and blacks in Alabama. His statue also detaches him from his Confederate military service by depicting him in civilian clothes. Although Curry served in the Confederate Army, which was likely a factor in Alabama’s decision to select Curry, his statue also promotes reconciliationist ideas. After the war, Curry recommitted himself to the United States and improving Alabama. Similarly, the Albert Pike statue was not a statue constructed specifically to honor his Confederate service, but rather to honor his time as grand commander of the Supreme Council, Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite Masons.

It is impossible to fully unpack the meaning and significance of each monument without examining every dedication speech, ceremony, patrons, and specific location within the broader context of local, national, and international currents. In addition, the research herein has its limitations, as the basic data is largely supplied provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which cannot verify the exact location of each monument, and (as in the case of other southern states’ monument records), the data provided may not account for a dull record of all Confederate monuments within the city. However, this map report still reveals important patterns and complexities that are critical to the future unpacking of Confederate monuments as a whole.

NameCreatorDate Valid ForDescriptionHyperlink
Washington D.C. GridT.I.G.E.R.2022Shapefile representing Washington D.C.’s grid.Link
Whose Heritage Master SheetSouthern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)2022Google Sheets dataset containing name, location, date of dedication, and other available information of all Confederate monuments across the United States.Link


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