Williams Carter Wickham isn’t in a lot of history textbooks. When his statue was the first to fall in Richmond last week, it left many of us wondering, “Who was that guy?”
If you look at the order in which monuments are being pulled down in Richmond, they seem to be falling in order of accessibility. Robert E Lee, one of the most beloved heroes of the Confederacy, towers above the reach of protesters looking to chip away at Confederate glorification in Richmond. By contrast, the statue of Williams Carter Wickham, located in Monroe Park, was pretty low to the ground, symbolically and literally. Not a bad place to start.
You don’t need to know much about Wickham to understand why protesters removed the Monroe Park statue. Just read the plaque: “Presented to the city of Richmond by comrades in the Confederate army.” As a Confederate Civil War general, Wickham goes against everything those in the Black Lives Matter movement are fighting for.
On the evening of Saturday June 6, a group of protesters pulled the statue down with rope, making national news and inspiring similar acts. “Richmond has had decades to address this issue and it hasn’t, so now the people have,” Gallery 5 curator Prabir Mehta told ABC News.
As it turns out, it’s not incredibly difficult to topple statues. For those curious about how it’s done, you can read this article published by Popular Mechanics.
As Mehta pointed out to ABC News, most passersby would be unaware of the dialogue surrounding Confederate statues in Richmond, especially those not on Monument Avenue. The most recent push for change began in 2017 after the events surrounding the infamous Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, but has been slow to manifest.
After Unite The Right, Wickham’s great-great-grandsons, Clayton and Will Wickham, requested the statue in Monroe Park be removed, reaching out to the Monroe Park Conservancy as well as Mayor Stoney. The Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted their letter to Stoney, which said, “We want to be sure you know that, as a plantation owner, Confederate general, and industrialist, General Wickham unapologetically accrued power and wealth through the exploitation of enslaved people.”
Members of the Monroe Park Conservancy voted to remove the statue, and Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission considered it, but neither were able to legally complete the task. If Richmonders hadn’t taken the matter into their own hands, they would have had to wait until after July 1st of this year, when a law will be passed that gives local governments in Virginia authority over monuments.
Among Richmond’s handful of lesser-known Confederate monuments — a list that also includes Matthew Fontaine Maury, AP Hill, and the now-also-deposed Richmond Howitzers Battalion tribute statue — Wickham is particularly elusive. It’s tough to find much about him on the web, but his Wikipedia page (or, if you happen to go to Virginia Tech, this collection of letters) offers some interesting information.
Wickham grew up about half an hour north of Richmond on the Hickory Hill plantation, a large estate compared to most in Virginia and an appendage of the Shirley Plantation owned by Robert E Lee’s mother, Anne Hill Carter Lee.
His ancestors include one of Virginia’s wealthiest landowners of the 1700s, Robert “King” Carter, named for his “autocratic business methods,” as well as Robert E. Lee, who was Wickham’s first cousin, once removed.
After graduating from UVA, Wickham worked as a lawyer and was later elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, all while continuing to manage Hickory Hill with his wife. He voted against secession in 1861, but agreed to it and saw a good deal of combat in the Civil War, eventually promoted to brigadier general in the Confederate Army.
He became a railroad developer in Virginia after the Civil War, to varying degrees of success, often hampered by financial problems. A Republican and supporter of Ulysses S. Grant, he returned to the General Assembly in the 1880s before dying (while in office) of heart failure in 1888.
Wickham was many things; a farmer, a slave owner, a high-ranking Confederate general, and an active politician. But he was not all that distinguished, and certainly not anyone you’d remember from history class. There’s not a great argument for having him memorialized, unless your main goal is valorizing the Confederacy. Based on what Gen. Fitzhugh Lee said at the time the statue was put in place in 1891, that it was a “glorious spectacle to see monuments rising in honor of such men,” it seems that was exactly the goal.
Since Wickham was toppled, three more statues have hit the pavement (or pond). Protesters sank the Christopher Columbus statue in Byrd Park and pulled the Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue earlier this month. Just a few days ago, the Howitzers Battalion monument near VCU’s Monroe Park campus was torn down. Stoney plans to remove the rest after July 1st. Until then, the Richmond Protest Press is tracking the progress using bingo cards.
Top Photo by Chelsea Burke, via Facebook