On Saturday, a crowd cheered as the “At Ready” Confederate statue was removed from its place of prominence at the Albemarle County Courthouse near Charlottesville.
The August 2017 events in Charlottesville were the catalyst for the removal of Confederate monuments around the country, but the area had yet to see any of its own monuments removed — that is, until Saturday, September 12. On that day, the “At Ready” statue, located on the lawn of the Albemarle County Circuit Court near downtown Charlottesville, was taken down.
For 111 years, the 19-foot-tall bronze monument, depicting a life-size Confederate soldier, stood in front of the Albemarle County Courthouse. The County of Albemarle, City of Charlottesville, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy paid to install the statue, along with two cannons and cannonballs, in 1909. The county-owned property is a few blocks from the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville’s Market Street Park, the proposed removal of which led to the Unite the Right Rally in August 2017.
More than 100 masked spectators, including current and former elected officials, community members, and activists, assembled along East Jefferson Street, just outside of the metal construction barricades erected at Court Square, to see the historic moment unfold. Some gathered as early as 6 a.m., witnessing the arrival of trucks, a forklift, and other moving equipment, along with workers in hard hats, safety vests, and face masks, who were tasked with the removal.
The overcast sky could have laid a somber air over the proceedings, but the crowd was upbeat and celebratory. “It’s a great day for Charlottesville,” one community member said amongst the crowd. WXTJ 100.1 FM, the University of Virginia’s student radio station, broadcast from the street, playing tunes like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing.” People danced as they kept an eye on the process, cheering and clapping each time one of the items moved from its location — first a cannon, then another, followed by the statue, and finally its base and cannonballs.
The County of Albemarle planned to hold an official community gathering at Court Square to commemorate the event. “The community put the statue up, and we really wanted the community to be part of taking the statue down,” said Emily Kilroy, Director of Communications and Public Engagement. Ultimately, Albemarle opted for a livestream event, as local ordinances restrict gatherings to 50 people.
“We worked really hard to plan an inclusive event,” Kilroy said. “We wanted it to be an educational opportunity for people to understand why this is so significant.” The livestream, which is still available on the County of Albemarle Facebook page, included history about the statue’s placement in 1909, information about its removal, and an up-close view of the work.
For many, this day was years in the making. In 2018, activist Matthew Christensen petitioned the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to remove the “At Ready” statue. Discussions around the removal of statues within the city’s limits began even earlier. In 2016, the City of Charlottesville organized the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces (BRC), which sought public comment on the statues and made recommendations to Charlottesville City Council.
“This is a moment of redemption, a moment of reconciliation, and a moment where we move the needle of progress in a positive way,” said local activist and Chair of the BRC Don Gathers, who was in attendance for Saturday’s statue removal.
In August, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to remove the “At Ready” statue from its location on the courthouse lawn. Virginia law prevented localities from removing Confederate monuments prior to July 1 of this year, at which point new legislation went into effect, granting local governments the power to determine what to do with these statues.
According to Scottsville District Supervisor Donna Price, the decision to remove the statue, cannons, and cannonballs from their prominent location at the courthouse was easy. “I believe courthouses are our hallowed halls of justice, and nothing except that which elevates a sense of equal justice, social justice, equal rights, should be on courthouse grounds,” said Price.
What to do with these items, on the other hand, presented a challenge. According to state law, the Board of Supervisors had to wait 30 days after its vote to remove the statue, during which time offers must be made to relocate the statue to a museum, historical society, government, or military battlefield. After reviewing a list of potential recipients, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors ultimately determined that the Confederate items would be relocated to a Civil War battlefield under the stewardship of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation (SVBF). The County of Albemarle paid approximately $63,000 to a private contractor to complete the work of removing the items; the SVBF covered the cost of transportation.
Price and others were concerned about the recipient, but there was not a sufficient consensus among the Board of Supervisors to defer the disposition decision. “While the choice of the recipient may not necessarily have been fully satisfactory to every member of the Board,” Price said, “the removal and disposition was ultimately determined by the six of us to be the best decision we could make under the circumstances that we had at that time.”
Local activists shared their displeasure about the statue’s new location. University of Virginia Associate Professor of Religious Studies and community organizer Jalane Schmidt said, “I was really glad when they voted unanimously to get rid of it but very disappointed with where it’s going.” Schmidt described the SVBF as “a major purveyor of the Lost Cause here in our region,” adding, “It is not morally or ethically acceptable to be disposing of our toxic waste at the expense of other communities that had no say at all in this stuff coming to their community.”
Between the City of Charlottesville, the County of Albemarle, and the University of Virginia, there are a number of monuments still standing that are considered problematic by local activists. Among them are monuments to Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Charlottesville, the removal of which is currently being prevented by an injunction. The Virginia Supreme Court will hear a Charlottesville lawsuit, including an appeal of the injunction, in November.
In light of all the remaining statues, activists considered the removal of “At Ready” a positive step, but far from a complete victory. “This is just another battle in the war. Our ancestors have been fighting the same war for centuries now,” Gathers said. “We certainly can’t give up the fight at this point. It’s a victory won, but there are many more that still need to be won.”
Top Photo by Erin Edgerton, via Twitter