For most of the twentieth century, “Johnny Reb,” the quintessential Confederate soldier, has stood watch 65 feet over the center of Norfolk, his gaze defiantly directed northward. The history of this impressive monument in many ways symbolizes the ambivalence with which this city views its past.
Union troops occupied Norfolk during most of the Civil War, and once they had departed, lingering resentment among the white population was channeled into the erection of a memorial to slain Confederate soldiers. Fund raising commenced in 1868 under the auspices of the Norfolk Monument Association, but not until the Pickett-Buchanan Camp of Confederate Veterans assumed control of the project in the 1890s did the city raise sufficient moneys and approve a site in the center of downtown.
The design, by sculptor William Couper, is essentially a smaller version of Richard Morris Hunt's Yorktown Victory Monument (1880–1884; see under Yorktown, in the Hampton Roads section). The dominant feature of the Confederate Monument is a colossal granite column cut with the mechanical precision typical of the era. Rising from a stepped base, its fluted and banded shaft is crowned by a stylized Ionic capital. Perched atop the column is a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier holding the army's standard in his left hand and a saber in his right. Bronze figures representing the Confederate army, navy, artillery, and infantry were intended for the base, but they were excluded from the final design because of insufficient funds, and granite cannonballs were substituted. With great fanfare, the monument's cornerstone was laid in 1899 and the column erected later that same year. The statue of Johnny Reb was not installed and unveiled until 1907, the year the city hosted the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition.
Until World War II the monument stood at the very heart of Norfolk's bustling downtown near the point of departure for ferries across the Elizabeth River. Because of two construction projects—the bridge-tunnel to Berkley and Portsmouth in the early 1950s and later the nearby Virginia Bank Building—and the politics of the emerging civil rights movement, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority dismantled and stored the monument. Although not perceived as especially controversial by the public, it remained something of an embarrassment to forward-looking municipal officials. Finally, in 1971 the monument was rebuilt several feet to the east of its original location on a new axis created by the realignment of Commercial Place to the south and a park to the north that leads to the MacArthur Memorial.