For most of the twentieth century, “Johnny Reb,” the quintessential Confederate soldier, stood watch 65 feet over the center of Norfolk, his gaze defiantly directed northward. Until the second decade of the twenty-first century, the history of this impressive monument symbolized the ambivalence with which white residents of the city viewed 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. Fundraising 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, not far from Norfolk's historic market square, where its slave auctions took place.
The design, by sculptor William Couper, is essentially a smaller version of Richard Morris Hunt's Yorktown Victory Monument (1880–1884). 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, Norfolk's white elite laid the monument's cornerstone in 1899; the column was erected later that same year. The statue atop the column 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 the monument and placed it in storage. Though some municipal officials considered the monument an embarrassment, nevertheless, in 1971 the monument was rebuilt, placed 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.
In the twenty-first century, activists who regarded the monument as a symbol of white supremacy began to organize for its removal. Though the City Council rejected calls for removing the monument in 2015, two years later it voted to approve removal in response to mounting community pressure following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. The monument was still standing three years later, during the anti-racism protests that took place across the United States in the summer of 2020. After protesters covered it graffiti, which the Downtown Norfolk Council declined to clean off, the city finally acted to dismantle the monument. By the end of June all that remained was the lowest part of its base. The city intendes to re-erect the monument in Norfolk's Elmwood Cemetery, where the remains of more than 400 Civil War veterans (Union and Confederate) are interred.
Murphy, Ryan. “Norfolk’s Confederate Monument is all but gone from downtown. Now what?” The Virginian-Pilot, June 22, 2020.