Richmond Can Remove Last Confederate Statue, Judge Rules

Since 1892, the statue of Ambrose P. Hill, a Confederate lieutenant general, has towered over a busy intersection in Richmond, Va., built over the spot where his remains are buried.

The statue is the last Confederate monument in the city, and it could soon be gone.

Judge D. Eugene Cheek Sr., of the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond, this week ruled that the city had the right to dismantle the statue and donate it to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. The remains of the general will be reburied at a cemetery in Culpeper, about 85 miles north, according to his ruling.

Mayor Levar Stoney of Richmond said the ruling allowed the city to improve traffic safety at the intersection. But it also represented a victory for those in Richmond who have been fighting to rid the city of symbols of the Confederacy and the memorials, street names and markers that glorified it.

“This is the last stand for the Lost Cause in our city,” he said in a statement, referring to the movement after the Civil War by former Confederates to justify the Confederacy.

Like other cities across the nation, Richmond has struggled with how to get rid of the symbols of its Confederate history, particularly as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. It has removed about a dozen statues and other memorials, from cannons and highway markers to statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.

It has been a fraught dismantling.

After George Floyd’s death in May 2020 and nationwide protests over systemic racism and police violence against Black people, much of the attention focused on Confederate monuments and the links of historical figures to slavery.

In Richmond in 2020, protesters toppled a statue of Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue, and the city removed three other statues of Confederate figures there. Busts depicting other ex-Confederates were removed from the State Capitol.

Some of the action has worked its way through the courts. The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the power of Ralph Northam, the governor in 2021, to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.

The statue’s defenders had argued that to do so would violate Virginia’s Constitution by encroaching on the Legislature’s powers and that removing it defied agreements from the 1800s, including one that required the commonwealth to “faithfully guard” the monument and “affectionately protect” it.

But the justices wrote that the agreements were “unenforceable” because their effect was “to compel government speech, by forcing the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees.”

In his ruling, Judge Cheek noted that Richmond’s City Council had adopted an ordinance in 2020 authorizing the city to remove Confederate statues on city-owned property.

Hill’s indirect ancestors did not object to reburying the remains or removing the statue from the intersection but they opposed it going to the museum, saying that they alone had the right to decide what to do with it. Judge Cheek disagreed, saying that the statue could not belong to his descendants because it never belonged to him.

They have the right to appeal. Their lawyer, S. Braxton Puryear, did not reply to messages seeking comment on Friday.

“We look forward to a successful conclusion of the legal process” to relocate the remains and move the statue to the museum, Mr. Stoney said.

Hill, a lieutenant general under Robert E. Lee, served in the Army of Northern Virginia. He was killed outside of Petersburg, Va., a week before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865.

In March 1892, The New York Times correspondent in Richmond described the construction of Hill’s statue, saying a millionaire cigarette manufacturer and other “admirers of the brilliant commander” paid for the bronze cast.

“It represents Gen. Lee’s old corps commander, standing erect, booted and spurred, and in an easy attitude,” the Times report said.

It was installed on a granite base at Laburnum Avenue where it intersects with Hermitage Road, which was constructed during the war by the Confederate government.

“Over its beaten track, thousands of Southern soldiers traveled during the four years’ struggle to conflicts from which many of them never returned,” the article said.

by NYT