By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – A federal judge on Monday ordered a halt to the removal of a Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery shortly after U.S. Army crews began work to dismantle the tall bronze statue as required by Congress under a Jan. 1 deadline.
A spokesperson for the cemetery, managed by the U.S. Defense Department, said the Army was complying with the restraining order and had ceased removal work begun in the morning atop the statue, known as the Confederate Memorial.
The cemetery’s own online critique describes the monument’s imagery and inscriptions as sanitizing pre-Civil War slavery, romanticizing secession of the Southern pro-slave states, and perpetuating the noble “Lost Cause” myth of the Confederacy.
The monument features a classically robed woman cast in bronze representing the American South standing atop a three-story pedestal adorned with life-sized figures of deities, Confederate soldiers and civilians.
Among those figures are an enslaved African-American “mammy” character holding the infant child of a white Confederate officer, and an enslaved African-American man following his owner off to war, according to the cemetery’s description.
The monument overlooks Confederate graves in a special corner of the sprawling cemetery, which stands in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., on the grounds of a former plantation seized from Civil War General Robert E. Lee, commander of Confederate forces.
Erected in 1914, it is the latest of scores of statues widely seen as monuments to racism and singled out for demolition by state and local leaders around the U.S. since a nationwide public uproar stirred in 2020 by the killing of George Floyd.
Congress formally mandated elimination of all names, symbols and statues commemorating the Confederacy throughout the U.S. military in 2021, creating a commission to oversee the endeavor.
Arlington Cemetery said on Saturday the Army was seeking to comply with the Jan. 1 deadline for removing the Confederate Memorial and expected to be done by Dec. 22.
But a group called Defense Arlington filed suit accusing the Pentagon of skirting federal environmental law in its rush to take down the Arlington monument and proceeding in a manner that would disturb adjacent gravesites.
U.S. District Judge Rossie Alston issued a restraining order temporarily blocking the monument’s removal, citing allegations that burial sites were threatened by the project.
The cemetery has said the granite base and foundation of the memorial were being left in place to avoid disturbing surrounding graves.
The judge set a hearing on the matter for Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)