Seven other Confederate statues subsequently followed Lee into the Capitol. North Carolina put forth a bronze rendition of Zebulon Vance, the state’s Confederate governor during the war, in 1916. Florida sent Edmund Kirby Smith, the last Confederate general to surrender, in 1922. From Alabama came Confederate cavalryman Joseph Wheeler in 1925. (The state also sent a statue of Confederate officer Jabez Curry, but replaced it with one of Helen Keller in 2009.) In 1929, South Carolina commissioned one in honor of Wade Hampton, who fought against the Union at Gettysburg and won the state’s governorship in 1876 with the help of white-supremacist paramilitary groups.
Georgia sent a statue of Alexander Stephens, an unalloyed white supremacist who served as the Confederacy’s vice president, in 1927. In an infamous speech made shortly after the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861, Stephens had made clear why the seceding states wanted to break away from the Union. “Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” he declared.
The process concluded in 1931 when Mississippi sent statues of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s only president, and James Z. George, a Confederate colonel who signed the state’s ordinance of secession, to fill its two spots. Their arrival came without apparent protest, despite the potency of what it symbolized. Davis had led a war against the United States for five years to create an independent nation where the enslavement of human beings could survive and flourish. Now his life-sized likeness adorned the political center of the country he tried to destroy.
Lee’s statue was installed in the Capitol without fanfare because of the controversy surrounding it. Davis, on the other hand, received a respectful unveiling ceremony led by Southern senators and Davis’s great-granddaughter. House and Senate chaplains gave benedictions. The U.S. Marine Band played patriotic songs. Mississippi’s Pat Harrison, who helped orchestrate the defeat of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in a 1922 filibuster, had the gall to cast the Confederate statues’ arrivals as a healing moment for the nation, according to The New York Times’ account of the ceremony.
“When,” [Harrison] said, “that martial and stately figure of Robert E. Lee was placed by Virginia in this rotunda, it was the beginning of a finer feeling between the sections; when Alabama selected that heroic figure of Joe Wheeler to occupy a place of honor in this historic hall, it kindled still warmer fires of common understanding.
“When Florida answered her invitation with a salute to E. Kirby Smith, it was a rebel yell for a common country. When Georgia graced this hall with the figure of Alexander Stephens, a further step was taken in the cementing process of the two nations.
“And today, as Mississippi places here two illustrious and matchless military geniuses, statesmen and leaders in this hall, the last link is forged in the chain that will forever hold our country together.”
There was applause when the names of Lee, Wheeler, Smith, and Stephens were mentioned, but the loudest outburst came as Senator Harrison made a reference to a “united nation.”
Harrison’s warm remarks glazed over the unspoken reality of what the statues represented. Reunion after the war was between Northern whites and Southern whites alone, one that symbolically excised black Americans from the body politic. By honoring Confederate leaders in the Capitol, Southern legislatures consecrated the white-supremacist regimes that had reconquered the South after Reconstruction. Their political order would endure another three decades before the civil-rights movement dismantled the legal architecture of Jim Crow.