To the Editor:
Calls to take down the statue of the Confederate soldier at the corner of Washington and Prince streets may be understandable, but ultimately misguided. In the wake of the Charleston shootings, the efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from state houses, license plates and other venues is completely justified. The flag had been captured by racist elements and made deeply offensive to many Americans.
By contrast, the soldier statue, one that I have passed hundreds of times in 45 years in Alexandria, stands for something different. It symbolizes defeat and despair and, I believe, has little or nothing to do with race.
I recently spent two years editing and transcribing into a computer the hand-written diary of John Zimmerman, a young Alexandrian who fought for the Confederacy. From the beginning of the war until he surrendered at Appomattox, he recorded each day in his log. A summary of his entries have been published in the Spring and Fall 2014 issues of the “Alexandria Chronicle,” a publication of the Alexandria Historical Society.
There is no evidence that Zimmerman or his family owned slaves. Moreover, in one entry he is outraged that a slave attempting to escape by swimming a river was allowed to drown by Union soldiers on the other side. He also believed that any slaves willing to fight for the South should be freed and given land. At the same time, however, he was a passionate Virginian and strongly for the Southern cause.
The last words of his diary are instructive: “… This is the sad thought that so many of my brave and noble hearted Comrades — who on that morning full of life and hope and with firm step and buoyant heart marched out with us — are now sleeping their last sleep on a distant battlefield or some quiet hillside or some yet more lonely and secluded spot which God only knows.”
Zimmerman’s requiem sentiments, it seems to me, are captured eloquently in the statue of the Confederate soldier. It should stay where it is.