Virginia authorities are expected to announce next week which historical figure is to replace Gen. Robert E. Lee in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, where the statue of the top Confederate battlefield commander has stood for more than 100 years.
Every state is allowed two statues in the hall and Lee’s replacement will join Virginia’s other historic figure, President George Washington. Virginia’s Commission for Historical Statues in the U.S. Capitol voted earlier this year to replace Lee as numerous monuments to Confederate leaders were being taken down nationwide amid growing criticism of efforts to honor men who fought to defend slavery.
Public suggestions for Lee’s replacement include civil rights figures and other national leaders, including General George Marshall, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute who went on to provide critical leadership in the Allied victory in World War II and in the reconstruction of post-war Europe.
Marshall’s inclusion in Statuary Hall has been promoted, in large part, by biographer David L. Roll, author of George Marshall: Defender of the Republic and The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler.
Roll recently spoke to HistoryNet about his push for the Marshall statue and why “if anyone should be standing at the elbow of George Washington in the United States Capitol Statuary Hall collection, it should be Marshall.”
Virginia has two representatives in the Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. One is of Robert E. Lee, the other statue is of George Washington—which is quite a juxtaposition. Can you tell me about your involvement in advocating for a statue of George Marshall to replace that of Lee?
Lee is going to be removed—there’s no question about that. There’s a commission appointed by Governor [Ralph] Northam being run out of Richmond, the state capital.
Since I wrote this book, George Marshall: Defender of the Republic, I’m sort of the person who knows a lot about Marshall these days. It took me almost five years to write the book, so I know about Marshall’s background, character, and accomplishments. I just took it upon myself—when I heard about the statue commission—to get involved in that process. So that’s what I’m doing. It’s kind of fun.
There is no statue of Marshall in the U.S. Capitol or in the area except for a rather plain grave marker (in Arlington National Cemetery). I just participated in the dedication of the Eisenhower Memorial and Eisenhower wouldn’t have been Eisenhower without Marshall. Marshall was his mentor and allowed him to become supreme commander of Overlord (the Allied invasion of Normandy), which put him on the map and gave him a stepping stone to the presidency.
I just decided, well, “I’m going to support him,” so I wrote an op-ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch that kicked it off.
I pointed out that Marshall was not a civil rights leader. His mission was to win [World War II] as quickly and efficiently as possible and to help organize and implement the peace as Chief of Staff of the Army. Marshall basically won the war and then fought to win the peace. His accomplishments resonate today in terms of the Western Alliance.
Who else has been involved in this process with you?
I asked some of my acquaintances like General [David] Petraeus, General Stanley McChrystal, General [Carter] Ham, the head of the American Association of the United States Army, among others, to consider posting a comment recommending Marshall as the quintessential Virginian. That, if anyone should be standing at the elbow of George Washington in the United States Capitol Statuary Hall collection, it should be Marshall.
I just got a copy of a comment submitted by Professor Philip Zelikow, a prominent University of Virginia history professor, who submitted quite an elegant comment on Marshall.
Is anyone else besides Marshall being considered?
As of now, the leading set of comments by Virginians is they don’t really want Lee replaced, or, if he is taken out of there, they do not want anyone to replace him. In second place, in terms of the number of comments, is George Marshall, and then in third place are civil rights advocates, because the governor of Virginia has been on record as saying he would like to have a statue of a person that represents a break with Virginia’s racist and slaveholding past.
There are two leading and deserving candidates: One is Oliver W. Hill Sr., an African American lawyer from Richmond who helped argue the Brown v. Board of Education case; the other candidate is a woman named Barbara Johns, who at the age of 16 led a student boycott over a dilapidated African American school back in 1951. That became part of the Brown v. Board of Education case that Oliver Hill, among others, argued before the Supreme Court.
There’s going to be a virtual hearing on December 16 with the commission set to make their recommendation.
In your book title you describe Marshall as the “Defender of the Republic.” How fitting would it be for him to have a place within Statuary Hall?
It’s Virginia’s choice. Does Virginia want to have the most consequential soldier-statesman since George Washington? George Marshall has been one of the few people to be compared favorably to Washington. Do they want somebody that liberated Western Europe? Who helped to destroy the Nazi regime and the Japanese militarists? Do they want somebody like that? Or do they want a civil rights advocate who does represent a break from Virginia’s past, but who is not as well-known and probably doesn’t have anywhere near the record of lifetime accomplishments that Marshall had? It was also his character that makes him so revered today.
A lot of people said he always wanted to have that battlefield command, but he wouldn’t express this view. Now that, in terms of character, says a lot about Marshall. Henry Stimson (Secretary of War under presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman) had an apt proverb from the Bible that expressed Marshall’s character, his selflessness, his self-control: “He that ruleth his own spirit is better than he that taketh a city.” That’s from King James. I love that quote. Marshall believed that there was a moral code not to express his desires.
He knew that if he’d asked for the command [Supreme Allied Commander]—and I believe this—Roosevelt would have given it to him. But his character was such that there was a moral red line he would not cross.