By Robert F. Murray
All artists in the Washington Metropolitan Area should resist any prejudicial objection to or effort to remove Appomattox from the center of Old Town Alexandria at the intersection of Washington and Prince Streets. We are not ISIS prowling about destroying all evidence of a people’s history and culture. Our sculpture was created as a serious, visible piece of fine art, be it one artist’s conception and extraordinary ability to visually portray the emotional response of surrender surrounding a noble cause, an American cause, with all its plusses and minuses.
Most every day I pass by this famous landmark reminding me to think, to grieve over other political and cultural problems that get thrown into the dumpster of the politically motivated advocators du jour. Although the sculpture’s sentiment is one of a surrender, it is an effort to portray the American characteristic to make honest amends, to stand up for time-honored values, face the seemingly unpredictability reality of new and better times ahead. A piece of art can carry many messages. The young man of Appomattox pauses and checks his and my own motives.
Created by sculptor M. Caspar Buberl and commissioned and erected by the Robert E. Lee Camp of the United Confederate Veterans in 1889, the form of the soldier was designed by John Adams Elder, who modeled it after a painting of the same title that shows a lone Confederate viewing the aftermath of the battle of Appomattox Court House, where Gen. Robert E. Lee ultimately surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant.
Buberi captured a moment in the way of a young man, a soldier, arms crossed, shoulders slumped, head bowed, without weaponry, hat in hand, reverently moved by thoughts of the South. This is an image of the great personal impact of loss, an ending to the witnessing of the chaos and slaughter of war. Not easy and intensely traumatic.
Appomattox is a fine work of art for our time. Its overall grayness down to its stone foundation, its aged bronze patina rightly facing South. But the inscription on the North side of its base says it all, “They died in the consciousness of duty faithfully performed.” Black and white men gathered in this spot in our Old Town in 1861 to march off to war.
Strange that Alexandria has so little public art given its reputation for art and artists. We have to keep what we have.
Pope Francis concluded his recent public visit to us saying, rather low-toned but reflectively, “Pray for me. Don’t forget.” It is said that the most invisible art is public art. Appomattox recalls all to pray for the times ahead. Take a closer look at it the next time you’re waiting for the light to change, and witness an unforgettable masterpiece of human expression.