Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council have dawdled enough. It’s past time for John Hunt Morgan to leave our courthouse square, where he should never have been enshrined.
Neither Morgan’s true history nor the fictitious, romanticized version that placed him at the center of our community justifies retaining his statue.
When the old courthouse, renovated at a cost of $33 million, reopens late this year it will be, as many have said, Lexington’s front porch, the place where our community welcomes visitors and residents alike. They should not be welcomed by a heroic Morgan in full Confederate military garb astride a horse and raised upon a huge pedestal.
According to The Kentucky Encyclopedia, Morgan, a slaveholder, joined the Confederacy after Kentucky declared its neutrality. He led guerrilla fighters on raids, including in Kentucky where he’s described as “pillaging” Lexington and “looting” Georgetown. After disobeying military orders and refusing to investigate outrages committed by his men, Morgan was relieved of command by the Confederacy.
But that’s not the version that landed the guerrilla raider on his pedestal. Instead, as Maryjean Wall explains in “How Kentucky Became Southern,” Morgan’s transformation into a romantic hero arose when a national movement to sanitize the Confederacy and slavery dovetailed with an effort to rebrand the Bluegrass from a fairly lawless western outpost into a bastion of southern gentility.
The “Lost Cause” bemoaned the defeat of the South and the loss of a mythologized culture of genteel manners, happy slaves and honor-bound soldiers. Lexington’s motive was a little more prosaic.
People in the Bluegrass seized on reinventing it as the fictionalized Old South, with its alleged charms and codes, to attract wealthy northerners to invest in horses and land here. Both ignored the horrible reality of human enslavement by glorifying those who fought to preserve it.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, with support from the equine industry and state government, raised the money to erect the statue of Morgan in 1911 — 13 years after the courthouse was completed and almost half a century after the Civil War.
The Urban County Arts Review Board, after months of study and input, recommended in November 2015 that the statue be moved, along with the 1887 statue of John C. Breckinridge, a Lexington native who was vice president of the United States but later joined the Confederacy, where he became secretary of war. That was put on hold as city officials investigated whether moving the statues would imperil federal preservation tax credits needed to finance the renovation.
Now, they are assured moving the statues won’t affect the tax credits and the courthouse overhaul is almost complete. The city must find a place to move the statues, and council must approve the move, before the city asks permission from a state board that oversees military statues. That group meets twice a year, the next time in November.
There was a time when civic leaders thought wrongly that we needed a fictionalized, heroic Morgan to define Lexington’s culture and character. That time is long past. It is important to acknowledge and study the real, terrible history of slavery and the Civil War, as well as the currents that led to the Lost Cause movement.
Morgan’s family home is nearby and open to the public; he will not be forgotten.
The more modest statue of Breckinridge, in civilian attire, could be used to interpret this state’s mixed loyalties during the Civil War. But Morgan arrayed on a huge pedestal will drown out more nuanced and complete accounts of our history and attempts to articulate a more inclusive future.