Albert Pike Statue

Gaetano Trentanove

Unveiled 1901

Surely the most heated issue with monuments in America today is the question of confederate monuments.  Many erected by highly partisan organizations long after their side lost the Civil War, they have often pushed to rewrite the war and deny the racist, inhumane, and treasonous drive to secession that motivated those who waged it.  Moreover, now more than two years after the horrifying events of Charlottesville, the persistence of these monuments is an issue with not just crucial political significance but even bears overtones for public safety, given the drive to violence they still can underwrite.  The outdoor, public monuments of Washington, DC (capital of the Union, after all) largely exclude the leaders of the opposition forces.

But there is one striking, covert exception.  At the corner of 4thand D streets, facing the exit of the Judiciary Square metro, is an imposing monument of stone and bronze, 27 feet high, enshrining one Albert Pike.   Work of a renowned Italian sculptor, Pike inhabits the sky above the viewer. His beard and flowing hair, as well as his right hand’s gesture, invite comparison with the figure of God the Father in Michelangelo’s famous painting in Rome’s Sistine Chapel.

Who is this near-deity? The monument is surprisingly laconic, giving only Pike’s name and life dates. Well below him on the monument, an allegorical female figure in bronze holds a staff bearing a shield, easily identifiable as that of the Freemasons. An inscription confirms that it was created by the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry and erected in 1901.  Eight single words on the monument’s base list a variety of roles, among them orator, poet, philosopher, jurist and, notably, soldier (though not commander).  But placing Pike and the span of his life on public, federally-controlled land enshrines much more than a Mason.  There are other words that might also belong on the base: notably traitor and racist.

Pike was an almost divine figure to the Masons.  Having joined in 1853, he protected, nurtured and fundamentally remade the Masons’ Southern Jurisdiction, Masonry’s original home in the US and one of its two divisions covering the entire country.  Pike actually lived in Washington’s Masonic headquarters at the end of his life and is today literally entombed in its current vast edifice on 16thstreet.  A thick, official modern history of the Masons from 1861 to 1891 (the year of Pike’s death) mentions him on virtually every page.  This same history portrays Pike on its frontispiece: but not in the garb of a Mason at all, but that of a Confederate general.

Pike’s Confederate service record is appalling, even to Confederates.  The only battle at which he commanded a sizable number of troops was the “disaster” of Pea Ridge.  That isn’t my term but that of Arkansas historian J.G. Fletcher, who states Pike “had perhaps done more to produce the disaster at Pea Ridge than any other man on that field.”  Not least, there were reports of atrocities committed by the fighters specifically under Pike’s command.  A larger view is that of James McPherson, a definitive Civil War authority “…the battle of Pea Ridge was the most one-sided victory won by an outnumbered Union army during the war.”

Pike’s shameful military record has always haunted his monument.  For days before its consecration on October 23, 1901 the statue had been wrapped with an American flag, as if to smother it in patriotism.  The day of the ceremony, Congressman James D. Richardson of Tennessee and others went out of his way to address, and neutralize, the matter. Richardson had sponsored the 1898 legislation to provide federal land for the statue.  He was also, what a surprise!, the Masonic Grand Commander who served as Pike’s successor on the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite Temple.  Yet a different voice, a contemporary newspaper editorial, stated “the act of erecting such a monument [to Pike] in the [federal] reservation would be a disgrace to every Union soldier.”

But monumentalizing Pike’s life invites onto the pedestal even more that is deeply unsavory: the entire racist impetus that did not disappear after the Confederate defeat, and still adheres today.  Pike had also been a leader of the virulently anti-Immigrant Know-Nothing Party and went on to edit a pro-Klan newspaper in Memphis (the very state in which the KKK was founded).

Most historians and biographers of Pike (except those sponsored by the Masons) mention to one degree or another the shadowy Ku Klux Klan in connection with Pike’s words and actions.  Because of these associations, the statue has been repeatedly picketed, starting in the late 1980’s.  There is a continuing drive to remove it from public federal land, which has been stymied only by the complexities of government bureaucracy, and a DC official’s understandable hesitation before the federal behemoth.

Strikingly, the Masons have made clear they don’t want the statue at their headquarters a mile or two, despite its vast, empty public plaza, and the fact that Pike is literally entombed inside the building.  Which brings up the question of what the Masons dothink about their forbear. In May 2018, the head librarian of the current Masonic temple told me that in the early 1990s the Masons had read all relevant literature and found nothing that supported Pike’s having any Klan affiliation.  This is puzzling to an independent researcher.  It doesn’t take much work to find Michael and Judy Ann Newton’s 1991 The Ku Klux Klan: An Encyclopedia, which declares unequivocally that Pike was “an early Klansman and co-author of the KKK’s original prescript”.  Allen W. Trelease’s meticulously researched work of 1971, White Terror: The KKK Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction is only slightly more circumspect, stating Pike “may well have affiliated with the Klan”, finding him “sympathetic with the Klan’s stated objectives.” These statements and other similar ones are based on considerable documentation and careful weighing of existing evidence.  More than one early history of the Klan identifies Pike by name as a central and founding figure.

Pike’s monument is the only one to a Confederate in outdoor space in Washington.  There’s a big slew inside in the US Capitol building, where Southern state representatives long had prerogative to enshrine their state’s confederate heroes.  But even this collection is changing with the times.  All of which goes to show, that even though monuments seem vast and immovable, they are really anything but.