A North Carolina man will hold a 17-hour vigil in front of Charlottesville’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Thursday while dressed as a Union soldier in an effort to educate others about the Civil War.
William Thorpe, the sole orchestrator of the “One-Man Stand” and founder and director of the University of North Carolina Walk for Health, will finish out a semester-long project inspired by the university’s removal of its Silent Sam monument in Chapel Hill.
The statue, erected in 1913, was toppled by protesters in August and then moved by university officials to an undisclosed location. The pedestal was later removed, and the ground where the statue stood was covered up with grass.
Thorpe said he began his campaign on Jan. 24 as an effort to both educate the public on what Union soldiers fought for during the Civil War and to advocate for the placement of a statue of a Union soldier in place of Silent Sam.
“The Union soldier is not getting enough awareness, and I wanted to lobby UNC officials for a replacement statue,” he said. “Logically, the best replacement would be a Union soldier.”
For his One-Man Stand, Thorpe said he would hold watch every Thursday near where the Silent Sam statue had once stood, talking to passersby about Union soldiers. In general, the response has been positive, he said, with most people expressing an interest to learn more.
For the final day of his 105-day campaign, Thorpe said he wanted to bring his message to “Silent Sam’s boss” — Lee, in the form of Charlottesville’s statue. His campaign also will end less than two weeks shy of a May 21-22 meeting of the UNC Board of Governors, during which they are expected to hear a new plan for the fate of the Silent Sam monument.
Thorpe said his efforts and those of activists in Chapel Hill were spurred on by the Aug. 12, 2017, white supremacist Unite the Right rally and the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer. The rally was ostensibly prompted by Charlottesville City Council’s vote to remove the statue.
A lawsuit filed against the city and city officials over votes to remove the Lee statue and a statue of fellow Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is still pending.
“We were all shocked by what happened in Charlottesville,” Thorpe said. “It just seemed right to end my campaign with a prayer vigil in the place that helped prompt it.”
As a black man, Thorpe said it’s important to him that people don’t mistake him for a supporter of the Lee statue, and so he plans to carry a large American flag with him. In addition to the flag, he said he will read portions of the Bible and build a small wall made up of 17 bricks to represent “a Union-run prisoner-of-war camp holding Confederate soldier captives.”
Thorpe said he already has made city officials and police aware of his plan, which prompted the abbreviated vigil. Initially, he had planned for a 24-hour vigil but opted to cut it short after learning the park closes from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily.
Sgt. Tony Newberry confirmed that the Charlottesville Police Department is aware of Thorpe’s plan and said there are no plans to patrol the park any differently than usual.
“The Charlottesville Police Department’s enforcement and policing practices are not dependent on ideologies or politics; therefore, our patrol response to tomorrow’s vigil will not be altered,” he said Wednesday.
Though Thorpe may be the first person to “hold watch” of the Lee statue dressed as a Union soldier he is not the first person to don a Civil War uniform by the statue in order to garner attention.
Just a few days after the Unite the Right rally, another North Carolina man, Allen Armentrout, came to Charlottesville dressed as a Confederate soldier to “honor and defend” Lee.
Armentrout said he completely disagreed with the views expressed at the Unite the Right rally, but his appearance so soon after the violent weekend went over very poorly with grieving city residents, drawing a large, irate crowd. In the end, no one was arrested or detained.
Thorpe will begin his vigil at 6 a.m. Thursday in Market Street Park.