By Colin Woodward
Robert E. Lee, who has been dead since 1870, continues to be a subject of much debate in the South.
In February 2017, the Charlottesville city council, by a 3-2 margin, voted to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from Lee Park. It is not clear when the statue will be removed or where it will be moved to. Lee Park is located a short walk from the main shopping area of downtown Charlottesville.
The statue was erected in 1924 in the latter days of decades-long Lost Cause commemoration in the South. The Lost Cause celebrated the Confederacy in books, articles, at reunions, and in the erection of monuments to men such as Lee, Jackson, Davis, and Stuart. The Lost Cause reached its zenith in the 1890s and early 1900s. It coincided with, and in many ways supported, the establishment of a Jim Crow South. By the late 1920s, with Civil War veterans dying and new political issues emerging, the Lost Cause faded away. The feelings behind the Lost Cause, however, have never truly disappeared. And the political environment of today surrounding the Lee statue is similar to that of the 1920s.
The Lee statue was made possible through the funds of Virginia financier Paul Goodloe McIntire (1860-1852). McIntire also provided money for the Stonewall Jackson monument in Charlottesville in Jackson Park, which was erected in 1921. McIntire was a native of Charlottesville who made his fortune in the stock market. He also attended the University of Virginia for a year before becoming a businessman. McIntire began his career on the Chicago Stock Exchange. He later moved to Wall Street and retired in 1918.
In retirement, McIntire became an active philanthropist who promoted UVA’s business program and also gave money to the fine arts. Born during the Civil War, McIntire sought to memorialize the two most celebrated generals of the war: Lee and Jackson. The creation of Lee Park was expensive and required the demolition of an entire city block in Charlottesville in order to construct it.
McIntire commissioned the Lee monument in 1917. The statue is itself was sculpted by New Yorker Henry Shrady, who died from an illness before it was finished. Italian-born Leo Lentelli completed the work on the statue.
The unveiling of the Lee statue drew 30,000 people, including VMI cadets, church leaders, and hundreds of Confederate veterans–including Giles Buckner Cook, the Virginia native who was the last surviving member of Robert E. Lee’s staff. May Walker Lee, the three year old great-granddaughter of General Lee, helped take the covering off the statue. Master of Ceremonies Judge Richard Thomas Walker Duke (1853-1926), a politician, editor, and UVA graduate, called little Mary the great granddaughter of the “greatest man who ever lived.” Reverend M. Ashby Jones, the son of Robert E. Lee’s chaplain, J. William Jones, gave a speech.
Also there was Governor Elbert Lee Trinkle, who had been elected in 1922. Trinkle was from Wytheville. It is tempting to think that Lee’s statue’s removal in 2017 happened in an unusually overheated American political scene, but Trinkle was governor in a time of uncertainty and transition. The 1920s saw the unprecedented national popularity of the Ku Klux Klan, which had its highest membership in that decade (Indiana had the largest number of Klansmen). Nativism and anti-immigrant feeling was in the political mainstream, while the Republican Party morphed from being the party of civil rights and economic protectionism (i.e., Lincoln) to the party of laissez faire big business (i.e., Coolidge). In the former Confederate states, it was the time of the Solid South: the Democratic Party and white supremacy ruled the day.
And yet, things were changing. Trinkle was the first governor elected after women were granted the right to vote. The Jim Crow system was decades away from cracking, but race, as always, was a touchy issue. The Klan marched in Washington in 1926. But despite the Klan’s national prominence, some black people in Virginia voted, owned businesses, and had a political voice. A few weeks before the Lee statue’s unveiling in Charlottesville, for example, Governor Trinkle gave a speech in Norfolk. The Norfolk Journal and Guide, an African American newspaper, criticized Trinkle for insensitive remarks at Hampton Institute. Trinkle felt he needed to assert his “southern” credentials. “God created me to fill one sphere and the Negro another,” Trinkle said, and he urged black citizens to “cross the line of demarcation and come to the white man’s level.” The Journal and Guide said his remarks left a “bad impression.”
Trinkle’s appearance in Charlottesville later that month went better for the governor. The 14 1/2 foot Lee statue was unveiled on May 21. Confederate veterans were there not only for the Lee Park celebrations, but the Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans of Virginia reunion. Two years previously, the Grand Camp was on hand in the city to witness the unveiling of the Stonewall Jackson monument at Jackson Park.
Few changes were made to Lee Park until recently. After a contentious vote on February 6 concerning whether to remove the statue, debate has continued.
On Saturday, February 11, Republican politician and gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart visited Lee Park. Stewart was confronted by those who defended the city council’s decision to take down the Lee monument. One protestor said it was “pretty despicable to have an outside person running for governor coming down here who doesn’t know anything about the community.” Stewart is a native of Minnesota who obtained a law degree at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. He is Chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors in northern Virginia. He served as the head of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Virginia. Stewart, who was fired by the Trump campaign in October, is now running for governor. Stewart said, “we’re going to take our state back and we’re going to take Virginia back and we’re going to stand up for our history and we’re going to stand up for our courage.” Protestors shouted, “white supremacy has to go!”
How would Lee himself have felt about Confederate monuments? Lee did not like to comment publicly about the war. He never wrote a memoir. For the most part, he shunned controversy about the war or efforts to memorialize it. In the summer of 1869, Lee was asked by David McConaughy to visit Gettysburg. Lee declined. He wrote McConaughy to say: “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife & to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
Clearly, the war was still fresh in Lee’s mind, not to mention the nation as a whole. And Lee might not have been eager to attend an event at the place where he suffered his most costly defeat. Most southerners would likely have agreed with Lee in not wanting to return to Gettysburg that soon after the war and at the behest of a Yankee. Only two former Confederate officers attended the reunion at Gettysburg in 1869.
It is unlikely that Lee would have encouraged the erection of monuments in his honor. But since he died long before enshrining Confederate heroes in stone and marble became commonplace, we can’t know what the general would have thought of the Lost Cause. Lee certainly would have disproved of the political divisions that monuments are capable of causing. Nevertheless, Lee will remain a controversial figure, and debates will continue concerning how to best preserve the general’s legacy, in Charlottesville and throughout the South.