“A Standing Protest”: A Brief History of the Robert E. Lee Statue in Richmond

The Lee monument in Richmond. Lee’s is the only statue on the avenue that faces south. Photos by Colin Woodward

By Colin Woodward

If you’ve been on Mars for the past few years, you might not have heard: Robert E. Lee monuments have been in the news. Things have been quiet lately on the monument front, at least when it comes to Richmond. But the Lee statue on Monument Avenue will continue to be Richmond’s most embattled landmark.

In the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville last summer, some commentators have remarked upon how Civil War monuments did not appear until long after the war. That’s true, but they were in the planning stages for years. Robert E. Lee died in October of 1870. Days afterward, Confederate veterans and others who sought to preserve the general’s memory organized efforts to immortalize him in Richmond.

Early Organization Efforts

In 1870s, two rival groups of Richmond men and women fought over the general’s legacy. In 1870, local ladies created the Hollywood Memorial Association–named after a Richmond cemetery that would become the largest Confederate cemetery in the South. The ladies hoped that they could build a Lee monument in Hollywood Cemetery, where Jefferson Davis, Fitzhugh Lee, Jeb Stuart, and other southern luminaries are buried.

Not long after the ladies of Hollywood organized, the male-run Lee Monument Association was formed, which included former generals Jubal Early and Fitzhugh Lee. Fitzhugh was the nephew of Robert E. Lee and later became the governor of Virginia. Early was a veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia. Robert E. Lee had fired Early in March of 1865, but Early always held his old boss in high regard.

Lee statue, March 2018

At a meeting in Richmond in November 1870, Early spoke about the need for a Lee monument. Early was not only an admirer of Lee, he became one of the most important architects of what became known as the Lost Cause, which glorified the Confederacy in print and marble.

A “Standing Protest”

Early said at the 1870 meeting that former Confederates owed it to themselves to “vindicate our manhood and purge ourselves of the foul stain [of defeat] by erecting an enduring monument to [Lee] that will be a standing protest, for all time to come.” Jefferson Davis also spoke at the meeting, saying that Lee fought not only for Virginia but the entire South. “He was ready to go anywhere, on any service for the good of the country,” Davis noted, “and his heart was as broad” as the southern states.

Jubal Early. Lost Cause architect and Lee booster

Fundraising went well. By early 1877, R. M. T. Hunter, the treasurer for the Monument Association and a former Confederate politician, reported the organization had raised $15,000 for the Lee statue. By October of 1877, artists submitted models for consideration, but it was not until much later that a plan was chosen for the Lee monument.

The Niehaus Model

In February 1886, The Ladies Association offered two prizes for the best Lee model. First prize ($2,000) went to Charles Henry Niehaus of Cincinnati. Second prize ($1,000) went to Moses Ezekiel, a Jewish sculptor and Richmond native, who had fought with his fellow VMI cadets at the battle of New Market.

Neither model was used. One critic complained that the horses in the models were wrong. The artists had chosen to represent Traveller as a Percheron, a steed originating in France, when Traveller was in fact an American Saddlebred. Jubal Early was so angered over the sloppiness concerning Traveller’s likeness that he threatened to blow up the statue with dynamite were it built wrong.

Niehaus’s model had other flaws. First, it was enormous. The structure, had it been built, would have involved not only a Lee statue but also a wide terrace and long stairways leading up to it. Greek revival columns would have greeted visitors at the base of the structure. The proposed monument was like something from the Roman empire, and it might have taken up a whole city block. His design was fantastic, literally and figuratively. And while Lee’s admirers were legion, a grand monument was not in keeping with the man who had no enthusiasm for monuments and preferred a tent (rather than sleeping indoors) when he was in the field. Also, the Niehaus model, as is, would likely have cost fundraisers more money than they ever could have raised.

The Niehaus plan for the proposed Lee monument. The enormous design was never used

Lee’s old employer got the jump on Richmond’s efforts to immortalize the general. In 1883, Washington and Lee University unveiled its Lee statue in the campus chapel. The sculptor of “Recumbent Lee” was Edward Valentine, a Richmonder. Some suggested Valentine would be a good choice for designing the Richmond monument, but it was not to be.

It took four more years before Richmond had made tangible progress on Monument Avenue. In May of 1886, the rival Ladies and the Lee Monument associations joined forces to form the Ladies’ Lee Monument Association. Members began debating where exactly to put the statue. Gamble Hill, Libby Hill, Monroe Park, the Soldiers’ Home and Chimborazo were considered. At the time, of course, the was no Monument Avenue to put monuments on.

Merci, Mercie

In June of 1887, the French sculptor Jean Antoine Mercie was hired to make the Lee statue (but not the pedestal; that was designed by another Frenchman, Paul Pujol). Four months later, the cornerstone of the monument was laid with the help of the Grand Lodge of Masons of Virginia. General Wade Hampton, a former general in Lee’s army and the hero of the vicious Crater battle, served as marshal at the ceremony.

With Reconstruction over and the United States having entered a “Gilded Age” of laissez faire capitalism, some southern cities were thriving. Richmonders were making concerted efforts to remake the city by supporting both preservation and progress. In 1888, the city opened its trolley line, the first in the country.

Richmond was epitomizing the New South, where new technology and industrial progress were emerging alongside enormous monuments to the past. The Lost Cause was taking on religious qualities. In 1889, Richmond legislators declared the Lee statue would be “perpetually sacred.” The city would become a mecca for those hoping to venerate the Confederacy.

Mercie’s sculpture arrived in Richmond from Paris on 1890 May 4. The sculpture took up four large boxes on two flat train cars. Three days after the statue arrived, a crowd estimated at 10,000 men, women, and children gathered at Laurel and Broad to pull it into place. People cut the ropes and kept them as souvenirs. By the 24th, the statue was on the pedestal.

Lee statue on Monument (2)
The Lee monument has long been an icon of the Richmond landscape. Here is a postcard from 2016 by Richmond artist Jeff Hansen, which I bought at Mongrel in Carytown

The Unveiling, 1890

On the 29th, the monument was unveiled. The crowd of onlookers, estimated at 150,000 people, was the largest ever seen in Richmond up to that time. The four mile long parade to the site included such Confederate luminaries as James Longstreet, John B. Gordon, Joseph E. Johnston, and Fitzhugh Lee.

Colonel Archer Anderson–a Virginian, veteran of major battles in the eastern and western theatres of war, and the son of Joseph R. Anderson, who operated the Tredegar Iron Works–gave a speech. Not surprisingly, Anderson lauded Lee as a stainless model, a hero, and a man of honor who fought for a righteous cause.

When it came to slavery, according to Archer, Lee saw the institution “as an evil which the South had inherited and must be left to mitigate and, if possible, extirpate by wise and gradual measures.” Abolitionists, Anderson said, were “fanatical and unconstitutional” in their pursuits. Anderson’s speech fit the Lost Cause template, which praised such men as Lee as defending a noble cause, but said such men had no interest in defending slavery.

Robert E Lee monument 1890

During the dedication, a crowd made a giant Rebel flag of red, white, and blue colors. A mock battle was held. The Rebel yell rang out on the avenue.

African American Response

Amid the pageantry, the African American community was not amused. The Richmond Planet was disturbed by the large and open embrace of the Confederacy, 25 years after the guns of Appomattox had fallen silent. The paper worried about the passing down of a Confederate legacy of “treason and blood.” The Planet was shocked at the lack of United States flags at the event and saw the erection of the Lee monument as a means (despite what General Lee himself had warned against) of reopening the wounds of war.

The human Confederate battle flag, made at the Lee monument dedication, 1890 May

The 1890s would not be a good one for African Americans. In 1896, the Plessy v. Ferguson sanctified legal segregation through its “separate but equal” doctrine. By the early 1900s, Virginia had solidified Jim Crow laws in its state constitution, which denied most qualifying African Americans the right to vote and assured facilities such as street cars were segregated.

By then, the Lost Cause reigned supreme and would dominate Civil War studies for decades. Monument Avenue saw the erection of a statue to Jefferson Davis (1907), Jeb Stuart (1907), Stonewall Jackson (1919), and Matthew Fontaine Maury (1929). When it came to marble sculptures, Monument Avenue was for whites only until the 1990s, when Arthur Ashe’s statue was unveiled–and not without acrimonious debate.

Freeman and REL.jpg
Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman salutes for Life magazine in the 1940s. Freeman apparently did this every day on his way to work. Note the fence around the monument


“Stoic and Unmoved”

Until recently, the Lee statue has avoided major controversies. In 1949, Richmonders debated whether public money should be used to illuminate the Lee statue at night (which it is). By the late 1980s, Richmond officials decided to remove a wrought-iron fence around the monument due to repeated damage from traffic accidents. In 2004, traffic patterns were adjusted so that vehicles circling the statue did not have to yield to those entering the roundabout. Through it all, the Lee statue remained, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted, “stoic and unmoved throughout the change.”

General Early’s “standing protest” endures.



Author: leefamilydigitalarchive

The Lee Family Digital Archive is an online repository documenting the Lee family of Virginia. The editor of the LFDA is Dr. Colin Woodward, a historian of the South and published scholar. The site, which is free and open to the public, is located at www.leefamilyarchive.org. The LFDA contains 4,000 letters, documents, books, legal papers, and references sources, covering more than 300 hundred years of Virginia and American history. The site is updated Monday-Friday and contains many items never before published. Please check us out on the web. Comments and suggestions are appreciated, and reference questions are promptly answered.

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