In October 1887, thousands of Richmonders gathered at the western edge of the city to lay the cornerstone for a heroic equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee. The keynote speaker for the occasion anticipated a question that future generations might ask: ‘What mean ye by this monument to an enemy of the Union which you teach us to cherish and defend?’” The speaker, Lee’s wartime staff officer, Colonel Charles Marshall, answered his own question by explaining that Lee was, in fact, a defender of Constitutional liberty and the Union as it was before Abraham Lincoln destroyed it.
When the completed statue was dedicated on May 29, 1890, the keynote speaker on that occasion, former Confederate Colonel Archer Anderson, eschewed Marshall’s strident partisanship. Instead, he focused on Lee as a man of action, Lee as a defender of his state, and, in defeat, Lee as an apostle of national reunification. Anderson highlighted the Lee that everyone could admire.
Indeed, Anderson’s speech received accolades from white Americans all over the nation. The speech – and the monument that it celebrated – revealed that by 1890, many white Americans regarded Lee as a bona fide American hero.
By most objective measures, Lee’s prewar credentials as an American were impeccable. Son of a Revolutionary War general, he graduated second in the West Point Class of 1829, married the granddaughter of George and Martha Washington, and exhibited personal virtues reminiscent of Washington. Lee served with distinction in the Mexican War, won the respect of his superior officers, especially the U.S. Army’s commanding general, Winfield Scott, and returned to West Point as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy in the 1850s.
Unlike Scott and other Virginia-born officers of his own generation and unlike most of his own kinsmen, Robert Lee chose state over nation when Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861. As commander of the Confederacy’s most important army and architect of battlefield victories, Lee was responsible for preserving the life of the Confederacy – and conversely, extending the division of the United States – and was responsible for more American battle deaths than anyone in history.
Lee’s character and credentials made him the ideal man to represent the Confederate cause to posterity. Despite Lee’s own warnings against keeping alive memories of rebellion, he was destined to be memorialized in marble and bronze.
Immediately upon Lee’s death on October 12, 1870, a group formed to erect a monument in his adopted home town of Lexington, Virginia. Two groups of Richmonders – former Confederates and prominent women – mobilized to build an equestrian in Virginia’s capital city.
Over the next decade, the Ladies Lee Monument Association eclipsed its rival in raising funds. It also held a design competition (which failed to produce an acceptable model). Originally determined to erect the statue in Hollywood Cemetery, the Ladies in 1882 accepted the city’s offer of a prominent site on Libby Hill east of the city. In 1884, they announced a second design competition for that site.
The Virginia General Assembly tried through legislation to unify the groups under the effective leadership of the men. A later newspaper article observed with considerable understatement that “the two did not at once act in unison.” Lee’s nephew, former Confederate general and Virginia governor Fitzhugh Lee, more successfully unified the two groups in 1886.
As Sarah Randolph announced the selection of a design by Ohio sculptor Charles Niehaus to be built on Libby Hill, her male counterparts publicly expressed a preference for either Gamble’s Hill overlooking Tredegar Iron Works or a parcel of the Allen family property on the city’s western edge. Despite its apparent remoteness, the Allen property won the contest because of the promise of westward real estate expansion that would benefit the city – a point that Governor Lee made when lobbying City Council for $20,000.
The final selection of a sculptor of a sculptor also initially produced indignation. Frenchman Jean Anton Mercié had submitted a model for the third design competition that met with wide condemnation. A rival sculptor said that Mercié “represented General Lee as charging ruthlessly as a Cossack over dead and dying men[.]” But Mercié’s obvious talent impressed the judges, and Mrs. Randolph traveled to Paris to confer with him.
Despite the largely negative public responses to both the site and the sculptor, the long-delayed project finally hit its stride. The cornerstone was laid in October 1887; the grand stone pedestal – without the elaborate iron ornaments planned for it – arose in early 1890.
And in early May 1890, the bronze figure of Lee arrived from France. Thousands of people labored enthusiastically to drag the crates containing the statue from the railroad depot to the pedestal. The 3,000 feet of rope used for the job was cut into thousands of small souvenirs, as would be the cloth cover used to drape the statue before the May 29th unveiling.
Tens of thousands of people attended the unveiling. Thousands of former Confederates – many in uniform and carrying original flags – marched by unit in parade along streets lined with Confederate flags.
African-American editor and former city councilman John Mitchell, Jr., who had voted against appropriations funding the monument and continued to denounce it for dangerously perpetuating a spirit of rebellion, was not alone in his criticism. Others in the national press were incensed at the reported exclusion of the national colors from the unveiling ceremonies.
What was remarkable was the overwhelmingly positive or neutral national response to the event. National press coverage (syndicated or reprinted in papers large and small across the country) reported the history of the Lee monument with a distinct note of admiration and congratulations to Richmond for overcoming the many hurdles to erect such a grand, heroic statue.
Seventeen years later, the national media joined in the celebration of Robert E. Lee’s centennial birthday, hailing him widely as a national hero. The unveiling of the Lee monument in 1890 was not only the birth of Monument Avenue; it marked the beginning of a generations-long era in which white Americans celebrated as one of their own a man who had been, as Charles Marshall observed in 1887, “the most formidable enemy that the Federal Government ever encountered….”