Author’s note: Perhaps you may have read this article before. If so, do note that it has since been edited to reflect more about the discord the plans for the monument brought to the city as well as how its placement has continued to glorify the South’s lost fight – this being the first of many monuments honoring the Confederacy to be erected in this city and other localities of the Commonwealth and other states. The monument has been a reminder of the effort behind the Confederacy’s role in the War Between the States as well as a defender of the defeated within the Union ever since. This sculpture alone permitted this Commonwealth and eventually other states in the Union to build more of them to commemorate the Lost Cause and because of that, the monument and what it represents has been – counter to what the speaker said at the unveiling – a “record of civil strife”. In fact, it’s been much more, as it’s the symbol that has kept the “strife” going between blacks and whites.
The first monument erected on Richmond’s Monument Avenue was the Robert E. Lee Monument. Located in Lee Circle (within the intersection now known as Allen Avenue and Monument Avenue), the statue, commemorating the South’s Lost Cause was unveiled on May 29, 1890 to much fanfare and controversy. The Lee Monument has been a vital focal point of the city’s landscape since its dedication that day. As a dedication to the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, this monument has also been the representative for the glorification of a dark and evil past in this city and much of the South. Since the South lost the war, the massive statue has been a symbol to the driving factor of division between blacks and whites in this city. For many years, until recently, it was featured as the city’s logo.
The decision to erect a monument to honor General Robert E. Lee had been discussed among leaders of the former Confederate states since his death in 1870. Under the management of the Lee Monument Association, Governor Fitzhugh Lee (General Lee’s nephew), and other state
officials, progress was made towards development. By 1887, a location for the monument was determined. Otway S. Allen, owner of the area just outside the city limits west of Richmond, offered a parcel of his land. The Commonwealth of Virginia eventually took over management of the project and has owned the monument since.
Renowned French sculptor, Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercié, whose work includes the Francis Scott Key Monument in Baltimore, was commissioned to design the monument. His elaborate marble and bronze depiction of Lee atop of his beloved horse, Traveller, was accepted by Association members and other associates close to the project. The equestrian statue stands sixty-feet high, including the pedestal. City Engineer C.P.E. Bergwyn, who also worked as the consulting engineer for the Association, designed the plans surrounding the statue and further development of the area to include sidewalks and trees along the planned street expansion.
As the country strove to reunite within the first twenty-five years after the war ended,
controversy regarding the close involvement of the statue from Richmond and the Commonwealth to honor a Confederate general erupted. Municipal funding was provided for a portion of the monument as well as improvements to the lot around Lee Circle, escalating concern that Richmond may have preferred to return to the antebellum era. John Mitchell, Jr., one of the first black councilmen in Richmond and the editor of the Richmond Planet, declared the venture to be a treacherous act. Additional debates involved the city’s fiscal backing of a project outside of the city limits. In 1892, the monument was brought into the city via annexation.
On the morning of the statue’s dedication, a parade over four miles long, led by Governor Lee, took place through the city to Lee Circle. Thousands of people, including veterans of the Civil War, from across the country visited the former Confederate capital to witness this long-awaited event. Colonel Archer Anderson, whose father headed Tredegar Iron Works, was chosen as the principal speaker of the dedication. In his speech (later published as “Robert Edward Lee: An Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Lee Monument” in the Southern Historical Society Papers), Colonel Anderson expressed his admiration for Lee, as well as encouraging gatherers to regard the monument as “not a record of civil strife, but as perpetual protest against whatever is low and sordid in our public and private objects!”.
Soon thereafter, former Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston, to the marvel of many and the dismay of others, pulled the cord to remove the enormous cover and Richmond received the Lee Monument. Nearly twenty years later, in spite of the fact that the South and its cause had lost the war, additional monuments to honor the memory and service of Confederate leaders and soldiers were erected in the city and subsequently in other cities in the state and around the country. They have not only been commemorations to the leadership of the men, but they have also been ongoing symbols of the Confederacy, its defense of maintaining slavery as a way of life and its economy, its logic behind racism against blacks in this country, and its separation for that time from the United States.