Richmond’s colossal statue of Robert E. Lee was erected 25 years after the Civil War, but it was an early volley of a new war—this one, in Lost Cause propaganda, was the war the South would win.
After a long period of little monument-building following the 1865 surrender, Southern sympathizers turned the Lost Cause into a thundering declaration of identity by elevating their deceased leader into an icon to rival Jupiter. While he was alive, Lee expressed a distaste for such adoration. “I think it wiser,” he wrote in 1869 about a proposed Gettysburg memorial, “…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 engendered.”
Nevertheless by 1890, embittered Southern groups decided he should now be treated as the blazing hero of their resistance, a retrospective demigod who was by then too dead to argue. They hired a Frenchman (Antonin Mercié) to design the first major statue to depict the old general in a heroic, equestrian form, more Pantheonic than typical of a West Point grad, and they placed him high above a circle on Monument Avenue, a position that was intended to be both omnipresent and untouchable.
One of the people who loudly opposed the creation of the goliath was John Mitchell, the young Black editor of the Richmond Planet. As a city councilman, he had also voted against using government funds for it.
“The men who talk most about the valor of Lee and the blood the brave Confederate dead are those who never smelt powder or engaged in battle. Most of them were at a table, either on top or under it when then war was going on,” Mitchell wryly observed.
He warned the placement of the Lee statue handed down a “legacy of treason and blood” to future generations. “He [the African American] put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, will be there to take it down.”
The time has come.
This week, in response to the current American rebellion, Robert E. Lee is coming down.
It was the governor’s call. Richmond’s mayor also announced plans to remove the other Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue, which had been placed there with equal intentions to re-educate: President Jefferson Davis, “Stonewall” Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart. Americans will no longer have to conduct their daily business under their fiery eyes.
For years, people of every stripe have begged authorities to put these Confederate statues in a museum, like the artifacts of the events that spawned them. They were rebuffed under the bizarre claim that preserving history in this manner would somehow be erasing it.
Now, with the nation seized by protest and reform, Confederate statues across the South are being unceremoniously pulled down by ropes and furious crowds, righteous modern lynchings that rebut the ones that hypnotized the culture that put them up. They could have avoided these ignoble fates if they had just put them in museums years ago, as was suggested countless times, often tearfully.
The refusal to accommodate, to compromise, to listen—well, isn’t that an emblem of everything that sparked the 2020 rebellion to begin with?
History finally bounced back.
The Lee monument’s consecration remarks, in May of 1890, were delivered by Archer Anderson, the connected son of a local munitions maker (the statue was very nearly erected overlooking his family business) that had sold many guns and bombs to the Confederacy. Anderson tried to paint Lee as a merely a dispassionate arbiter of fairness. “He regarded slavery as an evil which the South had inherited and must be left to mitigate and, if possible, extirpate by wise and gradual measures.”
All right, then. Let’s indulge that disingenuous dedication depiction of slaveowner Robert E. Lee and see it to its logical conclusion.
I now leave it to my fellow Southerners to mitigate those Confederate statues. Now it is possible to extirpate them as foretold, to fulfill the destiny as laid out by the statue’s dedicator.
The remedy has certainly been gradual in coming; now it is wise, too.