Description and Context
The Robert E. Lee monument, located at the center of a small park in downtown Charlottesville, is a bronze sculpture on a granite pedestal, the two together standing approximately twenty-six feet high, twelve feet long, and eight feet wide. Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War and became an important symbol of the Lost Cause in the decades that followed the surrender at Appomattox, is depicted astride his horse Traveller, in uniform, and holding his hat in his right hand. The east face, or front-facing portion, of the pedestal features an eagle surrounded by oak leaves, while the opposite face adds to that a wreath of laurel. The sides of the pedestal read, “ROBERT EDWARD LEE 1807–1870.” The monument and the park were both gifts to the city from Paul Goodloe McIntire, a Charlottesville philanthropist and commodities trader. It was the last of three statues and the first of four parks that McIntire gave to Charlottesville.
At the time of McIntire’s gift, the City Beautiful Movement had popularized the erection of monuments across the United States, often in a Beaux-arts or neoclassical style that was already common in Charlottesville. After the Rotunda fire in 1895 at the University of Virginia, the building at the center of Thomas Jefferson‘s design had been rebuilt with a Beaux-arts portico, while the sculptors Moses Jacob Ezekiel and Gutzon Borglum had contributed to the university likenesses of Homer and Jefferson and a tribute to the fallen pilot and alumnus James Rogers McConnell. This boom in monuments also can be credited for the creation of Monument Avenue, in Richmond; the Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, in Georgia; and Mount Rushmore, in South Dakota—the latter two the work of Borglum.
The Civil War played a central role in many of these public artworks. While the war and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment officially ended the enslavement of African Americans, the period from the 1880s until the 1930s witnessed the retrenchment of white supremacy across the South. State legislatures passed Jim Crow segregation laws and disfranchised black voters, white mobs lynched thousands of black men, and President Woodrow Wilson re-segregated the federal government. At the same time, monuments to figures such as Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who in 1921 also received a park and statue in Charlottesville, helped underscore the importance of Confederate heritage and its touchstone, white supremacy. For this reason, many historians have viewed these statues, and this Lee sculpture in particular, not only as means of remembering the Civil War but also of responding to the political and social issues that were urgent early in the twentieth century.
Virginia was a case in point. Just a few months before the Lee statue was unveiled, Governor E. Lee Trinkle signed into law the Racial Integrity Act, aimed at protecting whiteness from intermarriage and other perceived dangers. Both Lee and Jackson parks were strictly whites-only according to the terms of McIntire’s deeds to the city, and just days before the unveiling the local Ku Klux Klan burned a large cross on Patterson’s Mountain near Charlottesville and then paraded through the city. “The march of the white robed figures was impressive,” the Charlottesville Daily Progress reported on May 19, 1924, “and directed attention to the presence of the organization in the community.” Two years earlier, on August 23, 1922, the Daily Progress had reported that the KKK’s mission included the “rigid preservation of white supremacy” and while the Charlottesville chapter was not the state’s largest, “it numbers among its members many of our able and influential citizens.”
On May 28, 1917, Paul McIntire purchased 45,435 square feet of land in downtown Charlottesville. A full city block bounded by Jefferson and Market streets and First and Second streets northeast, the lot was the site of the Southall-Venable house, once owned by Charles S. Venable, a mathematics professor at the University of Virginia and an aide-de-camp to Lee during the Civil War. Over the next several years, McIntire oversaw the house’s demolition and the creation of a whites-only park. By late October 1917 he also had commissioned a statue of Lee from Henry Merwin Shrady, a self-taught but accomplished sculptor from New York City who had long been at work on the Ulysses S. Grant memorial in the U.S. Capitol.
On November 18, 1917, McIntire’s aide, W. O. Watson, communicated to his boss that Shrady had agreed to a payment of $30,000 and promised to deliver three models of the statue. The first would be a sketch of Lee on Traveller, the second a one-third-sized model of the sketch, and the final a full-sized model in clay. The statue then would be cast in bronze and assembled in Charlottesville. Shrady envisioned that even the bronze would be symbolic. “If possible,” he wrote to Watson, “I wish you could send me some Confederate cannons to be used as bronze for the casting as a matter of sentiment.” Such artillery pieces were rare, however, and none were ever made available.
Shrady subcontracted the production of a granite pedestal to the architect Walter Dabney Blair, a native of Amelia County and an alumnus of the University of Virginia who had just designed and built the university’s Cobb Chemical Laboratory and the McIntire Public Library in Charlottesville. Blair created his part of the monument on time and within budget, using Lloyd Brothers Memorials of Washington, D.C., and invoicing the artist in October 1920. Shrady, meanwhile, had fallen behind. In June 1920 he reported that he was at work on the one-third-sized model. “I am going to make this the best thing I ever did,” he wrote to McIntire, “as I am a great admirer of Gen. Lee.”
More than a year later, a letter to McIntire from his aide Duncan Smith voiced concern with Shrady’s rendering of Lee. “I am hopeful of a very much finer figure and face of Lee when it is finished,” Smith wrote, passing on the artist’s assurance that the full model will “handle the likeness … much better.” A few months later, on April 12, 1922, Shrady died. Just fifty years old, he had been seriously ill for at least a year, and McIntire quickly transferred the commission to another artist: the painter and sculptor Leo Lentelli, a native of Bologna, Italy, who was then best known for The Savior with Sixteen Angels at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York.
Lentelli and McIntire communicated about the status of Shrady’s work and agreed on $4,825 as the price for completion. The artist then began conducting research on Lee and Traveller and praised Shrady’s ability to capture the two in perfect proportion. On January 5, 1924, Lentelli paid the Roman Bronze Works of Brooklyn, New York, for casting the statue in bronze. The final work was signed, “Conceived by Shrady—Executed by Leo Lentelli SC. 1924.”
Lentelli arranged for the statue to be shipped from New York on April 18, 1924. It arrived on April 27 at Norfolk, where it was loaded onto the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and transported to Charlottesville. It was placed on its pedestal at the center of Lee Park on May 3 and hidden from view under a large Confederate battle flag pending an unveiling ceremony.
McIntire asked three groups to take charge of the statue’s unveiling: the United Confederate Veterans (UCV), the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The first two arranged to hold the annual reunions of their Virginia divisions in Charlottesville May 20–22, 1924, making the unveiling a centerpiece of the event. On the evening of May 20, speeches at the Jefferson Theatre heaped praise on Lee and McIntire. The SCV commander-in-chief, W. McDonald Lee, was a newspaper editor from the Northern Neck, the state’s fish and game commissioner, and probably a Klan member. He argued for continued conciliation between whites, North and South. “Time assuages grief and animus,” he said, “and the day has gone when as a small boy we knew our erstwhile foe as nothing but ‘Dam-Yankees.'” He also complained about the portrayal of the South and the Confederacy in some histories, taking partial credit for having a textbook removed from Virginia schools because it acknowledged the sexual assault of enslaved women.
The unveiling was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on May 21. Many businesses closed for the event and thousands of participants paraded from the University of Virginia down Main Street to East Fifth Street, then to Court Square, and from there to Lee Park. Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute had come by train from Lexington and were joined by two companies of the 116th Infantry and their band; the Richmond Howitzers; the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, wearing their distinctive white shako helmets; mounted police; veterans; and dignitaries such as as the mayor, Governor Trinkle, and Edwin Anderson Alderman, president of the University of Virginia.
The Reverend Dr. M. Ashby Jones, whose father had been Lee’s wartime chaplain, spoke briefly about the general’s importance not only during his life but in the present day. Sixty years after Appomattox, he said, “there is one figure silhouetted against the background of flaming fierceness which grows larger and more distinct as the fires of war subside.” His loyalty to Virginia and its traditions ought to be a guiding star, Jones argued. That is the wisdom he can dispense to new generations building a New South. “Go back into life and teach and live what I have taught and lived,” Ashby imagined Lee saying, “and lo, I am with you always.”
The monument was then presented to the city of Charlottesville on behalf of McIntire by Henry Louis Smith, president of Washington and Lee University, after which Mary Walker Lee, the general’s three-year-old great-granddaughter, pulled the flag away and revealed the statue. Alderman accepted for the city and another round of speeches commenced.
In 1951, Charlottesville’s city council rejected two proposals, one to install a parking garage beneath Lee Park and another, submitted by the Albemarle Garden Club, to erect iron picket fences around the statues of Lee and Jackson. On June 19, 1996, the Lee monument was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register, and on May 16, 1997, to the National Register of Historic Places. The application for the latter designation notes that the “Robert Edward Lee Sculpture remains undisturbed in its original location. Sentiment in Charlottesville will undoubtedly keep it there, for the monument is a unique memorial to the most eminent Confederate hero of all and an outstanding example of the figurative outdoor sculpture of the late City Beautiful movement.”
The sculpture was never unique, however, but one of thousands of public art pieces installed across the South to celebrate the Confederacy, and sentiment in Charlottesville did indeed begin to change. In 2012, at a reading by the historian Edward L. Ayers sponsored by the Virginia Festival of the Book, the city councilor Kristin Szakos suggested that Charlottesville should consider either removing the Lee and Jackson statues or adding additional monuments that acknowledge African American history and slavery. “By the gasps around me, you’d have thought I’d asked if it was okay to torture puppies,” Szakos told the Daily Progress. The council did not act on this recommendation, but over the next few years the political climate shifted.
In 2015, the white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Pictures surfaced of Roof holding a Confederate battle flag, prompting debate over the flag’s meaning, a debate that eventually expanded to Confederate monuments. In March 2016, Charlottesville’s vice mayor, Wes Bellamy, proposed the Lee statue be removed. “I’ve spoken with several different people who have said they have refused to step foot into that park because of what that statue and the name of that park represents,” Bellamy said in a press conference. “And we can’t have that in Charlottesville.” Zyahna Bryant, a fifteen-year-old student at Charlottesville High School, initiated a petition that decried the statue’s “selective display of history” and also called for its removal. A counter petition proposed keeping the statues and adding another in honor of Julian Bond, a civil rights leader and professor at the University of Virginia.
In April 2016 the city council appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces to make recommendations about the Lee and Jackson statues. On December 19, 2016, the commission issued a report advising the council to remove the Lee statue to the city’s McIntire Park while keeping the Jackson statue in place. On February 6, 2017, the council voted 3–2 in favor of removing the statue and of renaming the park. On March 20, the Monument Fund, Inc., the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and eleven individuals filed a lawsuit in Charlottesville Circuit Court seeking to block the removal. On May 2, the court issued a six-month injunction on its removal.
On May 13, the white supremacist Richard B. Spencer, a graduate of the University of Virginia, led a torch-lit rally in the park, since renamed Emancipation Park, shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. On July 8, echoing the Klan parade from 1924, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, from Pelham, North Carolina, rallied around the Jackson statue, and then, on August 11–12, white supremacists, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, members of the Klan, and the so-called alt-right rallied on the Lawn at the University of Virginia and in Lee Park. On August 12 they violently clashed with counter-protestors, one of whom was killed when a car was driven into a crowd of people. Nineteen others were injured. In December 2018 James A. Fields Jr., a twenty-year-old from Ohio, was convicted of the first-degree murder of Heather D. Heyer, a thirty-two-year-old Charlottesville resident, and other related offences. He was sentenced to life in prison. Two members of the Virginia State Police also died on August 12 when their helicopter crashed southwest of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport.
A week later, on August 20, the city council voted to shroud the Lee and Jackson statues with black tarp. A judge ordered the coverings removed in February 2018. That summer, the city renamed Lee and Jackson parks for a second time since the violence of the year before, from Emancipation and Justice parks, respectively, to Market Street and Court Square parks. In July 2021, the Lee statue was removed from Market Street Park. In December 2021, the Charlottesville City Council voted to donate the statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which proposed to melt it down and use the material to create a new public artwork.