The Robert E. Lee Monument

Mr. Otway S. Allen. Mr. Allen hoped that Monument Avenue as a residential area would attract the wealthiest and most prestigious Richmonders.

The site of the monument remains at the intersection of Monument and Allen. C.P.E. Burgwyn, the Richmond architect and engineer who planned the Avenue, created a central round area in this intersection. This circular area of grass is 200 feet in diameter, providing sufficient horizontal balance to the verticality of the monument. The two streets which meet at the statue are grand in size, each 140 feet wide, and the open space given to the monument establishes its centrality as the focal point of both streets. In his thesis, "The Planning, Sculpture, and Architecture of Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia" Cardin C. McGehee, Jr. describes the Robert E. Lee Monument as the "focal point around which all else revolves."

In 1887 the Lee Monument Commission chose Jean Antoine MerciÇ to be the sculptor of the statue. MerciÇ was a Frenchman who had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Augustus Saint Gaudens, who helped select the sculptor of the Lee statue, encouraged the designation of MerciÇ because they were both Beaux Arts-educated. Furthermore, Paris was considered the point from which all valuable art forms eminated, and it represented the sophistication and cosmopolitanism which American city planners were yearning to capture. Though the decision to have a Frenchman sculpt the statue of Confederate war hero Lee was controversial, the desire to distinguish Richmond as a cultured American city somewhat subverted the tension.

The monument is composed of two distinct parts -- the base and the statue. The base of the Lee monument was designed by Pujot, a French architect. The base communicates the arresting power of the monument as a whole. Stability in form is illustrated through the verticality of the base which is balanced by its wideness. The statue stands on an oblong pedestal: its rounded ends, facing north and south, are elaborately ornamented with the head of a lion in the center at the top. On the eastern and western sides of the pedestal, two ionic columns made of dark gray marble frame the bronze plaque reading "LEE". No other explanation was deemed necessary -- it may have even detracted from the power of the monument to explicitly denote more than those three letters. The statue of Lee and his horse Traveller rise high above the street. Lee sits erect and proud, loosely holding the reigns to the head of his bowing horse.

The bronze statue was cast in Paris and then shipped in crates containing its separate pieces to Jersey City, New Jersey. From port, the crates were sent to Richmond by rail. In order to move the crates to the site of the monument, they had to be loaded onto wagons and be pulled by ropes from the railroad. It was estimated that 1,000 men and boys volunteered for the job, responding to an article in the newspaper about the moving of the statue. Steve Clark relates, "When the job was over, the ropes that were used to pull the wagons were cut up into small pieces and given to the volunteers as a keepsake. It is said hundreds of those rope pieces still are stored in trunks all over Richmond."

The Robert E. Lee Monument was unveiled on May 29, 1890. An audience estimated between 100,000 and 150,000 came to the city to celebrate the statue's dedication. A parade lead by the current governor, Fitzhugh Lee, went through the city passing General Lee's former home. Close to fifty generals, the governors of the Confederate states, and 15,000 Civil War vetrans marched or rode in the parade from the downtown area to the statue. Crowds of onlookers cheered the parade often shouting the "Rebel Yell".


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