Lee the Centerpiece of the Memorial Carving

Excerpt from Gerald W. Johnson's Undefeated


Johnson here describes the central physical, thematic, and spiritual place that Lee occupied in Borglum's carving design. He describes Lee as an archetypal hero, victorious even in defeat. Echoing Borglum's sentiments, every subsequent carver also placed Lee at the most prominent place in the carving.
From the moment that the work was first projected, the sculptor realized that his most difficult task would be carving the head of Robert E. Lee. It is the key to the whole conception, in every sense of the word. It is the key in the material sense, for it occupies the central position. A line dropped straight from the tip of Lee's hat is the plumb-line of the picture, dividing its length equally. It is the key to the engineering, for when Borglum abandoned feet and inches, he adopted as his unit of measurement the length of Lee's nose, and he was accustomed to instruct his workmen that such and such features were to be half a nose, or two and a quarter noses, long. It is the key to the technical artistry of the work, for Lee's face was to catch the fullest and best light. With this in mind, the position of the head was shifted three times, and Borglum went into intricate astronomical calculations to determine the exact point, considering the latitude and longitude of Stone Mountain, that would catch the most sunlight in the course of the year. There he placed the head.

But above all else and beyond all else, it is the key to the spiritual significance of the work. The glory of the South has always centered upon the figure of Robert E. Lee, and any true record of that glory must of necessity find its finest expression in him.

Yet, in the very nature of things, making a head of Lee is one of the most maddening tasks a sculptor can set himself. It is not by chance that King Arthur is rarely portrayed by artists, while Lancelots, Galahads and other lesser figures of the legend are innumerable. The blameless king must be a figure without contrasts. He was all nobility, all courage, all tenderness, all courtesy. His portrait must be with out shadows. Much the same is true of Lee. He was stainless and strong. He was a great soldier, but when the war was over, he became a greater citizen. If his record in public life is flawless, the record of his private life is beautiful. He was an admirable captain, but he was also an admirable father. When he was agonizing over his choice at the outbreak of the war, the intimation was conveyed to him that the supreme command of the Union army might be his for the asking, but that consideration apparently had not a feather's weight with him. Glory did not tempt him. After the war was lost, his fortune gone to the last dollar, and his profession closed to him, business men offered him wealth for the use of his name, not in any questionable enterprise, but in perfectly legitimate business; but they found him genuinely amazed that any one should think that he could take money that he had not earned. Wealth did not tempt him.

Such a character presents infinite possibilities to a sculptor, it is true, but it also presents immense difficulties. In addition to everything else, Lee was a handsome man. Consequently, any effort to present his portrait is easily diverted into the presentation of a lay figure, beautiful to look upon, but with no more humanityin it than there is in some majestic Greek god.

But Borglum did not want a god. He could not use a god. He was working upon a tragedy, not of individuals, but of millions, a tragedy vast, sombre, magnificent, but completely and intensely human. His theme was the story of innumerable hosts of plain men, caught in the web of a destiny that they did not understand and could not control and swept to their doom. This figure was to be the center and key of his composition, and in it must be summed up the essence of the whole thing. It must be a noble figure, of course, but it must not be divine, or it could not typify the South, which was, and is, completely human.

What he has done is to set Lee in the center of the picture, mounted on his famous war-horse, Traveler, and facing toward the East, the direction in which the long line of infantry is marching. But the infantry march downhill. Lee's eyes do not follow them. Instead, his face is slightly lifted, and he looks squarely at the rising sun. Jackson is talking to him, but he does not heed Jackson. Yet his face is attentive. He is listening. His face is thoughtful, grave, but calm. Whatever the significance of that distant voice, the soul of Lee is unmoved.

The same effect, in another art, is achieved by Sophocles in Oedipus at Colonus. The old king, blameless in intent, has been scourged by malignant fate through a life already far too long. Now he is approaching the end, bereft of royal power, bereft of luxury, bereft of friendship and honor and ease, bereft of sight. A blind beggar, he has wandered to Colonus, knowing that there he must die. Yet he is a king to the end. When the awful voice of the god calls to him from the haunted wood and even Theseus stands aghast, the old man lifts his head, and goes steadfastly to his indescribable doom. A craven, or a criminal hearing a sentence well deserved, would have cringed. But Oedipus, guilty only of having been caught in the web of destiny, lifts his head. At that moment the tragedy rises out of its wretchedness and horror and soars into the sublime.

That is the touch that Borglum has striven to work into the head on the mountainside. The whole picture is a somber one. It is a doomed army that marches across the hill, a doomed leader that sits his charger in the foreground. The battles toward which they march are to be lost battles, the flags that flaunt above them are to be trampled in bloody mire. Yet on they must go, for they are caught in that trap of destiny against which the gods themselves strive in vain.

Lee had fought it out in the night at Arlington years before. The time had come when he must choose. He must draw his sword against the Union or against Virginia, against the government for which his father had fought brilliantly with Washington, for which his kinsmen had striven mightily in council as well as in the field, for which he himself had fought in Mexico, or against the state which was his mother-land. No matter which side he chose, half his countrymen would call him traitor. No matter which choice he made, that choice meant agony. The night of Lee's decision must have taught him more than most men ever guess of what Gethsemane meant, for to an honorable man and a stainless patriot, the roads that lay before him both led to Golgotha. But in the morning, he came from the room where he had agonized alone with his allegiance sealed, and it never wavered more. He faced the eastern light with head uplifted.

So he faces it on Stone Mountain forever. Horrors unutterable may lie before him, defeat may await this splendid army that passes by, ruin may seize his cause, but in his soul he knows that he is guiltless of evil intent, and he lifts his head. Gravely, thoughtfully, proudly, he stands for his South. The voice that he hears calling him may be the voice of doom, but without a touch of the craven, without a trace of the criminal, he can not cringe. Hell may open before Oedipus, but the king is still the king. He lifts his head.




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