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Defeated, heroized, dismantled: Richmond's Robert E. Lee Monument

The Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia, is the last standing Confederate tribute. It's a symbol of the Lost Cause myth, portraying the Civil War as unrelated to slavery. The statue, chosen by a women's group and placed by a men's committee, embodies Southern chivalry and stability. However, today it's covered in public graffiti. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Beth] We're in the city of Richmond, Virginia on Robert E. Lee Circle, part of Monument Avenue. And we're looking at the last monument to the Confederacy that still stands. The Confederate general and idol, Robert E. Lee. - [Sarah] The monument is 60 feet tall. The statue itself, about one third of that. And he sits a top of horse who reminds us of his horse, Traveller. - [Beth] So Robert E. Lee had a famous horse named Traveller. And he was much beloved by those who embraced the myth of the Lost Cause, the idea of the Civil War having nothing to do with slavery. - [Sarah] Robert E. Lee really becomes the center of the mythology of the Lost Cause. He becomes the symbol of everything that the Confederates felt that they had done right. He is an able military commander. And he is revered as the quintessential Christian and Southern gentleman. - [Beth] So in the late 19th century, a number of organizations got together to figure out how to commemorate Robert E. Lee here in Richmond, Virginia. - [Sarah] And the plan to build this monument kicks off in the 1870s. And there are three different major interest groups. One is a group of veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia led by General Jubal Early. One is a group of prominent women who are members of a Ladies' Memorial Association. And then the third group is headed by the then governor of the State of Virginia, James Kemper. The women are very interested in having a statue that is a prominent work of art. And the men, for the most part, want a statue that is a clear likeness of their leader. - [Beth] These conflicting desires get reconciled. A sculptor named Mercie is hired. - [Sarah] There are a series of design competitions, one led by the women, one led by the men. Mercie does not actually win any of them, but the women's group was spearheaded by the northern sculptors, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John Quincy Adams Ward. And Saint-Gaudens got Mercie to submit a second design after his first one was laughed out of town and convinces the women to select him. - [Beth] The first plan was to place this memorial near the capitol building in Richard. - [Sarah] But instead, while the women got to choose the sculptor, the men's committee ultimately chose the site. And they chose this spot and built this monument as the beginning of a land speculation that was to become Monument Avenue, the storied street of monuments to Confederate leaders. - [Beth] This begins this series of monuments that will go up on Monument Avenue, the center of this Lost Cause mythology. - [Sarah] And so much of that mythology, I think, is centered directly in the monument that we're looking at here. - [Beth] We're in this tradition of equestrian sculptures that go back to Ancient Rome, through the Renaissance, and into the modern era, this way of commemorating great generals. - [Sarah] What we're looking at is a general who is in complete command of his mount, of his army, of his cause, and is a completely stable representative of that cause. - [Beth] And that stability is communicated by the use of a pyramidal form that helps give the sculpture a sense of the eternal, that it will be here forever. - [Sarah] So many equestrian statues, the horses might be rearing, or they might be lifting one foot, prancing along seeming very spirited. But instead, what we have here is Robert E. Lee's head as the apex of the pyramid, which you can then follow directly down through the horse's left front leg and left rear leg, which both create a pyramid. But then the two right legs are also in little pyramids with the legs that are on the outer side. The statue is extraordinarily stable. All four feet are on the ground. The horse is completely calm, and he is completely calm on top of it. - [Beth] And so that sense of Southern chivalry, of calm nobility. But today, as we look at it, below that, the chaos of public graffiti. - [Sarah] Then that is so incredibly striking. Before the summer of 2020, this statue communicated such stability and such permanence. Even if you don't believe in the Lost Cause at all, there's something seductive about it. Monument. Because of the fact that we've grown up in this Western tradition, we are trained to understand what the sculpture is telling us without even thinking about it. And other than the graffiti that we're looking at in front of us right now, there really hasn't been an effective countermeasure suggested to keep these monuments in place, but disrupt that kind of seductiveness that makes us believe in them whether we want to or not. (light piano music)