The canonization of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee began shortly after 5 p.m., May 7, 1890, on the docks of the James River in Richmond. That’s when at least 10,000 citizens clamped 20,000 hands on ropes and hauled three huge crates a mile and a half up to the empty tobacco field above the city now known as Monument Avenue.
Inside the boxes, fresh from the sculptor’s studio in France, was the massive statue that would soon loom over not just the skyline of Richmond but the psyche of Virginia: the noble Lee mounted on his horse. It was a many-handed moment of popular acclaim that lifted Lee to new heights of esteem and helped germinate the growing perception of him as “the Commonwealth’s greatest son,” said historian Edward Ayers, who teaches at the University of Richmond.
“Lee had certainly been celebrated at the time of his death” 20 years earlier, Ayers said. “But in 1890, this was a remarkable public display that really began to put him at the top of the pantheon for white Virginians. People saved pieces of those ropes for the rest of their lives.”
In the 127 years since that day on the docks, Lee memorials have become fixtures across the country, especially in the South. Now they are coming down — often at night. In the wake of violence at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville — a gathering meant to protest the planned removal of a Lee statue — images of the general have been removed from pedestals from Texas to North Carolina to Baltimore.
On Saturday, the Lee statue in Charlottesville was once again the site of a protest by white supremacists and white nationalists carrying torches and chanting, “You will not replace us” and “You will not erase us.” The organizer, Richard Spencer, vowed that they will keep coming back to defend “these symbols of our history and our people.”
Nowhere is the retreat on Lee more fraught than in the Old Dominion, his beloved home state.
In Virginia, Lee tributes have included at least five high schools, two elementary schools, an Army base and a university. His name is stamped on both a state holiday and a trans-commonwealth highway that stretches from Rosslyn to Bristol. The Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington is a cathedral-worthy shrine that includes a statue of the general in eternal marble repose and his tomb one floor below it. The Lee mansion overlooking Arlington National Cemetery is a Park Service memorial that draws more than a million visitors a year.
That legacy is now under pressure all over the state. In Charlottesville, where officials are awaiting a federal judge’s ruling on plans to remove it permanently, city workers Wednesday covered the Lee statue with black tarp. A few hours later, a man approached with a knife and tried to cut off the shroud. “This is a desecration,” he declared, “and this cover needs to come down.”
In Arlington, residents are pushing the school board to strip Lee’s name from Washington-Lee High. Arlington County board members are seeking permission to rename the stretch of Lee Highway running through the county. R.E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, the historic Episcopal church where Lee once worshiped, is considering a name change.
Some of Lee’s own descendants, including Robert E. Lee V, have called for moving the memorials in the name of reconciliation, a virtue they say was their ancestor’s greatest final wish for the country.
And in Richmond itself, the former capital of the Confederacy, Mayor Levar Stoney (D) said last week that he was asking the city’s Monument Avenue Commission to examine the removal of some or all the confederate statues — including Lee’s. Asked to talk more about those plans, the mayor declined further comment.
For many white Virginians, Lee ascended to the very ranks of the hallowed founders of the republic: Washington, Jefferson, Madison. When the Virginia legislature got to pick two notable natives to honor in the U.S. Capitol, it was Lee, not Jefferson, they chose to stand forever with Washington in Statuary Hall. Only one of those choices sparked controversy outside of the commonwealth; the appearance of Lee in the Capitol of the nation he went to war with was condemned by many outside the South.
The two Virginia generals first had their names linked just after Lee’s death in 1870, when Lexington’s Washington College renamed itself Washington and Lee in honor of the general who had lived out his retirement as its president. In today’s contretemps, they’ve been conjoined frequently by opponents of removing Lee statues, including President Trump.
“So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump said at a combative news conference last week. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
Whatever role Lee plays in the wider controversy engulfing the country, he has a unique role on his home turf that will influence the debate within the commonwealth.
“Washington and Jefferson belong to the nation,” Ayers said. “Lee belongs to Virginia.”
The writer Roy Blount Jr., who wrote a 2003 biography of Lee, was on hand to watch a statue of the general being dismantled in New Orleans in May. Blount, noting that the famously upstanding Lee “wasn’t really a New Orleans sort of fellow,” said onlookers made more jokes than objections as the memorial came down. He predicted that wouldn’t be the case in Virginia.
“I imagine in Richmond there would be less laissez les bon temp rouler,” Blount said. “It would be more like someone trying to take down the statue of Louis Armstrong in New Orleans.”
The 1890 gathering of the Richmond crowd wasn’t spontaneous, and it wasn’t without controversy. The event was planned as both a practical way to haul the massive stone sculpture to its home and as a kickoff to the unveiling and dedication that would come three weeks later. John Mitchell, an African American member of the city council and editor of a black newspaper, condemned the project for celebrating Lee’s “legacy of treason and blood,” according to author Richard Schein in “Landscape and Race in the United States.”
But for white residents, the time was ripe that Monday to turn out for a mass benediction of Lee and the war effort he led. Twenty years after Lee’s death and 25 years after Appomattox, veterans were beginning to die in growing numbers and Confederate honor societies were springing up to memorialize them. The revisionist “Lost Cause” movement was gaining steam, and Lee — whose reputation for rectitude made him an acceptable icon even to some northern whites — was the perfect “marble man” to change the narrative of the rebellion from slavery to honor, Blount said.
“He enabled people to put a kind of gentlemanly High-Church face on the Confederacy,” said Blount. “It was a time when people were trying to establish the idea of white supremacy. You can bet the 20,000 who showed up were white people.”
Indeed so, according to The Washington Post’s front-page dispatch from the scene, under the headline “Drawn by Fair Hands.” A good number of those jostling to take part in the tug-of-Lee were women, young girls and babes in arms. “Little tots were carried out into the streets in their mothers’ arms, and their small hands placed upon the ropes,” the report said.
The next day’s Chicago Tribune described a festive throng, with aging soldiers in their battle grays and Confederate flags waving over the crowd. The massive crates containing eight tons of Lee and his horse were mounted on three wagons, each with 200 feet of rope attached in twin lengths. One was pulled by citizens, one by veterans and the third by women. Porches along the route were packed with onlookers, and so many people tried to join in the pulling that 700 more feet of rope was added.
“When the procession reached the monument pedestal, the crowd began to cut the rope,” the Tribune reported. “The police at first attempted to stop this, but their efforts were useless and the hemp was soon stored in pockets as souvenirs.”
Lee himself would have eschewed such relics and rituals, scholars say. He spoke against monuments as irritating “the sores of war,” and his modesty would have made him chafe at hero worship, Blount said. Nor would Lee have appreciated the appearance of white supremacists and neo-Nazis earlier this month to protest the proposed removal of his image from the park in Charlottesville.
“He would have thought of them as rabble,” Blount said. “He would not have liked to be honored by these roughnecks.”
But the seeds were planted for a flowering of Lee worship that is now under intense review. And no memorial may be harder to move than Lee’s towering image in Richmond — the one dragged there by “fair hands” and long ropes a century and a quarter ago.
This post has been updated.
Correction: An earlier version of this story did not make it clear that Lee’s statue and tomb at Washington and Lee University are on different floors of the Lee Chapel.
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