The Emancipation Memorial was raised in 1876 with funds donated by former slaves, which helps explain its longevity, but those donors weren’t consulted in the statue’s design. In it, Lincoln stands with a shirtless black man kneeling at his feet. Lincoln’s right hand rests on the Emancipation Proclamation, while his left hovers above the black supplicant’s head, as he’s freed from his shackles. In an era in which Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was placed on ever higher pedestals, the black man’s subordination reminded all viewers that although Lincoln freed the slaves, neither he, nor the society over which he presided, supported racial equality.
Frederick Douglass, who spoke at the statue’s dedication, reportedly expressed disappointment that the black model had not been given a more “manly attitude.” This emphasis on manliness is important, because representations of masculinity were as central to Civil War monuments as expressions of white supremacy.
Ties between Confederate memorials and white supremacy have been documented in many of the speeches given at monument dedications. Most notorious were Julian Carr’s words at the 1913 raising of the University of North Carolina’s “Silent Sam” memorial, toppled by protesters in 2018. Carr praised Confederate veterans’ defense “of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war,” referring to the Reconstruction period’s racist vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Carr also boasted in his speech that in 1865, “one hundred yards from where we stand . . . I horsewhipped a Negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.” This violent expression of masculinity illustrates how Southern chivalry toward white women often masked an underlying brutality toward black women, whether manifested in whippings or rape.
Meanwhile, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected hundreds of monuments celebrating Southern manhood, with Lee upheld as the ideal gentleman. In response, the Union promoted its own, less polished brand of masculinity, until erection of Civil War memorials became a sort of “Dueling Banjos” between North and South.
The South struck the first chords, erecting Lee’s perch in New Orleans (1884) and his six-story monument in Richmond (1890), where Lee was pronounced the “model of every manly and martial virtue.” Not to be outdone, Julia Grant built her husband a tomb in New York so grandiose that Washington and Lee University hatched designs to demolish little Lee Chapel, where Lee is buried, to build their general a bigger mausoleum. Eventually those plans faded, and Lee settled for his equestrian grandeur in Richmond, overlooking the construction of an avenue full of statues.
The Union then planned its own testosterone-packed avenue, giving the biggest commission on record — $250,000 — for a Grant memorial in a plaza originally designed with three equestrian statues honoring Grant, Gen. William T. Sherman and Gen. Philip Sheridan. The latter generals, reviled in the South for burning Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley, were eventually replaced with battle-scene sculptures, but no matter: Congress had already designated $100,000 for those generals’ separate equestrian monuments nearby.
Equestrian statues exuded masculinity; the initial designs for the Lincoln Memorial contained six — conceivable because the newly formed National Sculpture Society specialized in realistic statues. In the early 1900s, Paul McIntire commissioned three equestrians for Charlottesville from that society, including the Lee statue that sparked the 2017 violence. A fourth commissioned statue features Sacagawea crouched, face lowered, beside the tall-standing Lewis and Clark.
Today, Kehinde Wiley’s statue of a young black horseman with dreadlocks and Nikes, displayed outside Virginia’s Museum of Fine Arts, is posed to mimic J.E.B. Stuart on Monument Avenue and raise black manhood to equestrian heights. Meanwhile, Grant’s memorial, originally designed to anchor “a Place de La Concorde,” forms the eastern limit of Washington’s Champs-Élysées, with Grant and Lincoln’s memorials facing one another, while Lincoln’s back faces Lee’s beloved Arlington. And now that Lincoln is enthroned in his Parthenon while a black man rides proudly in Richmond, we surely can do better than the emasculated figure in the Emancipation Memorial. And if future statues are erected on the empty pedestals on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, readers of Richmond’s Style Weekly have nominated, among others, Elizabeth Van Lew, a Virginian who sacrificed all she had to support the Union.
Until then, viewers can contemplate the Peace Monument on the U.S. Capitol grounds. That memorial to Union sailors features four classically robed females, representing History, Grief, Victory and Peace. The male figures at their feet — Mars and Neptune — are infants.