Robert E. Lee Monument

The Lee Monument stands at the center of what is today called “Lee Circle” a busy traffic roundabout for streetcars and automobiles. In the aftermath of the Charleston massacre of 2015, all symbols associated with the Confederacy have faced renewed scrutiny and calls for their removal have become commonplace. What follows—below and in the images for this entry—is the story of this monument’s origins and the conflicts it has inspired among New Orleans citizens.

February 22nd, 1884 was to be a day of celebration and remembrance in New Orleans. At the site formerly known as Tivoli Circle, an “immense platform” had been erected for participants in the day’s ceremonies, and grandstands were placed to accommodate thousands of onlookers and celebrants. After fourteen years of fundraising and negotiations, the Robert E. Lee Monumental Association of New Orleans was about to reveal the results of their labors: a lofty column topped with a grand statue of the “hero of the South,” Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

In attendance were local and visiting veterans of the Armies of Northern Virginia and Tennessee (many of whom had served under Lee) but also Union veterans who had served in the Grand Army of the Republic. In fact, like many monument ceremonies, the unveiling of the Lee statue served as a moment of reconciliation for white Americans. Union and Confederate veterans gathered together on the same platform, honoring a man many Americans, north and south, regarded as the epitome of military brilliance, bravery, and loyalty. When a torrential downpour interrupted the unveiling ceremony, a smaller group relocated indoors and the Association presented the statue as a gift to the city of New Orleans.

This monument to Lee was one of the earliest erected in the South. The Robert E. Lee Monumental Association of New Orleans was incorporated just a month after Lee’s death in 1870. The board of directors included some of the most prominent white New Orleanians and Civil War veterans: General G.T. Beauregard, William S. Pike and William M. Perkins. Charles E. Fenner, a justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court, was an officer of the association, as were numerous other men of influence and social standing in the city. Notably, this monumental association was composed entirely of men, an anomaly in southern postbellum memorial associations. The majority of Civil War monuments erected in this period were at the impetus and solicitation of all-female associations.

Relative to other Civil War monument committees, the Robert E. Lee Monumental Association accomplished its work with lightning speed. The Lee Monument in Richmond, Virginia was not erected until 1890 and took nearly twenty years to complete. Despite New Orleans’s weakened economy after the Civil War and regular outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera, the Association raised a majority of its funds from public donations and solicitations by the late 1870s. Many of the original members of the Association, however, died before the monument was completed.

The plan for the Lee monument was ambitious. New Orleans architect John Roy was secured to erect a massive earthen foundation, topped by a granite pyramid base and then capped with a sixty-foot tall marble column. New York artist Alexander Doyle was commissioned to create the bronze statue of Lee himself, for the price of $10,000 (1884 dollars, which equates to nearly a quarter of a million dollars in 2015). The statue was cast in bronze in six different sections. It stands sixteen and a half feet tall, and weighs over three tons.

Erected shortly before the World’s Cotton Exposition opened in December of 1884, Lee Circle (as it soon became known) became the site of civic celebrations, Civil War reunions, and other public events. Reunions of veterans in New Orleans in the last decades of the nineteenth century marched around Lee Circle, paying homage to Lee and parading for the public. Also used as a gathering point for more nefarious events, the Lee monument was rallying spot for the mob that was responsible for the lynching of eleven Italian men in 1891.

Like the monuments to Jefferson Davis and P.T. Beauregard, the Lee monument is slated to be removed from its perch on St. Charles Avenue by summer of 2016. For many New Orleans residents, these monuments to prominent men of the Confederacy glorify slavery, racism, white supremacy, and oppression, and should no longer occupy prominent places within the city. The city’s current plan is for the monuments to be removed and housed in a city-owned warehouse until a more permanent location can be determined.

Images

Programme of Ceremonies: Unveiling of Statue Gen'l Robert E. Lee, front cover

Programme of Ceremonies: Unveiling of Statue Gen'l Robert E. Lee, front cover

This is the front cover of the program used on February 22, 1884 at the unveiling of the Robert E. Lee monument. The ceremony proceedings were published by the Lee Monument Association. | Source: Lee Monument Association. “Programme of Ceremonies: Unveiling of Statue Gen'l Robert E. Lee.” New Orleans: Jas. Buckley &, Printers, 1884. Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University. View File Details Page

Programme of Ceremonies: Unveiling of Statue Gen'l Robert E. Lee

Programme of Ceremonies: Unveiling of Statue Gen'l Robert E. Lee

The interior pages of the program from the unveiling of the Robert E. Lee monument. A historical sketch called Ceremonies Connected with the Unveiling of the Statue of General Robert E. Lee describes the scene of the unveiling. It outlines the thousands of people in attendance, including the daughters of Lee and Jefferson Davis. The sketch also reveals that the ceremony was disturbed by a storm on February 22, 1884 that prevented the ceremony from proceeding as planned. In response, Hon. Chas. E. Fenner’s speech was published instead of spoken due to inclement weather. The sketch closes with a statement by New Orleans Mayor William J. Behan: “[Lee’s] deeds are his monument, and they will survive and continue in remembrance long after this marble shall have crumbled into dust; his great example will outlive the brush of the painter and the chisel of the sculptor, for great examples are indeed imperishable."For the full text of Ceremonies Connected with the Unveiling of the Statue of General Robert E. Lee see, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/chi.27470811.   | Source: Lee Monument Association. “Programme of Ceremonies: Unveiling of Statue Gen'l Robert E. Lee.” New Orleans: Jas. Buckley &, Printers, 1884. Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University. View File Details Page

Invitation to Unveiling Ceremony

Invitation to Unveiling Ceremony

The official invitation for the unveiling of the Lee monument. | Source: “Invitation to the Unveiling Ceremony.” 1898. Memorial Association Papers, Louisiana Historical Association collection. Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University. View File Details Page

Depictions of Robert E. Lee

Depictions of Robert E. Lee

These images appear in The Marble Man by Thomas Lawrence Connelly, which explores the various representations of Lee in portraits, photographs, sculptures, and monuments. Often referring to Lee’s admirers as a “cult,” Connelly explains how Lee’s image is glorified and deified through various narratives: “He became of God figure for Virginians, a saint for the white Protestant South, and a hero for the nation. To Virginians, he was the ultimate demonstration of superiority of their civilization. To the postwar South, he was the rationale of the Lost Cause, the proof of the argument that the righteous do not always prevail. And to the nation, Robert E. Lee became the tragic hero figure, who represented all that was good and noble in a bad cause." | Source: Connelly, Thomas Lawrence. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977. View File Details Page

Celebration of Robert E. Lee's 100th Birthday

Celebration of Robert E. Lee's 100th Birthday

This image depicts several white men paying homage to Lee on his 100th birthday in 1907, revealing that the monument remained an active space of memory after its initial construction. | Source: “Celebration of Lee’s 100th Birthday.” January 19, 1907. Memorial Association Papers, Louisiana Historical Association collection. Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University. View File Details Page

"Lee Acclaimed at UDC Session"

"Lee Acclaimed at UDC Session"

On Lee's birthday, January 19, 1954, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in New Orleans had a luncheon to celebrate “their beloved general.” The article describes that New Orleans Monument Commissioner Victor Shiro “…urged the Daughters to keep alive the traditions of the Southland so that New Orleans may never become merely a city of stone and mortar.” The commissioner goes on explain the restoration of Lee Circle and expressed pride in “keeping alive one of the city’s greatest traditions. It’s reverence to Robert E. Lee.” | Source: Times-Picayune, January 20, 1954 View File Details Page

"Bricks Thrown at Two Klansmen at Lee Circle; 3 Facing Charges"

"Bricks Thrown at Two Klansmen at Lee Circle; 3 Facing Charges"

Although New Orleanians continued to use the Lee monument to honor the birthday of the late general, this ceremony did not always go unchallenged. In this article, Roswell Thompson (self-identified as the “Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan”) and Rene La Coste (self-identified as the “Imperial Kludd of the Klan”) were celebrating Robert E. Lee’s birthday by laying out a Confederate flag and marching around Lee Circle. James N. Smith and Russell Wymen (both identified by the newspaper as “Negroes”) were charged with disturbing the peace by throwing bricks at the Klansmen. | Source: Times-Picayune, January 20, 1972 View File Details Page

Audio

The Colonel’s Dream

This sound clip is an excerpt from Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Colonel’s Dream. In the novel, Henry French, a Confederate colonel, moves North after the Civil War. After accumulating wealth in New York, French returns to Clarendon, his Southern birthplace. He finds rampant racial injustice still prevalent in Clarendon. In the excerpt, French ponders the appropriateness of and sentiment behind a Confederate monument he finds in his hometown. | Source: Clip chosen and recorded by Shelby Narike and Herbert Spurlock. View File Details Page

Video

BattleNolaRadio: “#Monumentslivesmatter New Orleans - Save the Robert E Lee/Confederate Monuments"

This podcast represents one side of the contemporary controversy over the removal of several Confederate monuments in New Orleans. This clip represents the viewpoint that the statues represent history, and should be defended against Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who calls them "nuisances," and from #blacklivesmatter protestors, who the podcast's title is intended to mock. | Source: To hear the full episode of this podcast, please see https://youtu.be/96XE440l9pU. View File Details Page

WDSU NEWS. “Lee Circle rally protests Confederate symbols”

This video clip represents the viewpoint of many who call for the Confederate monuments to be removed from the landscape of New Orleans. These voices contend that these spaces sustain the memory of the Confederacy in ways that celebrate the racist rhetoric of the Old South, and in ways that continue to divide the city along racial lines. | Source: For the original video clip please see, https://youtu.be/pVWGUsm19-E. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Amber Nicholson
Media curated by Shelby Narike and Herbert Spurlock, “Robert E. Lee Monument,” New Orleans Historical, accessed June 29, 2017, http://www.neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/1279.
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