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

Antonin Mercié, Robert E. Lee Monument, 1890, bronze (removed from Monument Avenue, Richmond Virginia, September 9, 2021) This video was recorded in July 2021. speakers: Dr. Sarah Beetham and Dr. Beth Harris

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Key points

  • The massive equestrian sculpture and base that made up this monument were erected to commemorate General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the U.S. Civil War. For Confederate veterans, wives, and lawmakers, Lee was the picture of the noble southern general and the perfect subject for a monument to the Lost Cause (this rose-colored ideology emerged in the years following the Civil War, perpetuating the falsehood that the war was fought to defend the Southern states’ rights instead of the institution of slavery and heroizing the efforts of Confederate soldiers and leaders). 
  • The monument relies on a tradition of equestrian imagery of military leaders that dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, becoming a well recognized symbol in Western culture of strength and command. As an example of this genre, the Lee sculpture exudes a particular sense of calm and stability, due to the pyramidal composition that captures the general and his horse in a moment of measured pause and control of his situation. 
  • During the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, activists added graffiti to the monument’s base and agitated for the removal of all five sculptures of Confederate generals on Monument Avenue (a goal which was accomplished by September 2021). These acts can be seen as a referendum on the Lost Cause narrative and served to disrupt the permanence conveyed by the sculptures.

Go deeper

The Lost Cause, entry from Encyclopedia Virginia

The Lost Cause and Confederate Memory

Confederate Monuments and the Black Lives Matter Movement: Interview with Sarah Beetham, Ph.D. Public Art Dialogue 7, no. 2 (2015)

Sarah Beetham, “Confederate Monuments: Southern Heritage or Southern Art?” Panorama (Volume 6, Issue 1; Spring 2020)

Confederate Monument Interpretation Guide (2016, Atlanta History Center)

“On Monument Avenue”, a resource produced by the American Civil War Museum

Kevin M. Levin, “Richmond’s Confederate Monuments Were Used to Sell a Segregated Neighborhood,” The Atlantic  (Jun 11, 2020)

Smarthistory video on “Monument Avenue and the Lost Cause”

Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy (2019, Southern Poverty Law Center)

“The Neutral Ground” (PBS POV documentary from July 2021)

Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (University of California Press, 2011)

Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, new ed. (Princeton University Press, 2018)

More to think about

Consider potential responses to Sarah Beetham’s question from the end of the video: what might be an “effective countermeasure… to keep these monuments but disrupt that kind of seductiveness that makes us believe in them, whether we want to or not”?

To enrich your discussion, you may want to watch the Smarthistory video on Kehinde Wiley’s 2019 sculpture Rumors of War, also in Richmond, Virginia.

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