As of August 2016, there were still more than 1,500 public commemorations of the Confederacy, even excluding the battlefields and cemeteries: 718 monuments and statutes still stood, and 109 public schools, 80 counties and cities, and 10 U.S. military bases bore the names of Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other Confederate icons, according to a tally by the Southern Poverty Law Center. More than 200 of these were in Virginia alone.
And one sits in the center of Charlottesville. It was commissioned exactly 100 years ago, a gift to the city from a local philanthropist, to honor his parents with a physical incarnation of Southern ideals. But the statue was hardly the only contemporary effort to enshrine and defend these ideals. As it was being commissioned, sculpted, and erected, the second Ku Klux Klan was surging through the country. In Charlottesville, the local Klan gave $1,000 to the University of Virginia’s Centennial Endowment Fund in 1921, funds it gratefully received; there was a second Klan chapter for the students on campus.
The statue stands 26-feet tall, despite its oddly small pedestal. “Let it stay that way,” urged a speaker at its dedication. “The planet as a pedestal would be too small for Robert Edward Lee.” It was unveiled in 1924, as the conventions of the Confederate Veterans and Sons of Confederate Veterans met, with “the greatest procession that ever threaded its way through the streets of Charlottesville.” The Boy Scouts policed the route; the National Guard and governor marched; the president, board, faculty, and students of the university joined in. The man who introduced the ceremonies praised the “deathless devotion” of the veterans, who had fought “at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg,” and now worked “to keep the record of Confederate heroism free from the stain of calumny!”
It was less a dedication than a canonization. The master of ceremonies called Lee “the greatest man who ever lived.” The president of Washington and Lee proclaimed him “a Christian saint.” Lee, he explained, embodied “the moral greatness of the Old South,” with its “unusual combination of manly courage and womanly tenderness, its habitual tenderness toward the weak and helpless.” (When three slaves escaped, Lee had them tied to posts and whipped—50 lashes for the men, 20 for the woman—and then had their backs washed with stinging brine.)
His defenders today insist that Lee’s heroism lay not least in his laying down his sword when the war was done, deciding to “promote harmony once he recognized defeat.” The speakers at the dedication likewise stressed Lee’s role as a peacemaker; one went so far as to imagine the statute depicted “not the lurid splendor of the battlefield,” but instead, Lee riding to Lexington to begin his tenure as a university president.
Yet this is not what the statue depicts. Not this one, nor the others. Where are the statues of Lee seated at Appomattox, signing the terms of that surrender? Where are the marbles and bronzes of Lee the college president, wearing civilian clothes, ensconced behind a desk piled high with paperwork? Why is this peacemaker always immortalized girded for war?