The first monument erected on Richmond’s Monument Avenue was the Lee Monument. Located in Lee Circle (within the intersection now known as Allen Avenue and Monument Avenue), the statue, commemorating the South’s Lost Cause, was unveiled on May 29, 1890 to much fanfare and controversy. The Lee Monument has been a vital focal point of the city’s landscape since its dedication that day. For many years, until recently, it was featured on the city’s logo.
The decision to erect a monument to honor Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, had been discussed among leaders of the former Confederate states since his death in 1870. Under the management of the Lee Monument Association, progress was made towards development. By 1887, a location for the monument was determined. Otway S. Allen, owner of the area just outside the city limits west of Richmond, offered a parcel of his land.
Renowned French sculptor, Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercié, whose work includes the Francis Scott Key Monument in Baltimore, was commissioned to design the monument. His elaborate marble and bronze depiction of Lee atop of his beloved horse, Traveller, was accepted by Association members and other associates close to the project. The equestrian statue stands sixty-feet high, including the pedestal. City Engineer C.P.E. Bergwyn, who also worked as the consulting engineer to the Association, designed the structure set to surround the statue and further development of the area to include sidewalks and trees along the planned street expansion.
As the country strived to reunite within the first twenty-five years after the war ended, controversy regarding Richmond’s support of the statue honoring a Confederate general erupted. Municipal funding was provided for a portion of the monument as well as improvements to the lot around Lee Circle, escalating concern that Richmond may have preferred to return to the antebellum era. John Mitchell, Jr., one of the first black councilmen in Richmond and the editor of the Richmond Planet, declared the venture to be a treacherous act. Additional debates involved the city’s fiscal backing of a project outside of the city limits. In 1892, the monument was brought into the city via annexation.
On the morning of the statue’s dedication, a parade over four miles long, led by Fitzhugh Lee, the governor of Virginia and a nephew of the general, took place through the city to Lee Circle. Thousands of people, including veterans of the Civil War, from across the country visited the former Confederate capitol to witness this long-awaited event. Colonel Archer Anderson, whose father headed Tredegar Iron Works, was chosen as the principal speaker of the dedication. In his speech (later published as “Robert Edward Lee: An Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Lee Monument” in the Southern Historical Society Papers), Colonel Anderson expressed his admiration for Lee, as well as encouraging gatherers to regard the monument as “not a record of civil strife, but as perpetual protest against whatever is low and sordid in our public and private objects!”
Soon thereafter, former Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston pulled the cord to remove the enormous cover and Richmond received the Lee Monument.
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