The first time I actually looked up at the statue of Robert E. Lee atop his Doric column at Lee Circle was a couple of years after I moved to New Orleans. I was riding the St. Charles streetcar with an old friend from college, and as we went around the circle, he looked up and asked incredulously, “Is that a statue of Robert E. Lee? I can’t believe that’s still here.”
I looked up to confirm it was actually Lee—and there he was, all bronze and stern with his arms crossed, imperiously looking north—and I replied, yeah, looks like it. In the grammar of urban life, statues of great men on pedestals speak an archaic dialect we’ve ceased to translate or even hear. We know they exist on a plane slightly above us—on pedestals, on horses, holding weapons—but they fall short when it comes to piercing the ground-level fog of the modern day. They’re urban furniture, possessed of all the interest of a footstool.
That certainly wasn’t the case when Lee’s statue was unveiled in February 1884, four days before Mardi Gras. A crowd of 15,000 gathered in what was until then known as Tivoli Circle, although a downpour sent many in the crowd scuttling to porches and beneath awnings shortly before ceremonies began. (As far as I know, no one then suggested this as evidence of divine displeasure at honoring Lee.)
The ceremony involved a 100-gun salute, and was attended by dignitaries that included the governor and both senators, the daughters of Jefferson Davis, former confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard, the justices of the state Supreme Court, and consuls from France, Austro-Hungary, and Mexico, among many others.
The encomiums to Lee were lavish. Mayor William Behan (himself a former major in the Confederate army) declared Lee to be “one of the purest and noblest men whose names are written in modern history,” adding that he was well endowed in all “attributes which might constitute a brilliant exemplar of highest civilization.” Associate Supreme Court Justice Charles Fenner hailed Lee for the “the purity of his life, [and] the moral grandeur of his character.” Then he spoke at great length of the legal right of the south to secede; he made no mention of slavery.
After the ceremony concluded, the 3,000 chairs were packed away, the grandstands were disassembled, and the statue commenced the long process of becoming invisible.
That is, until 131 years later, when a white gunman shot nine African Americans in Charleston on a June evening, prompting some governors to permanently lower the stars and bars, and, in New Orleans, thrusting the Lee statue again into a spotlight.
“Symbols matter,” posted Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Twitter, today’s orator’s stage. He suggested that “prominent city symbols” be revisited to see if they “reflect who we are today or if they ever really reflected who we were.”
Landrieu grew up in the city. He said he never thought much about Lee’s statue until last year, when hometown hero and jazz great Wynton Marsallis explained to him why he found it so offensive. “Let me help you see it through my eyes,” said Marsalis, as recounted by the mayor. “Who is he? What does he represent? And in that most prominent space in the city of New Orleans, does that space reflect who we were, who we want to be, or who we are?”
So last month, the mayor called for replacing the statue and renaming the circle. “Today is the day to start the discussion on replacing the Robert E. Lee monument,” he tweeted.
Not surprisingly, there has been considerable resistance. As of this week, nearly 20,000 people had signed a petition at change.org calling on the mayor to “cease and desist any and all talks that involve the demolition and re-naming of the Robert E. Lee historical monument.”
Others have invoked the slippery slope argument—if you rename this monument, where do you stop? New Orleans may not be a celebration of the confederacy, but it’s marbled with it, like gristle. There’s the Beauregard monument at the entrance to City Park, not far from the Jefferson Davis Parkway. There’s Palmer Park, named after minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer, who gained some fame for declaring it the duty of the south “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.” And there’s Calhoun St., named after John C. Calhoun, who once said that “we have never dreamed of incorporating into our union any but the Caucasian race. … Ours, sir, is the government of the white race.” How far down are the shadows cast? Should the highly regarded Isidore Newman School be renamed because its namesake once donated to a fund for the Beauregard statue, implicitly hailing the man who defended slavery?
Probably not. But as Landrieu said, “symbols matter.” And the Lee statue is a critical, central symbol. When it was proposed for its current location in 1877 (roughly as distant from the end of the Civil War in time as the toppling of Saddam Hussein is from us), the advocates made the case that Tivoli Circle was “central, accessible, conspicuous.” Boosters noted, “it is about the geographical centre of the city; it is topographically one of the highest points within the city limits; it is remarkably accessible by street cars and other means from every direction.” A mound was built to raise it even higher above this flat city, and a 10-foot promenade encircled it.
Essentially, Lee’s pedestal is the umbilical cord connecting the city to the Confederacy. And its removal makes this a single, fitting symbol of the city’s moving forward. It doesn’t have to be done with jeering crowds pulling on ropes followed by the beating of the fallen Lee with shoes. But brought down with dignity and some solemnity. Let the history and heritage of the confederacy quietly live on elsewhere. Symbols matter.
Mayor Behan might have been fine with this. Lee’s deeds, he said at the unveiling in 1884, “are his monument and they will survive and continue in remembrance long after this marble shall have crumbled into dust.”
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