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.