In this throwback to June 2007, Harry Kollatz, Jr. spent a little quality time with the bronzed Marble Man.
During my time at Lloyd C. Bird High School in Chesterfield County, a great teacher named Steve Cormier took us history nerds of the Civil War Club (some of whom are now friends of 30-plus years) on camping trips to various battlefields, from Gettysburg to Antietam. He brought the conflict’s history alive for us while hiking across silent fields.
A stray comment during an editorial meeting recently led me to a similar experience. My mission? Spend 24 hours at the Gen. Robert E. Lee Monument, speaking with whomever showed up about the man, his legend, the statue, its context and, yes, the fact that the sculptor Jean Antoine Mercié switched out Lee’s mythic steed Traveller for a French thoroughbred.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s birth, on Jan. 19, 1807. The statue is owned by the state, which finished a $500,000 makeover in December.
The Lee Monument hasn’t gleamed like this since its May 1890 unveiling. Misty-eyed romantics are sure to be moved to offer brow-touching salutes, as his hagio-biographer, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Douglas Southall Freeman, is supposed to have done every day on his way to his Richmond News Leader office, just as salutes of a singular kind may be served up by those who don’t subscribe to the Lee Mystique.
During the day, friends fetched me a copy of Emory M. Thomas’ Robert E. Lee biography for reading in the dormant stretches as well as a cooler full of bottled water. My pal Tad Burrell also delivered coffee and some little chocolate doughnuts, noting that “nobody should start 24 hours with General Lee without coffee and doughnuts.” For authenticity, I might’ve stuck with hardtack, coffee and dried pork. Next time.
After weeks of planning and the rainout of one proposed date, unbeknownst to me, the day I eventually picked, April 21, turned out to be Confederate Heritage Day.
Somewhere Gen. Lee must have been having himself a good laugh.
Our Hero, But We Don’t Know Why
On a diamond-perfect morning, at about 8:30 a.m., I slathered on sunblock, adjusted my Stetson straw fedora, poised my pen and took a seat with Gen. Lee.
Two overall observations from my time with the general: (1) The Lee Monument is a frequent subject of photographs, and (2) drivers in the roundabout that encircles it go a little nuts. No accidents occurred during my watch, but horns blew, tires screeched and frequent curses were spat from open windows.
Talking with visitors during the course of my stay, I’d hear quite a few references to pride, Southern heritage and history in particular, how the world would be better off if Lee’s perceived virtues were practiced by today’s leaders. Nobody agreed with the slavery part. Toward dusk, I approached Bob and Carol Grasby, a couple from Stratford, Ontario — that’s Canada — who nonetheless identified with Lee. The day before, they’d visited the Lee ancestral manse, Stratford Hall, though Robert E. Lee didn’t spend much time there.
“He’s our hero,” Carol said. “But I don’t know why.”
“I always favor the South,” Bob added, while admitting, “I feel guilty. The Lees and their mansions and lifestyle.”
“Great if you had slaves,” Carol concluded.
Lee’s participation in the “peculiar institution” wasn’t unusual for members of his class. Still, 80 percent of Confederate soldiers didn’t keep slaves. That meant wealth, and most Southern white men didn’t have it. Like most conflicts, this was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.
History shows that even after more than half a million dead, emancipation, and the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, African-American enfranchisement devolved into Jim Crow and “separate but equal.” Even after the bloodbath, the nation still couldn’t get it right. More men and women had to march and die, and even more after that.
Just a Man on a Horse
I chatted with Miste Payne and James Troublefield, taking the air on the gleaming north-side steps of the monument. Their shiny bikes were parked in the grass.
Troublefield, an African-American, shrugged when asked about the monument. “It’s as good a place as any for a statue. It’s just a man on a horse.”
Buddy Thomas, an Ashland resident who grew up on Harvie Street in the Fan, was visiting Monument Avenue in advance of the heritage parade planned for later that day. He served 14 months in Vietnam as a combat-intelligence specialist.
“Robert E. Lee felt he was compelled to do the honorable thing, to the best of his ability,” Thomas asserted. “Nobody can say anything more about it than that.” Noting that slavery can’t be condoned, he gazed toward the big Lee plaque and observed, “But one can go to countries a few hours by air from here and see where it is still functioning.”
After 1 p.m., Confederate Heritage Day roustabouts descended like worker bees on the Lee Circle grass to install flags and pennants. A cluster of onlookers, some there for pride, others for puzzlement, assembled on the grass and curbs at Allen and Monument.
Jonathan Wheelock and his friend Michele Vento were among those gathering around Lee. Wheelock, a VCU music major, is from Connecticut, and he was curious about what this kind of event might look like. “Being a Northerner, you hear ‘Confederate Heritage Day,’ and what springs to mind is a Klan rally,” he said.
Rob and Elizabeth Austin were there just to watch. Rob, a vice president at the Martin Agency, was working for the company back when it was headquartered in the nearby Shenandoah Apartments. They’d seen this event before, and he had been struck by its pageantry and “understated pomp.”
Rob acknowledged that “The Marble Man” (the title of historian Thomas Lawrence Connelly’s critical examination of the mythology surrounding Lee) indeed had his cracks but stressed that Lee’s conduct after the war is how people should understand him. He instructed the young men of Washington College to become good and productive citizens of a united nation. The South lost. Acknowledge, and move on.
Eric Goodridge carried a framed image of the monument’s May 29, 1890, unveiling that’s been in his family ever since. Goodridge’s great-great grandfather fought with the Virginia 6th Infantry, and he may be among the crowd visibly straining over the assembled heads and shoulders to see on that far-off spring day.
Not everyone was as excited to see Lee unveiled. John Mitchell Jr., a city councilman and the firebrand editor of the African-American weekly the Richmond Planet, was outspoken in his disapproval, stating that the statue was an exercise in over-romanticized nostalgia, conducted by those who never fought in battle but “were at a table, either on top or under it, when the war was going on.”
During the course of the four-hour unveiling, an estimated 150,000 people participated. Pieces of the ropes used to pull down the sheets were kept like holy relics.
Minutes before 2007’s parade, a massive Stars and Bars strained at its ropes as a bespectacled African-American man circled the statue in his pickup truck and shouted, “I’m free! I’m free! Thank God!” His voice was more amused than angry.
The skirls of bagpipes playing “Dixie” pricked up the ears. The motorcycles cranked up and roared around the monument. The flags were eye-poppingly bright and big. Period dress was the norm, though one artillery unit hauled its cannon with an SUV. There were faux generals on horseback. A truck carried a crudely written sign that wondered aloud about the lack of a Civil War monument on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Watching with enthusiasm from her seat on a low brick retaining wall was Rachel Novella Breadon, an African-American woman peering up from underneath a floppy tiger-print hat. She came upon the festivities without knowing about them.
“I think it’s beautiful,” she exclaimed. “The women are absolutely amazing. They’re all so very well prepared. They’ve gone through so much work to make it look accurate.”
The banners held high, the clopping horses, the women in hoop skirts, the men in kilts, they all went by, and in short order, the flags near Lee came down and were gone, as though they had never been there, as if the whole thing had been just a lunchtime illusion.
Infinity and Beyond
Following the parade, one person who stopped by told me that I was at the wrong place. I should’ve been pulling my time at the new Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue in Shockoe. Her point was well taken, but I think I would’ve been lonelier.
Three friends draped themselves on the warm granite of the lower pedestal, sunning like salamanders. Erin, a lissome redhead from Charlotte, N.C., was visiting her friend Greg Appert, a VCU medical resident, with fellow North Carolinian Roger Stone.
Stone explained that the only thing he knew about Lee was that his horse’s name was Traveller.
I told him about Mercié’s horse trading.
“That’s not Traveller?” Stone exclaimed, shaking his head. “I want my money back!”
So many faces fell when I imparted this myth-busting information. That, and the idea that some obscure public-statuary iconography is responsible for the way the generals are sitting, or that the horses’ legs are raised or not to indicate who died in battle or didn’t, is all just hooey. But people want to believe.
I interrupted A.J. Johnson on his way across the grass. Johnson is from what he considers the West End, that is, around Meadow Street. He’d been passing Gen. Lee all his life but confessed to not knowing much about him, except that he is a sometimes-controversial figure.
“I guess it depends on which side you’re on, doesn’t it?” he said. “I don’t know if he was a racist. I’ve been told he was an a--hole, and I’ve been told he was a decent person. I don’t want to be entirely down on the cat. But I’ll say this much: It’s a hell of a statue. I mean, this is forever, man, this is for infinity.”
After dark, West Point Elementary School kindergarten teacher Krissy VanMegroet sat on the steps of the monument, contemplating a powerful message delivered at the nearby Commonwealth Chapel. After services, she often comes by to think. A Pittsburgh native, she thought it odd that she got a day off for what was then Lee-Jackson-King Day and that uniformed reenactors pitched camp beneath Gen. Lee.
She found it tough to discuss the Civil War with her young students. “I explain about how little kids weren’t allowed to go to school together, because of different skin or different hair,” she said. “You have to be sensitive with 5-year-olds because they take these things very personally; they’re the most innocent. It’s history, but they don’t distinguish it with a past.”
VanMegroet confessed to me that due to her daily drive to West Point, she is a Starbucks addict. She offered to get me a mocha grande but chided me for getting the sweet stuff: “It’s so unhealthy.” Some minutes later she returned with my change and an artery-clogging mocha. “Are you really going to stay out here all night, I mean, like sleep?” she asked. “I could bring you a blanket.”
I explained that I had a safe house. Monument Avenue residents Bobbie and Dan Elam had kindly offered me use of their nearby offices, within sight of Lee. Then VanMegroet was off, disappearing into the dark.
Pushing on to midnight, VCU theater and English major Michael Hulburt bounded up. That I intended to go 24 hours with the general fascinated him, and he urged me to go the distance. He enjoys the statue; its size, the grass and how people from all walks of life can come here and be a part of the city.
Not long ago, when he lived a few blocks east, Hulburt pulled an all-nighter while hung up on the plot of a play he was writing for a class. He wasn’t making much headway, so Hulburt decided to jog up Monument into a breaking dawn. Near Lee, he encountered a gentleman walking a white dog. They exchanged good mornings. Hulburt ran up to the monument’s steps, to sit and see the day open across the sky.
A few minutes after that, a police car stopped by, and a woman officer urged him off the steps. She couldn’t see anything wrong, though, and she soon told him to go back to his sitting. Hulburt was curious about who was worried about him being there. “She told me, this guy with a dog,” he laughed. “He’d alerted her to my presence and potential trashing of the monument or whatever he thought I was doing.” Incensed, he sat there for a little while longer, until he realized: “This is going to be the subject of my play. And that’s what I did.”
The title: Generalization.
A little later, I found myself speaking with a MySpace-met couple who had come from Strawberry Street Café to eat their dessert of chocolate-chip pound cake on the monument’s western ledge. Randy Dupree was up from Charleston, S.C., to see Angela Phillips, a VCU biology major. On the eastern ledge perched two other VCU pals, Alec Catalano, graphic-design artist, and P.J. Fortune, computer-science major, but we’d not gotten much past my business card when three police cruisers and a paddy wagon rushed up. A policeman shouted, “We need you to get off the monument, now!”
While the blue and red lights swirled and police radios squawked, I lectured the students about 1890 and Traveller. The police officers standing on the pediment furrowed their brows.
The head officer, whose name wasn’t offered, informed us that no one was wanted for anything, although there were some unresolved traffic tickets that it seemed none of the students knew about.
“Only this gentleman has nothing on his record,” the officer said, patting my shoulder.
He admonished us crazy kids to stay off all the monuments, because they are old and the city doesn’t want people falling off and suing them. I was instructed to either come back in the daytime or call the state’s Capitol Police if I really needed to stay. Under a head of righteous steam, I headed to the Elams’ office and after a few attempts, reached a Sgt. Marshall on the night-shift desk by phone.
She said that as long as I wasn’t climbing, drinking alcohol or doing dope, I could sit there. She offered to relay the news.
But my mellow was harshed.
Back at my post, a massive house party across the street on Allen erupted into the first of several bottle-crashing, shouting and cursing crescendos. These ended with profane urgings for one group or another to leave, leading to more obscenities and the slamming of car doors. The police were resolute in that they didn’t show up.
A Lost Cause
Going on 2 a.m., early-riser songbirds were singing, and a breeze gave sighs to the trees. I realized how tired I was and made a silent deal with the general. I would retreat to the Elams’ office, read about Lee, maybe get a few winks, and emerge pre-dawn to see the sun come over the Un-Traveller’s nose.
In the office I paged through Thomas’ Lee biography, dipping in and out, grabbing anecdotes. As president of Washington College in Lexington, Va., Lee admonished a hardworking student-veteran, and the young man explained that he was trying to make up for time lost in the army. Lee got red-faced, telling the student that he should never say again that his Confederate service was a waste. And one of my own cherished Lee myths was shattered: Lee did not say at the very end, “Tell Hill he must come up,” or “Strike the tent,” or anything so noble or dramatic.
Following a three-hour Grace Church vestry meeting that ran long because Lee preferred people to reach consensus, rather than inject his opinion, he suffered an apparent stroke resulting in paralysis. His last coherent words: “I will give that sum.”
Next thing I knew, bright shafts of light were illuminating the office. I bolted upright, sending the book to the floor. What time was it? Nine o’clock in the morning!
I ran out of the building as though I expected to find somebody at the monument tapping his foot and waiting on me. But there was no one besides an older jogger doing the circuit.
It was my lost cause. I had tried to stay with the General for 24 hours and I had failed. Disappointed and humbled, I surrendered to my defeat, packed up my belongings and began the long walk home.