The battle over the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, which in August produced both violence and a tragic death during protests that gained national attention, is at last nearing its end. The statue is slated for removal from its pedestal by Charlottesville if the city can get the injunction preventing it from taking action lifted at an October 4 court hearing.
But what happens from this point on to the Lee statue matters, even if it fails to make the nightly news. The Robert E. Lee statue that Duke University removed from its campus this summer was vandalized before it could be taken down. On political and aesthetic grounds, it is important that the far more significant Lee statue in Charlottesville be preserved intact, either in a museum or at an indoor cite of its own that treats the statue as an historical artifact.
Charlottesville is doing its best to make sure no harm comes to its Lee statue, which the city has covered with a tarp and surrounded with orange fencing and a “No Trespassing” sign. The city’s caution is a good sign. The Lee statue in Charlottesville, which was completed in 1924 by Leo Lentelli, was begun by one of America’s most important sculptors, Henry Shrady, who accepted the commission for the statue in 1917.
Shrady is not nearly as well known a sculptor as his older contemporary, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, most famous for his moving Civil War memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and his African-American 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which sits on the edge of the Boston Common across from the Massachusetts State House.
But Shrady, too, was capable of reaching soaring heights. His crowning achievement can be seen in Washington in the majestic Ulysses S. Grant Memorial at the east end of the Mall overlooking the Capitol Reflecting Pool. Shrady won the competition to do that memorial when in 1902 he was chosen by a jury that included Saint-Gaudens.
Shrady was born in 1871 and died in April 1922, two weeks before his Grant Memorial was dedicated and a just over a month before the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of the Mall was dedicated. He was very young to win such a prestigious competition, but he threw himself into the challenge.
So focused was Shrady on verisimilitude that, as architectural historian James M. Goode has pointed out, he even got military posts to conduct special artillery and cavalry drills so that he could be sure he was rendering them accurately in his Grant Memorial. Three separate sculptures make up the Grant Memorial, which rests on a marble platform 252 feet long and 71 feet wide and features Grant at its center.
To the left of Grant is the Cavalry Group. It consists of seven riders charging into battle. The lead horse carries the commanding officer. Nearby is a bugler, but tragedy is also part of the charge: A horse and rider have already fallen, and another cavalryman is doing his best to avoid them.
To the right of Grant is the Artillery Group, which consists of a caisson carrying a cannon and three soldiers, and here too war and tragedy are linked. The strap has broken on the bridle of the lead horse, and a soldier astride one of the horses is desperately trying to turn the caisson.
In the midst of this frenzied action sits a 17-foot high statue of Grant. Slouched on his horse, Cincinnatus, with his hat pulled down on his head, Grant is the picture of composure, unfazed by the combat swirling around him. He does not even carry a sword, as he tells us in his memoirs that he never did while on horseback. We are reminded of the fearlessness and plainness in manner that Grant made part of his generalship.
“I am going to make this the best thing I ever did as I am a great admirer of General Lee,” Shrady wrote in 1920 to Paul McIntire, who had commissioned him to do the Lee statue. Why Shrady, a New Yorker whose father was one of the doctors who attended Grant when he was dying of cancer, did not see a contradiction in his sculptural tributes to both Grant and Lee is difficult for us to understand today.
But Shrady was not unique in taking such a dual approach to the Civil War and seeing both sides as heroic. As the historian David Blight has pointed out in his study, Race and Reunion, a “reconciliationist vision” of the Civil War was commonplace in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Northern and Southern troops thought of themselves as reconciliationists in 1913, when they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg from July 1 to 4 at a gathering in Pennsylvania at which President Woodrow Wilson spoke.
A similar perspective prevailed at the dedication of Shrady’s Grant Memorial on the 100th anniversary of Grant’s birth. As The New York Times account of the Grant ceremonies noted, “One of the most striking features of the procession was a Grand Army man and a Confederate veteran, each an officer, marching together with joined hands.”
Shrady’s Lee statue, when paired with his Grant Memorial, puts in artistic perspective this reconciliation effort, which helped the South edit out race and slavery as central causes of the Civil War. Today, we can’t understand Shrady or an important part of our past if we focus on one of these statues to the exclusion of the other.