Throbbing with memories: Monument Avenue and civic life in early 20th Century Richmond
Within the last few months, Richmonders have used Monument Avenue as a base, and a target, for protest. The Coalition for Accountability, for instance, marched from the Lee Monument to Shockoe Bottom, site of Richmond’s slave markets, to advocate for school reform, LGBQT rights, and the removal of Confederate statues. In doing so, they recognized the value of Richmond’s history and commemorative landscape as central to public life. Though with different outcomes in mind, they also carried on a tradition began, in part, by the monument builders themselves.
In the early 20th century the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue served as the center of a citywide Confederate memorial landscape that—mixed with the city’s Revolutionary War sites—marked the city’s modern identity as almost indistinguishable from its past.
Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch stepped from the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee monument in 1921 and turned to salute “the hundred or more Confederate veterans drawn up at his right.” The French general, the allied commander in the recent victory in the Great War, visited Richmond on his way to Kansas City to dedicate a more recent war memorial. An alleged admirer of Lee, Foch visited the battlefields around Mechanicsville—site of the Confederate general’s earliest battlefield victories—before coming downtown to visit St. John’s Church, the Lee Monument, and to be feted at the Jefferson Hotel. There, toastmaster Eppa Hunton, Jr., son of a Confederate general and a frequent supporter of Confederate memory, said that “in no city of any State can there be found greater love and admiration for Marshal Foch than in Richmond.” References to Lafayette abounded, and all along the general’s itinerary, Richmonders conflated the Revolution and the Civil War in praise of French-American amity. “Richmond, throbbing with memories of Washington and Lafayette and Lee,” the Times Dispatch reported, welcomed “the world’s most renowned living soldier, guest of the one-time capital of the Confederacy, to which Lafayette, 140 years ago, hurried.” Lafayette, of course, hadn’t hurried to the Confederate capital, but to many Richmonders, Confederate memory proved so universal that it transcended time.
Even in its young life, and before Foch, Monument Avenue had drawn old soldiers. Confederate veterans used the monuments as sites of reunions. James C. Turner of Baltimore, for instance, attended the massive United Confederate Veterans reunion in 1907 and excitedly wrote to his daughter-in-law, Kitty, that “I have not had such a time since the war.” So enthralled with old comrades (“how glad were they to see me, and I them”) that Turner “heard no speeches, didn’t try to.” He surmised that “it would have been an education to you young people such as you can never acquire now” to see the old Confederates in their faded glory.
Despite Turner’s disappointment that his own children failed to experience the presence of veterans--of "living monuments"--the United Daughters of the Confederacy spent generations attempting to fulfill the old soldiers’ wishes. The U.D.C. devoted itself to educating young people about Confederate history and values. The women’s organization cleaned soldiers’ graves, raised money for old veterans’ and widows’ homes, funded scholarships for young women’s education, and policed school textbooks for any hint that Confederates had been anything but spotless heroes.
In Richmond, the local U.D.C. chapters marked birthdays and other notable anniversaries with wreath layings at the monuments that featured young women and school classes. On other occasions, assemblies at the monuments preceded processions to other Richmond landmarks, including the Confederate Soldier’s Home on Boulevard, and Hollywood Cemetery. The Elliot Gray’s chapter from Manchester laid a wreath at J.E.B. Stuart’s monument in 1937 and then walked ten blocks to the West Grace Street home where Stuart had died, to raise a Confederate flag in his honor.
Despite their universal claims about the appeal of Confederate virtue for young and old, north and south, the managers of Confederate memory drew strict lines of exclusion that were in perfect harmony with state segregation laws. The children the U.D.C. catered to in public and private ceremonies, of course, were white. The curators of Richmond’s memorial landscape had a different attitude toward black children. One matron of the Hollywood Memorial Association, when faced with the establishment of a playground for black children near the cemetery in 1932, sharply noted, “Our Association considers our Confederate dead more important than any living person…We do not want a Negro playground within a mile of that cemetery.”
By the late 1930s the wreath layings had become routine and the perceived virtues of the Confederacy could be extolled by radio broadcast. Mrs. Fitzhugh Lee Brauer, for instance, a popular Daughters of the American Revolution speaker on a range of patriotic and historical topics, praised Jefferson Davis over the airwaves of WMBG. Governors, city officials, and the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, a ceremonial militia company and social club, routinely gathered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to commemorate Jefferson Davis’ birthday.
At the approach of World War II, city leaders mobilized the Lee Monument, and the memory of Robert E. Lee, to call a new generation of men to war. Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, editor of the Richmond News Leader, delivered an address over the NBC radio network titled, “Robert E. Lee as Counselor of National Defense,” in which Freeman used Lee’s example to call for American military preparedness to fight fascists. The following year, Virginia contributed to its manpower quota when 650 men—dubbed the “Lee Volunteers”—enlisted in the U.S. Navy in a ceremony at the foot of the Lee Monument.
The monument builders had gotten their wish. Both the young women who placed wreaths on the Jefferson Davis monument and the men who enlisted at the foot of the Lee monument fulfilled the desires of the Confederate generation who promoted devotion and duty as the values they wanted young people to emulate.
But different meanings superseded--or at least took their place alongside--those values. The young women who laid wreaths most likely aspired to a college education. African Americans learned that the keepers of memory, like the larger civic culture, did not welcome them in commemorative and public spaces. The naval enlistees in 1942, like the veterans of World War I, could easily connect 20th century American patriotism to Robert E. Lee because they acted on the former with the latter as a stage.
The 2017 protestors inverted the monument builders’ intent in their portrayal of Confederate history as shameful and their calls to remove the statues. But in their use of Monument Avenue, and Richmond’s larger historical landscape, as key to the city’s identity, and their accumulation of meaning onto the statues, the protestors fit well into a long tradition.