Lee Statue research continued: 1924 dedication event

Having found and examined William Shrady’s model for the Lee statue, housed in the Jefferson Madison Library, my next ambition was to locate the text of Edwin A. Alderman remarks at the dedication ceremony for the Lee statue on May 21, 1924, deep in the Jim Crow era. Alderman was President of the University of Virginia at the time, and a “noted public speaker.” I fully expected to find his remarks laced with racial bias.

I also expected to have to go to the University of Virginia Library, where his collected papers were housed, to find the speech. Yet when I queried the reference librarian at the Jefferson Madison Library, as I was going out the door, she suggested I try the Charlottesville Historical Society. So out the door I went, around the corner, and up the hill, and there, in all its dusty pillared dignity, directly across the street from Emancipation Park and the Lee Statue, was the ACHS. Oh, may such places long exist in our harried and fearful world! I came through the door into tranquility. No one checked my bags, asked for an ID, had me sign in. No one greeted me at all! I walked through the entryway–with its homage toPaul Goodloe McIntyre, the “great benefactor” who purchased the land for what became Lee Park (now Emancipation Park), and funded the Lee statue, and other prominent statues around town (as well as generous gift for a library, orthopedic wing to the hospital, etc)– and found my way into the reading room, where, among shelves of books, file cabinets, and newspapers piled in a corner, an elderly fellow sat at a desk, reading. He did not look up when I entered, so I introduced myself, and explained my errand. He got to his feet, shuffled to a file cabinet, and after some searching here and there, produced two manilla folders, which he laid on the table. I sat, and opened. Treasure! A trove of materials, including this small gem from Bernard Chamberlain, President of the ACHS from 1952-55): “Attention should be called to our other fine statues: Lewis and Clark, and George Rogers Clark. (The Lee is not worthy of emphasis) [sic] but the beautiful miniature model of Lee, in the Town Library should certainly be exploited.”

And then I found exactly what I was looking for, in a remarkable work of scholarship by A. Robert Kuhlthau: “Preliminary notes on the Robert E. Lee statue for a proposed article on the statues of Charlottesville, Virginia.” His “notes” included a complete chronological record of correspondence regarding the conception, funding, and specific correspondence between the donors, and sculptor–both Shrady and Lentelli. Marvelous! The booklet also included a careful record of the dedication ceremony, including-yes!-President Alderman’s remarks. After greetings to “President Smith [President of Washington and Lee University], Ladies and Gentlemen,” Mr. Alderman, exercising his full rhetorical powers, asked, “And now what may I say of Robert E. Lee that all the world has not better said? His fame is so secure and so well lit up with history’s everlasting lamp that silence seems a fitter thing than speech. The South has seen much of bitterness and wormwood in these later decades, but we should never cease to be grateful to the God of nations that he had us enough in his care to chose [sic] for our leader this stainless man ‘whose strength was as great as ten because his heart was pure.’ So large and ample in nature, so gifted with royal genius-even the warrior’s genius-and yet so merciful, so sweet-tempered and withal so good.” After comparisons with Washington, with his “all cloudless glory,” President Alderman closed with these words: “And now, in this hour of reunion and reconciliation, we know how, in those five quiet, laborious years at Lexington, he symbolized the future for us as it has come to pass, and bade us live in it, in liberal and lofty fashion, with heats unspoiled by hate and eyes clear to see the needs of a new and mightier day. Can you wonder at the measure of the love a people bear for such an embodiment of their best? Surely God was good and full of thought for any people to set in the forefront of their lives so faultless and ample a figure, and surely the people of this community may count themselves fortunate in having here before their very eyes for all times a glorious a presentment of this serene figure of virtue and greatness.”

President Alderman was not the only speaker to touch upon the theme of reconciliation. As David Maurer reported in the “The Daily Progress” on November 7, 1990, “One of the most remarkable aspects of the event was that, in nearly every speech, the common thread was the reconciliation that had occurred between the South and the North.” He went on to quote President Smith of Washington and Lee: “‘To the efforts of General Robert E. Lee, more than to those of any other leader, North or South, the country owes the obliteration in a single generation of sectional bitterness after the close of the War between the States.”

This note of “reconciliation” was repeatedly voiced, mind you, at an event attended by hundreds of Confederate veterans (“some so feeble they fainted during the event” but who yet let out one last rebel yell), with the lawn decorated in an enormous Confederate flag made of flowers, and the unveiling performed by Lee’s 3-year old granddaughter Mary Walker Lee. What a irony that the same statue of Robert which then prompted such high-minded sentiments should, in our times–which we have perhaps too easily assumed to be more “enlightened”–provoke such animosity and hatred!

A fine response to this irony follows:

Honoring Robert E. Lee on Memorial Day