Patricia N. Saffran
[Editor’s note: Featured image of Taliban using a rocket launcher to destroy artifacts and remnants of past ages and diverse cultures, which the world has condemned.]
Since 1890, the statue of Robert E. Lee on a thoroughbred horse graced Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA. On September 8, 2021, the statue was hoisted off its plinth and later the torso was hacksawed in two. Throughout the removal an audience of activists screamed wildly below.
Devon Henry, CEO and president of Team Henry Enterprises, had the contract for the Lee removal. He was paid $1.8 million to remove the Monument Avenue’s city owned sculptures. The funds came directly from the Department of Public Works. Funds were supposed to be reimbursed by private donors through a new non-profit, The Fund to Move the Monuments, founded in July 2020. The donations were to be transferred to the city through the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust. To date donations have not been as brisk with only several thousand raised. Other government entities funded by taxpayers will make up the huge difference. It would seem that the wider public has little enthusiasm for this issue.
As to the other statues on the avenue, Team Henry Enterprises had previously carted off General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and General J.E.B. Stuart and Commander Matthew Maury, a Confederate naval officer, astronomer and famous author who never even fought in the Civil War, but created naval instruments and charts that are still used today. The statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis had already been thrown down by activists.
The Lee statue was commissioned in 1886 from renown French Beaux-Arts sculptor, Antonin Mercié. He used a natural style that fostered monumentality. Mercié used a Thoroughbred for his equine model rather than a smaller American Saddlebred like Lee’s Traveler. The sculpture cost $52,000, or $1,513,349 today, a fraction of the value to commission the massive statue and plinth today, but still a sum that made the activists’ unimpeded attacks on the sculpture, with police stand downs, all the more reckless.
The granite base designed by Paul Pojul, which contains bronze plaques and decorative friezes, will be removed in pieces at a future date.
During the Lee statue removal, one of Devon Henry’s employees was perched high up in a cherry picker. Instead of acting like a professional, he madly waved his arms to spur on the audience of activists below who especially cheered Lee’s bizarre hacksawed torso.
The heavy dangling torso, with reins detached, was hoisted with the crane and loaded onto a flatbed truck along with the horse for its journey into oblivion, or for the time being a secret warehouse. The effect was that of a shock and awe event.
Was it necessary for Lee to be cut in two or was the removal designed to be a sensationalistic performance for the raving mob and media? Experts question the hacksawing.
Art conservator, F. Carey Howlet, of F. Carey Howlet and Associates of Montross, VA wrote,
“I was certainly in favor of the removal of the Lee statue and all other memorials to the “Lost Cause” on Monument Avenue in Richmond and elsewhere — this was long overdue — but as a conservator of historic objects I have concerns about damage to any works of art. I was surprised to see the statue cut into pieces as I’m sure it would have been possible to remove it intact.”
Brigadier General (Ret.) Parker Hills, a battlefield preservationist and author of Art of Commemoration, a book on the monuments and art in Vicksburg National Military Park, writes,
“It’s one thing for the governor to finally get his way by having the statue removed after successfully having the statue of Thomas Jonathan Jackson removed from the VMI campus last year. It’s another thing for the governor and other complicit officials to take a saw to the Lee statue. The intent of the sawing and the message it sent were viciously clear. The long and short of it is that this was a premeditated act of vandalism by government officials. The Taliban used dynamite in 2001, and twenty years later the Governor of Virginia used a power saw, but the message was the same, which is the deliberate and vicious elimination of anything that offends the party in power.”
It turns out that the Lee statue could have efficiently been transported in one piece.
Brian Howard the eminent art conservator/co-owner of B.R. Howard and Associates in Carlisle, PA, was the consultant on the Lee statue. Both he and his co/owner wife Jolene said on the phone on September 14, that they wanted to use a helicopter, and the city said “no.” He said that the city may not have thought it would be safe enough. Brian insisted it was the only way to transport the piece intact.
The governor’s office has not responded to my inquiry as to why a helicopter couldn’t have been used, without cutting the valuable statue into pieces. The governor’s office had a whole year to plan this removal as evidenced from their report dated July 2, 2020. The report assumes the sculpture will be cut for transport.
Mr Howard explained that because he couldn’t use a helicopter he had to cut the statue. He said,
“If you were in Richmond you’d understand that the weight and size made a cut necessary to fit the sculpture safely on a truck and get it through the streets. The statue is 12 tons and 27 feet across. It’s bottom heavy and that made balance on the flatbed truck important. It couldn’t have been transported on a truck in one piece for that reason. No roads would have accommodated it.”
Heavy lifting helicopters with slings are routinely used by the military, construction, and for moving sculptures elsewhere such as in Vicksburg. The City may not have been justified for saying “no” to a helicopter removal. A Chinook CH-47 helicopter in the U.S. Army inventory could have transported the statue intact. It can lift up to 26,000 pounds, so the 12 ton Lee statue (24,000 pounds) is within its lifting capacity.
As to the torso cut, Brian Howard explained that he studied the piece and decided to make a cut where there was an original joint put in with bronze pins. Brian said,
“We didn’t have time to remove the pins and it would have been better if we did, but the way we hacksawed the sculpture will make it easy to reattach without any noticeable seams . . . the conservators made the cuts including through the base. It can be put back together without a problem if they want to. . . ” He said, “The sculpture arrived safely with no damage to the warehouse, at an undisclosed location.”
Mr Howard explained,
“It’s as fine an equestrian sculpture as can be found anywhere in the country. We tried to remove it in such a way as to do as little damage as possible and to respect the artist. We had a large ground staff including many police and other workers to keep the area safe. For that reason, we had a limited time frame to remove the sculpture.”
The Lee statue on was on state land governed by deeds. Removal took place only after two court challenges and a recent ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court, stating “Values change and public policy changes too.” Protection for War Memorials in town jurisdictions, including the other avenue sculptures had already been rescinded.
Many in Richmond disagreed with the removal of the valuable irreplaceable Beaux Arts Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. The removal of Robert E. Lee is just the latest removal that has been widely and falsely reported. It wasn’t supported by the public but the media has been ignoring this.
Every district in Richmond no matter what type of neighborhood had voted to extend Monument Avenue, not take down statues, according the to Monument Avenue Commission report of July 2, 2018. After the districts voted, Mayor Levar Stoney and the City Council ignored the citizens of Richmond, and never ordered one statue to extend the avenue. It seems that they and Governor Ralph Northam had their own undemocratic agenda.
When protests erupted in Richmond that were largely unchallenged by police including those following the death of George Floyd, the governor and mayor proclaimed it wasn’t safe to keep the statues in public.
In July 2020, Governor Northam issued a report with his personal view on history, claiming he could be justified to take down Lee. He said,
“In Virginia, we no longer preach a false version of history. One that pretends the Civil War was about “state rights” and not the evils of slavery. No one believes that any longer.”
General Hills, reacting to Northam’s opinion states,
“Try convincing the State of Texas, which has been belittled recently by Biden and is being sued by his Justice Department, that states rights was not an issue in 1861, nor is it an issue in 2021.”
Since the governor ignored Richmond district voting where the majority wanted to keep the statues, his personal opinions (and those of the activists) is irrelevant. Unfortunately, due to the rash actions of Virginia’s governor, Richmond mayor and City Council, Monument Avenue only has one intact statue left, Arthur Ashe. A plan to redesign the avenue is forthcoming.
Local residents have written to me that they now try to avoid downtown because they are ashamed by what the city has done. Richmond, ironically, has emulated the Taliban. And the former multimillion dollar Richmond tourism industry, with visitors coming from Europe and elsewhere to view and admire the magnificent statues on Monument Avenue, has a gaping hole.
Richmond just unveiled a new bronze statue on September 23, 2021, two miles from the Lee removal site. It’s called The Emancipation and Freedom Monument by Thomas Jay Warren. The question is who paid for the statue? Also, why wasn’t it used to extend Monument Avenue, and keep the Beaux Arts Confederate statues in their locations, which is the scheme Richmond citizens voted for? This brazen act of “statue replacement” reveals that the mayor, the governor and the city council are completely out of touch with their constituents.
(1) The Monument Avenue Commission Final Report
(2) Governor Northam’s statement on Lee removal, and BR Howard art consulting report
(3) Lee family and history about slaves. https://thenewamerican.com/richmonds-robert-e-lee-statue-removed-cut-in-half/