Picture was taken on June 8, 1917 from the presenters' podium (where the little parking lot is now). VMI cadets attending the ceremony are in the foreground.
Then Governor of Virginia Henry Carter Stuart would comment during the dedication of the memorial "It is fitting that we erect here this noble effigy of our great Captain surrounded by the memorials of men who fought and fell fifty four years ago. This imperishable bronze shall outlive our own and other generations. We who stand here today shall pass into the beyond, leaving what legacies we may of duty done or ideals sustained; moon and stars shall shine upon his face of incomparable majesty; the dawn shall gild it with splendor of sunrise; the evening shadows shall enfold it in their gentle embrace; and until the eternal morning of the final re-union of quick and dead, the life of Robert Edward Lee shall be a message to thrill and uplift the heart of all mankind."
In January of 1903 Pennsylvania State Representative Thomas V. Cooper introduced legislation that would authorize an appropriation of some $20,000 for a memorial to Robert E. Lee. This statue was to be placed somewhere along the Confederate battle lines on Seminary Ridge as a monument to the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and would be contingent on Virginia raising a similar sum for the likeness.
At first glance it is difficult to understand why Cooper and the people of Pennsylvania would want to place a memorial to Lee on the Gettysburg battlefield. Today, millions of visitors see the Virginia Memorial on Seminary Ridge, surmounted by an equestrian statue of Lee, and think little of it. However, in 1903 the war was separated from Pennsylvanians by only forty years. Thousands of her sons had died during the Gettysburg Campaign, and citizens of the Keystone State had felt, albeit briefly, the hard hand of war during the summer of 1863. Would it not be inappropriate to place a statue to Lee on the battlefield that was turning point of the Union cause? Supporters of the memorial cited two specific reasons why a statue of Lee should grace the battlefield in Adams County.
The first had its origin in the absence of other Confederate memorials on the battlefield and the difficulty of understanding the fight from the Confederate perspective. One Union veteran wrote to the Philadelphia Ledger explaining that, “The battlefield of Gettysburg, as it now stands, is a beautiful, one-sided picture. There is not a monument or inscription to show that an army of equal in numbers and valor to our own struggled fiercely for three days to destroy it.”
Of a similar opinion was A. K. McClure. He was an unlikely advocate of the monument, considering he had been a onetime officer in the Union Army and had had his Chambersburg home burned to the ground by Confederate soldiers. Still, McClure was vocal in his endorsement of the project. On the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, he argued his case. The Philadelphia Press reported, “He wanted to make the battlefield of Gettysburg worthy of the nation. It should in itself tell its own story. He pictured the monuments and tablets on Cemetery Hill which tell in every detail the story of the Union side of that great battle. Across the fields, on Seminary Ridge, he said, the story of the other side should be told in monument and tablet.”
The Lee memorial would also serve as a further act of reconciliation, a bringing together of the blue and the gray on the old battlefield of Gettysburg. It would appease those former Confederate soldiers who, though enemies of the Union, fought courageously and gallantly. The Lee monument would not, “be placed there as a tribute to the Rebellion” McClure argued, “but as a tribute to the heroism of the Blue and the Gray.”
Those of a like mind with McClure were in the minority. Union veterans all over the north, but particularly those in Pennsylvania, spoke out in indignation against the proposed memorial. Few northern veterans could deny that Robert E. Lee was a skilled leader and that he was personally brave. Yet, they could not support the memorial as an act of history nor reconciliation.
Little credence was given to the memorial on the grounds that it would tell the Confederate side of the battle. An editorial by Major William Robbins, the Confederate commissioner of the Gettysburg National Park, appeared in the February 18, 1903 issue of the Gettysburg Compiler. It was an unfounded assertion, Robbins explained, that the Confederate side of the battle was not being told. One hundred eighty Confederate brigade and battery monumental tablets had already been placed on the field by 1903. Nineteen miles of park road had been constructed, “Of this more than one-third has been constructed wholly on the Confederate side of the field and along Confederate battle lines…”
Others were concerned over what history would be told by the Lee memorial. John Stewart of Chambersburg argued, “But what is to be gained by putting this statue of Lee on Gettysburg battlefield? If you want historical accuracy as your excuse, then place upon this field a statue of Lee holding in his hand the banner under which he fought, bearing the legend: ‘We wage this war against a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to humanity.’”
Few Union veterans could find any comfort in a statue to Lee as an act of reconciliation. David M. Gregg, who had led a division of Union cavalry during the battle, wrote in a February 6, 1903 letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin,“The author of the bill claims that its enactment is necessary to complete the reconciliation of the people of the opposing sections in the War of the Rebellion. I had supposed this reconciliation practically accomplished, and rejoiced with him in the fact. If I was mistaken, and there is still slumbering discord, propositions like this will surely fan it into a flame, a result most strongly to be regretted.”
In Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania the members of the Col. H. I. Zinn Post of the Grand Army of the Republic officially announced their opposition to the Lee monument in a declaration that was drafted and then copied into their record book. “In the opinion of the Col. H. I. Zinn Post #415, G.A.R. of Mechanicsburg, Pa., that if the Legislature is so anxious to spend our money, it would be appropriate if paid to its loyal citizens along the Southern Border of the state who lost thousands of dollars by having their property stolen and destroyed by the armies command by the aforesaid Lee and that by this appropriation for said monument, would be paying a premium on disloyalty.”
The prevailing opinion of the average Union veteran was much like that of Major William H. Lambert who, in the January 24, 1903 issue of the Public Ledger and Philadelphia Times explained, “Individually, I am decidedly opposed to the proposition. I do not think we are far enough away from the time of the great struggle to erect monuments in memory of the men who tried to overthrow the Government. I have no doubt the Old Soldiers will heartily oppose it. I think we can safely wait until Virginia erects a statue to Abraham Lincoln or to General George Thomas.”
In the end, the proposed statue to Lee using Pennsylvania funds never materialized. That being said, visitors today will have little trouble finding a likeness of Lee on the battlefield. The Virginia Memorial, featuring Lee astride his warhorse Traveler was officially dedicated in 1917. By 1982 every southern state involved in the battle had its own monument. In 1998 James Longstreet joined Lee among those Confederates whose likeness can be found on the battlefield.