Say “Robert E. Lee” to most New Orleanians, and many images aside from the famous general come to mind. For some, the visual is a major boulevard in Lakeview, near Lake Pontchartrain. For others, the old movie theater that bore the general’s name. For most, it’s the big statue on St. Charles Avenue that is a popular gathering point during Carnival. What you don’t hear a lot of are mentions of a direct connection between Lee, the man, and New Orleans, the city.
Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807 at Stratford Hall Plantation, Virginia. His father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III, was a hero of the Revolutionary War and a governor of Virginia. The Lees were one of the “first families” of Virginia, first coming to the colony in the 1600s. Robert’s father, Harry, fell on hard times resulting from bad investments, eventually landing in debtors’ prison. Other branches of the family came to their aid, securing an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for Robert. He became an officer in the Corps of Engineers and received the assignment of building a fort on Cockspur Island, Georgia. In 1830, he married Mary Custis, a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. His marriage to Mary returned him to the upper echelon of Virginia society in spite of his father’s fall from grace.
After serving with distinction in the Mexican War of 1846-48 as one of General Winfield Scott’s aides-de-camp, Robert was appointed Superintendent of West Point in 1852. After that three-year assignment, he became second-in-command of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Texas, serving under then-Col. Albert Sidney Johnston. By 1860, Lee was courted by both sides in the developing conflict over slavery. Lee initially refused general’s rank and an appointment as commander of Virginia’s forces when the state seceded. He then refused the command of the Union Army, fearing acceptance would require him to invade Virginia. When fighting broke out, he accepted command of Virginia’s forces, choosing to wear the uniform and insignia of a colonel of the Confederate Army rather than general’s insignia. Lee rose to the rank of General-in-Chief of the CSA, the rank he held when he surrendered his forces to U. S. Grant at Appomattax Court House on April 9, 1865.
Lee’s connections to New Orleans begin with that last action for the Confederate States of America. With the surrender of the army began the tradition of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” the notion that the secession of the southern states had more to do with “states rights” and “northern aggression” than the institution of slavery. As the Lost Cause developed into a social and literary movement, Lee became one of its focal points, one of the chivalrous leaders of the South. He was often contrasted with William T. Sherman, whose “March to the Sea,” destroyed Atlanta and much of the state of Georgia. New Orleans naturally became swept up in this movement and its mythology. In 1881, the Army of Northern Virginia (Louisiana Division) dedicated a tumulus in Metairie Cemetery with a 38-foot high column. Atop the column is a statue of CSA General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
In 1882, the City of New Orleans redesigned “Tivoli Square” on St. Charles Avenue, rounding the square’s corners, converting the traffic flow into a roundabout. Sculptor Alexander Doyle was hired to create a statue of Robert E. Lee that would sit atop a column in the center of the square, in the fashion of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square in London. Lee Circle was officially dedicated in 1884. Doyle would go on to create two other well-known Civil War-era sculptures: The equestrian statue of P.G.T. Beauregard in City Park, and “Calling the Roll,” a depiction of a Confederate sergeant calling the roll of the fallen in Metairie Cemetery.
In addition to Lee Circle, the general was also memorialized with his own street in the Lakeview neighborhood in New Orleans. After the Orleans Levee board began to drain the marshy southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain in the early 20th Century, Lakeview was extended north. One of the many WPA projects during the Great Depression was improving and paving the streets of Lakeview. At that time, Robert E. Lee Boulevard became a major thoroughfare of the area, and remains one today.
Robert E. Lee’s place in American History has been totally rehabilitated, from his enshrinement in stained glass in National Cathedral in Washiington, D.C., to the U.S. Navy’s naming a submarine in his honor. Still, New Orleanians will always think of the general as a landmark for Mardi Gras.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans. His latest book, Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, is available at bookstores in the city and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.