The Lee Controversy of 1903

Monuments and memorials seem to breed controversy. Take for example a current battle brewing in Florida over a proposed monument to Union soldiers killed in the battle of Olustee.  Or you could turn your gaze to Washington D.C. where battles are being waged over the future of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial at the same time a contested inscription is being removed from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  Competing visions of whom, what, and how we should remember the past inevitably clash when that vision is to be transformed into something physical and indelible.  Perhaps this is one reason why the battlefields of the past so often turn into battlefields of the present.

Gettysburg has never been immune to this. Since the battle, and as hundreds upon hundreds of monuments and markers were placed, clashes arose over their design, placement, wording, and characteristics. One controversy of particular interest occurred in the year 1903.


By the beginning of the 20th century the Gettysburg National Battlefield Commission owned a significant portion of the battlefield, including areas on Seminary and Warfield Ridge. They had already established the majority of the roads that make up today’s park avenues, including Confederate Avenue, South Confederate Avenue, and East Confederate Avenue. During this same time the “memorial period” of the Gettysburg battlefield was coming to an end. Hundreds of Union markers and monuments had been placed by the veterans during the 1880’s and 1890’s. They dotted the Northern battles lines and covered the landscape. Yet, as the survivors of the battle of Gettysburg passed into history few new monuments found a place on the battlefield.

For myriad reasons, Confederate soldiers never placed regimental monuments in the same fashion their Union counterparts did. The story of the Confederates in the battle was to be told “without praise or censure” by tablets placed under the auspices of the War Department, but these differed considerably from the more unique and ostentatious monuments created and designed by the Union veterans themselves. Economics certainly played a part in this, as did the existing rules and regulations regarding where Confederate monuments could be placed. Then there was the outcome of the battle, which for the Confederate soldier was decidedly negative.

However, 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. Image

If any conclusion can be drawn from the “Lee Controversy of 1903” it is that the story of the development and memorialization of the battlefield park is complex and that animosity and bitterness among the veterans did not end with the war. To view old photographs of Union and Confederate veterans warmly shaking hands across the stonewall on Cemetery Ridge, or peacefully reminiscing together in 1913 or 1938 is to forget that the battle for the memory of Gettysburg was highly contested by those who fought there. Many Union veterans were reluctant to see the site where they had helped preserve the Union turned into a memorial to the cause for which their vanquished foes had bravely fought.

Christopher Gwinn, Park Ranger


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15 Responses to The Lee Controversy of 1903

  1. josh henson says:

    I’ve toured many battlefields in VA, NC and MD and am always amazed at the lack of Confederate monuments, big and small. It seems every battery or individual from the Union has a monument of some type at most battlefields. Where are the Confederate monuments???

  2. Creel says:

    It would be nice if the yankees would stop lying about the South wanting to destroy uS govt. they only wanted to leave it. It was Lincoln who invaded first…

  3. Matthew Messerly says:

    The driving force behind many monuments was veteran organizations themselves and it was an exhaustive and expensive process. The south was under a very heavy economic burden and chose in most cases to honor the men locally with their own markers and monuments. Today many Southern towns and cities have parks and streets adorned with monuments to their men. Others as well chose to spend their efforts refighting the war in print instead of with the Monuments Commission.

  4. Jim says:

    Creel, I do believe that the first shots of the war could go back to the firing on the Star of the West. Lincoln was bringing supplies (food) to fort sumter, it was the South, commanded by BGT Bueroguard firing the first shots in april of 1861

  5. steven1863 says:

    preserve the memory of; commemorate.

    I believe that anything usually done well will many times cause contraversy. It is good that we feel strong enough to argue or question. In the end, we hope these monuments will be accurate and tasteful, but more importantly; ‘preserve the memory of’.

    These souls certainly deserve that, and more.

  6. Billy Yank says:

    The imbalance of equestrian statues is very noticeable. While on the one hand, Lee’s statue is by far the largest and most imposing equestrian statue on the entire battlefield, Cemetery Ridge is littered with Federal Corps Commander equestrian statues. On the other hand, a paltry statue of Longstreet was erected near Lee’s only recently, and noticeably missing are statues of Pickett and Hood, if I remember correctly. A tender statue of a dying Armistead is located on Cemetery Ridge, hwvr.

    • The Staff says:

      The battlefield’s equestrian monuments would be a good subject for the park to consider blogging on in the future. People often imagine there was some grand master plan for the monuments which the government was responsible for, and that for one reason or another, they neglected certain individuals. The only thing regarding monuments that Congress specifically directed the Gettysburg NMP Battlefield Commission to do was to mark the positions of both armies. They did this. Every battery, brigade, division, corps, of both armies have a tablet marking their position (some have more than one) and explaining what they did during the battle. Equestrians, regimental monuments, state monuments, bronze standing statues, etc., were all initiated by states, individuals, veterans groups, or interested citizens. The park staff (Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, U.S. War Department Battlefield Commission, or National Park Service) approved the location and inscription and assumed responsibility for care of these monuments but did not initiate them.

      Scott H.

    • josh henson says:

      My last post didn’t go through. Here goes again…..Is it possible for citizens to raise money to have statues erected on the battlefield?

      • The Staff says:


        The park’s policy is no new monuments on the field. However, it is possible to help preserve the monuments, which as you can imagine, is a big job.

        Scott H.

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  8. LT says:

    Nice Story Chris. Keep up the good work. Blogging is often a lonely endeavor.

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  11. Paul says:

    Reblogged this on Exercises in Ephemera and commented:
    Interesting look at a familiar debate from 114 years ago …

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