Protecting Access to the Valentine Statue

On November 14, 2022, Washington and Lee University will seek from the City of Lexington’s Building Code officials a reversal of their earlier ruling against the school’s Lee Chapel dividing wall proposal, a ruling based on heightened life-safety risks to Chapel occupants in case of fire or sudden violent emergency. If the City upholds its ruling, it will prevent the University from constructing an internal wall that would block both visual and personal access from the Chapel’s sanctuary to the statue chamber where Edward Valentine’s sculptural masterpiece of Robert E. Lee in repose has rested for nearly 140 years.

Valentine’s Recumbent Lee was the dominating presence in Lee Chapel from the time it was installed and officially unveiled in 1883, until very recently, when the Washington and Lee Board of Trustees ordered the statue chamber to be closed and permanently walled off from the Chapel sanctuary, Most of us who were privileged to have sat in the Chapel in past years have the image of the statue etched into our memories.  Its grace of form evinced Lee’s sublime dignity of person; its radiant white marble attested in somber silence to the purity of character and spotlessness of conduct that marked his entire life and made him an enduring source of inspiration to generations of Washington and Lee students — young men and women seeking direction as they stood on the threshold of adulthood, and still of an age when hearts and minds are impressionable and open to the influence of personal example.  All of this is now at riskof being expunged from campus life at Washington and Lee, and the University’s students set adrift in search of other figures upon whom to model their lives.

Precisely because the Valentine statue infused the Chapel with Lee’s legacy more powerfully than any other feature of the building, it has become the primary target in the Board’s campaign of desecrating the Chapel, making the issue of the statue the most hotly contested ground upon which TGR and others are fighting against the Board’s moves, ground indeed upon which the whole battle to save the Chapel may be won or lost.

It is important to note that the Chapel was created for a variety of important purposes – a student gathering place, a place for voluntary religious services, a final resting place for members of the Lee family, and an office for President Lee being among them.  It was also symbolic of a signal purpose of Robert E. Lee’s final years, the bringing about of reconciliation between North and South after the Civil War.  The Chapel should be remembered for these things, and not for the false narrative of its creation to become a Temple of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause.  Although there is evidence that outsiders highjacked the Chapel for such purposes, there is none that Robert E. Lee, his family, or the University’s administrative stewards and trustees subsequently used it for such purposes.

The attached article offers a brief history of the Valentine statue, discusses what it has meant to Washington and Lee and others over the years, and concludes with some observations on the current circumstances surrounding it.

Kenneth G. Everett ‘64
Kenneth G. Everett 
Protecting Our Legacy, Assuring the Future
The Valentine Statue of Robert E. Lee

6 November 2022

Among the relics handed down to us from past civilizations, whether cultured or primitive, statues of all descriptions abound — images fashioned out of stone, metal, or wood, depicting the lineaments of the revered and famous, be they human or divine.  Their abundance suggests the operation of a primordial proclivity to capture the essence of the portrayed figure in a way not altogether possible in the written words of poets and biographers, or in the likenesses produced on canvass by great painters.  Statues have a peculiar potency to fill the mind and move the heart, a potency arising perhaps from their palpable materiality in all three dimensions of space and their promise of preserving imperishable an embodied presence of a beloved figure, long after his death and physical dissolution.

Certainly those of us who had the privilege of sitting in Lee Chapel in view of the Valentine statue of Robert E. Lee, can attest to the ennobling aura it cast over the Chapel sanctuary, and can affirm that it often brought to mind in the thoughtful those qualities in Lee that underlay the gentlemanly code of character and erudition that the Washington and Lee of those days sought to inculcate in its students, a code reflected in its Honor System, its speaking tradition, and in the overall civility and sense of brotherhood that infused campus life.  The silent though salutary influence of the Valentine statue has been well described by Francis Pendleton Gaines, renowned orator and long-time president (1930-59) of Washington and Lee, in the following words:

“His [Lee’s] spirit abides as the principal force in its [Washington and Lee’s] educational enterprise.  Visitors who come to that campus upon a green slope in Rockbridge talk much of him.  The students themselves say little.  Lee is not often the subject for gossiping chats or even for formal declamation.  But from time to time the boys go, in groups or alone, to the quiet chapel in which his body sleeps, and there they look upon Valentine’s likeness of the figure resting in peace.  And the spirit of that man goes out with them, charging at play beneath the great trees or embarking upon the tiny voyages of their mental explorations.

“His spirit abides, not merely in sculptured likeness or even as a matter of historical distinction, but as the summation of institutional ideals.  His character defines the aspiration of youth who come within the radius of his influence.”

Had the choice been up to Lee, the profound humility that characterized him throughout his life would likely have led him to reject the idea of having any kind of statue of himself installed in the Chapel, and he would no doubt have been particularly repulsed at having any memorial to himself placed, as was the later Valentine statue, so as to dominate the Chapel sanctuary.  Self-glorification was a tendency alien to Lee’s nature; and more to the point, he would have seen an attention-riveting statue of himself as detracting from the purposes for which he had originally built the Chapel, a place he intended for devout worship and community gatherings.

In the exquisitely detailed, meticulously researched and documented account of the genesis of the Valentine statue given by R. David Cox in his superb “Lee Chapel at 150,” Cox relates that after Lee’s death in 1870 it fell to his widow, Mary Custis Lee, to make all decisions regarding his interment and any monuments proposed to be erected in his memory; and that regarding the latter, Mrs. Lee saw things in a somewhat different light than her humble husband would have.  She first, however, had to fend off aggressive attempts by Richmond interests to have Lee buried in that city’s Hollywood Cemetery, along with other Confederate notables and famous Virginians.  Mrs. Lee politely but firmly rejected these appeals and instructed that her husband be buried in the basement of the Washington College Chapel, where she intended that she herself be laid to rest beside him after her own death. 

Lee’s dutiful widow moved next to engage Richmond’s Edward Valentine to design for Lee’s tomb a marble monument, the European-trained Valentine having previously sculpted a small statuette of Lee that had pleased her, and which she considered to be the best likeness of her husband that she had seen.  After studiously examining specimens of various styles of burial monuments, Mrs. Lee found most appealing to her sensibilities Christian Daniel Rauch’s marble rendering of Queen Louise of Prussia, whom he had portrayed as “recumbent, and as if in repose.”  And thus began, under the auspices of Mrs. Lee and the “Lee Memorial Association,” Valentine’s work on the statue, for which he sculpted a small, then a larger plaster model, and proceeded to hire the notable stone carver, Casper Buberl, to render his model into marble.  Difficulties quarrying and then transporting the requisite block of white Vermont marble to Valentine’s Richmond studio, Buberl’s early unavailability for work on the project, and other hindrances, including money problems, slowed progress; but even so, the statue was completed fully seven years before the Chapel was ready to receive it, and was, during this interval, boxed and stored in a dormitory then located on the site of the present Tucker Hall.

The delay in installing the statue, which was designed to sit atop Lee’s tomb in the basement of the Chapel, arose from the realization that the small basement room, now containing not only Lee’s remains but those of his wife and their daughter, Agnes (both of whom died in 1873), was simply too small to house the statue.  Plans were therefore made to construct, in consultation with Valentine, an addition to the Chapel, containing a Lee family mausoleum into which Lee’s remains and those of his wife and Agnes would be moved, and providing also a separate chamber for Valentine’s statue, the chamber opening onto the stage and sanctuary of the Chapel.  Again, work proceeded slowly, but happily culminated at last, on June 28, 1883, in a grand celebration and dedication of the new Chapel addition, to be highlighted with great fanfare by the first public unveiling of the Valentine statue, an event that drew thousands to Lexington, including a glittering array of dignitaries of the time: former Confederate generals, current state governors, and members of Congress.  After Stonewall Jackson’s daughter, Julia, did the honor of drawing back the curtains to reveal the resplendent statue to the gaze of celebrants in the Chapel, Valentine’s work was overwhelmingly hailed as a masterpiece, with, according to Cox’s account, exclamations such as  “Majesty in repose,” “Marse Robert asleep,” breaking out as the throng of rapturous viewers filed by to see the recumbent Lee.

This day of celebration, however, marked a turning point in the way the Chapel was to be viewed in succeeding years by various parties.  The Valentine statue now dominated the Chapel sanctuary, suffusing it with the radiance of Lee’s image; which had the effect of ineluctably transitioning the building away from its former identity as exclusively a place of worship and campus gatherings, and, variously as time progressed, into a “Shrine to Lee,” a “Shrine to the Confederacy,” a “Monument to the Lost Cause,” and, as has been claimed even on today’s campus, a “Confederate Monument” — according as the different parties frequenting the Chapel have shifted through the years.  But whatever may be the merit or real substance of these appraisals of the Chapel over the course of time, they had little, if any, effect on the constancy with which the Valentine statue appealed to the best instincts and noblest aspirations of most Washington and Lee students.   As they many times sat in the Chapel in the moving presence of the statue’s aura, their thoughts were not infrequently turned to the values and ideals represented in the man they saw reposed in peace before them, with not a few being confirmed in those values and ideals for life.

Now, however, Washington and Lee’s Board of Trustees, in its decision to wall off the Valentine statue from the Chapel sanctuary, seems almost to make a mockery of the human spirit and its innate yearning for those virtues and attributes of character that ennoble life, give it meaning, and endue it with worth; a yearning that finds precious few sources of inspiration or sustenance in the world of today, but that if yet encouraged, might contribute to the rescue of society from the inhumanity and brutishness into which it seems now everywhere to be sinking. 

This desecration and walling off is purportedly being undertaken to ensure, among other things, the “comfort” of a malcontented segment of the campus community that cringes at anything the least redolent of Robert E. Lee, inside the Chapel or out of it; and we see the measures being taken to accomplish their coddling appeasement now tragically eclipsing the long-honored traditional values of Washington and Lee, effectively dictating their banishment to oblivion.  Are we to repose hope for the future in the ignorance, selfish close-mindedness, and intolerance of these “comforted” zealots, who are — predictably — now dragging in their wake reports of the erosion of the university’s once revered Honor System, along with evidence of the increasing breakdown of campus civility, and, regrettably, assaults even upon free speech? 

It is against this unconscionable campaign of desecration that is ravaging Lee Chapel that we of The Generals Redoubt are committed to fight, and will continue to fight.  The decision to wall off the Valentine statue must not stand, and if implemented, must be reversed if Washington and Lee is to remain recognizable as what it once was.


Kenneth G. Everett
Washington and Lee Class of 1964