If you’ve ever driven downtown by way of Palafox Street, chances are you’ve driven through Lee Square. Just south of Cervantes Street sits the historically controversial 120-year-old site. Originally called Florida Square, it was renamed for Robert E. Lee, Confederate general. The monument at the center of the square was built to commemorate Confederate soldiers lost in the Civil War. Although it is called Lee Square, the statue is not of Lee, and the square isn’t as square as it used to be.
In 1881, Confederate general and future Florida governor Edward A. Perry led a coalition to erect a memorial in Tallahassee to honor the state’s Confederate dead. At the time, Perry was a resident of Pensacola. He raised over $3,000 for the project, with a majority of the funds coming from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. He died in 1889, short of his goal of $5,000. Perry’s widow asked to be relieved of the responsibility, but she was encouraged to form an association for the cause. Thus, the memorial was placed in the hands of the newly developed Ladies Confederate Monument Association (later the Ladies Memorial Association), and the location was moved to Pensacola.
After the additional funds were raised and the site was approved, the memorial was built by J.F. Manning of Washington, D.C. The dedication took place on July 17, 1891. In a gala affair, 10,000 people showed up to see the unveiling. The procession of onlookers was reported to be nine blocks long. Soldiers in uniform were given free rail transit to the ceremony.
The monument features a 50-foot marble obelisk with four sides and is topped with an eight-foot sculpture of a Confederate soldier. Three sides of the pillar are dedicated to Jefferson Davis, and local Confederate heroes Stephen R. Mallory and Edward A. Perry, both of whom lived on Palafox. The south side is dedicated to all Uncrowned Heroes of the Southern Confederacy. The sculpture of the soldier atop the monument was modeled after a painting called After Appomattox that hangs in the Virginia Capitol in Richmond.
When the monument was built in the 1890s, the population of Pensacola was just under 7,000 people. The traffic on Palafox Street was originally diverted around the square. Anyone traveling down Palafox was forced to make a four-turn detour around the park. Beginning in the 1930s, locals complained that the route around Lee Square inhibited traffic into the downtown business center. The battle over traffic waged in the City Council for over 30 years. One city official suggested a tunnel under the memorial, while most agreed the best route would be through the square. The Ladies Confederate Monument Association fought any changes to the existing park. Finally, in 1964, after several passed motions and reversals, the city approved plans to create a four-lane road that ran through Lee Square. The city was subsequently criticized for making the changes quickly before the decision could be reversed.
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