It’s not there. I just can’t see it. Some of you know what I’m talking about already.
The story goes like this. Daniel Chester French carved a profile of Robert E. Lee emerging from the back of Lincoln’s head a la Lord Voldemort in the Sorcerer’s Stone. If you go around to the right side of Lincoln (his, not yours), and look on the back of the head, you see Lee’s profile in Lincoln’s locks of hair. Lee is gazing across the river at his house, now preserved as the Robert E. Lee Memorial. Further elaborations have Daniel Chester French a secret Southern sympathizer, Klan member, or other such nonsense.
The Park Service addresses this on their site:
No such carving was done intentionally, but the myth persists to this day. The fact remains that several visitors claim to find all sorts of profiles within the tufts of Lincoln's hair.
While I quibbled with them yesterday regarding the A and L in Lincoln’s hands, they’re absolutely right here (insofar as one can disprove a negative).
The idea that Daniel Chester French might harbor some Confederate fetish is just downright odd. The man was born in New Hampshire and steeped in New England Yankeedom from birth onward. Fun fact of the day his father, Henry Flagg French laid out in his 1859 book Farm Drainage detailed plans for a trench filled with gravel that redirects surface water away from retaining walls. You may know it better as a “French Drain”, which is perhaps why it was never renamed a Freedom Drain.
Daniel French was eleven when the Civil War began, and moved shortly thereafter to Concord, Massachusetts. He was a neighbor to the Alcott's (you know, of Little Women fame) and Louisa May Alcott’s youngest sister May (Amy in the book) fostered his artistic tendencies by giving him modeling clay and lending him sculpting tools. French went on to study at MIT for a year before embarking on his sculpting career in Boston, New York, and Florence. Hardly the stuff of secret Confederate sympathies.
Now, even though French designed the statue of Abraham Lincoln, he didn’t necessarily carve every bit of it. For the grunt work, French hired the famed Piccirilli Brothers of New York. Well, of Tuscany originally, but they had set up shop in 1882 in the Bronx. French’s daughter Margret French Cresson described them as “so in harmony were they, each so gifted, and so perfectly trained, that any one of them could pick up the tools and go on with the work that another had laid down.” No, it’s hard to see all six Piccirilli Brothers as likely suspects in secretly carving Lee’s face in the back of Lincoln.
And secret it would almost certainly have to be. It’s fashionable today to downplay the hatred and animosity that existed for years afterword. We hear a great deal about “brother fighting brother”, and my guests from southern states gently correct me as to the “War Between the States”. Heck, I purchased a book at Gettysburg a few months ago and the bag read “Our Country’s Common Ground”.
This would NOT have been the sentiment in Washington, DC in 1914 when French started sketching out his designs. Granted, tensions weren’t quite as high as the 1880s, or even a few years prior in 1902 when Virginia had attempted to select Gen. Lee as one of their two statues every state places in the Capitol. The public outcry, spear headed by the Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, was overwhelming and it wouldn’t be until 1934 that Virginia quietly got it’s way.
And, on the surface, reconciliation had progressed quite a bit. The last actual veterans of the war were dying off and the nation had elected it’s first southern President since the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson. In June of 1914, the nation took the then radical step of dedicating the new Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, surrounded by re-interred remains of southerners previously buried in the Washington, DC area.
However, while public opinion was moderating enough to allow honoring the valor and sacrifice of common soldiers, it did not go so far as to accept recognition of their leadership. As late as the 1930’s, Representative Hamilton Fish of New York proposed an equestrian statue of Lee at Arlington. He received letters condemning the idea of a rebel leader, be it “Robert E. Lee or any other traitor” (more about this topic can be read at Kathryn Allamong Jacob’s excellent book Testament to Union: Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.).
So, yeah, I just don’t see Daniel Chester French deciding to add a profile of Robert E. Lee in the back of Lincoln’s head. Which is fine, because I don’t see anything back there anyway.