How Robert E. Lee’s Image Transformed Over Time
Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee was vilified in the North during the Civil War only to be transformed in the decades afterward into a heroic icon of “The Lost Cause,” admired by many on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
Today, many view him as a symbol of racism and America’s slaveholding history. His transformation — at the center of the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va. — reflects the changing moods in the United States around race, mythology and national reconciliation.
Lee monuments and the many schools named for him now face renewed scrutiny in a demographically changing nation.
But who was Robert E. Lee beyond the myth? Why are there memorials in his honor in the first place?
A son of American Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Robert E. Lee graduated second in his class at West Point and distinguished himself in various battles during the U.S.-Mexico War. As tensions heated around Southern secession, Lee’s former mentor, Gen. Winfield Scott, offered him a post to lead the Union’s forces against the South. Lee declined, citing his reservations about fighting against his home state of Virginia and resigned from the U.S. Army.
Lee accepted a role commanding the Virginia state forces of the Confederacy and became one of its generals, even though he had little experience leading troops. He would experience what political science Marshall L. DeRosa called a “mixed record” of military endeavors throughout the war.
Lee eventually commanded troops in the field, winning battles largely because of an incompetent Union Gen. George McClellan, according to historians. “Victories were won through Lee’s aggressiveness and daring in the face of McClellan’s timidity rather than by any comprehensive generalship on Lee’s part, for he was unable to exercise control over his subordinate commanders, and in the individual battles were tactical defeats,” according to “The Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Land Warfare: An Illustrated World View.”
He won other important battles against other Union’s generals, but often was stalled. He was famously defeated at Gettysburg by Union Maj. Gen. George Meade. Lee’s massed infantry assault across a wide plain was a gross miscalculation in the era of artillery and rifle fire, “The Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Land Warfare” said.
A few weeks after becoming the general in chief of the armies of the Confederate states, Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
THE SLAVE OWNER
A career army officer, Lee didn’t have much wealth, but he inherited a few slaves from his mother. Still, Lee married into one of the wealthiest slave-holding families in Virginia — the Custis family of Arlington and descendants of Martha Washington. When Lee’s father-in-law died, he took leave from the U.S. Army to run the struggling estate and met resistance from slaves expecting to be freed.
Documents show Lee was cruel to his slaves and encouraged his overseers to severely beat slaves captured after trying to escape. Historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor said in a 2008 American Heritage article that Lee was angry about the slaves’ demands for freedom and “resorted to increasingly harsh measures to maintain control,” breaking up most slave families. One slave at Arlington, Pryor noted, called Lee, “the worst man I ever see.”
In an 1856 letter to his wife, Lee wrote that slavery is “a moral & political evil.” Lee also wrote in the same letter that God would be the one responsible for emancipation and that blacks were better off in the U.S. than Africa.
THE LOST CAUSE ICON
After the Civil War, Lee resisted efforts to build Confederate monuments in his honor and instead wanted the nation to move on from the Civil War.
After his death, Southerners adopted “The Lost Cause” revisionist narrative about the Civil War and placed Lee as its central figure. The Lost Cause argued the South knew it was fighting a losing war and decided to fight it anyway on principle. It also tried to argue that the war was not about slavery but high constitutional ideals.
As The Lost Cause narrative grew in popularity, proponents pushed to memorialize Lee, ignoring his deficiencies as a general and his role as a slave owner, according to Gary Gallagher, a University of Virginia professor specializing in the history of the Civil War. Lee monuments went up in the 1920s just as the Ku Klux Klan was experiencing a resurgence and new Jim Crow segregation laws were adopted.
The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville was erected in 1924. A year later, the U.S. Congress voted to use federal funds to restore the Lee mansion in the Arlington National Cemetery.
The U.S. Mint issued a coin in his honor, and Lee has been on five postage stamps. Most Union figures, besides President Abraham Lincoln, weren’t granted as many honors.
Shawn Alexander, associate professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas, said that despite the attempt to use Lee as a reconciliation figure, many African-Americans spoke out in the black press that Lee had betrayed the U.S. and was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. “He was no hero in their eyes,” Alexander said.
By the early 20th century, Northern state politicians — fearing deadly violence over black civil rights in the South — caved to pressure from Southern leaders to cast Lee in a more conciliatory light, said Gerald Horne, a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Houston. “The South showed it would shed blood,” Horne said.
A NEW MEMORY
A generation after the civil rights movement, black and Latino residents began pressuring elected officials to dismantle Confederate memorials honoring Lee and others in places like New Orleans, Houston and South Carolina. The removals partly were based on violent acts committed by white supremacists using Confederate imagery and historians questioning the legitimacy of The Lost Cause.
A Lee statue was removed in New Orleans in 2015 — the last remaining of the city’s four monuments to Confederate-era figures.
The Houston Independent School District voted in 2016 to rename Robert E. Lee High School, a school with a large Latino population, as Margaret Long Wisdom High School.
Earlier this year, the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove its Lee statue from a city park, sparking a lawsuit from opponents of the move. The debate also drew opposition from white supremacists and neo-Nazis who revere Lee and the Confederacy. The opposition resulted in rallies to defend Lee statues this weekend that resulted in at least three deaths.