From Revered to Reprehensible
A legacy is a mountain; the towering piles of a life's work, in view for all to see. We all build mountains, some bigger than others. Does this mountain stall progression, or does it encourage it? Does it block water from getting in, or does it create a winding path for a stream to neatly pour out? These are all questions that only posterity can ponder and answer.
But the mountain of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is different. Lee’s mountain is almost an optical illusion, something that can dramatically change based on one’s perspective. So who was Robert E. Lee, and how have people and time attempted to shift his mountain?
Robert Edward Lee, born in 1807, was the son of Henry Lee III, a Revolutionary War officer and Governor of Virginia, and Anne Hill Carter Lee, a member of the Southern aristocracy. After graduating from West Point Military academy at the age of twenty-two, he married Mary Anna Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, in 1831.
During the Mexican-American War, he gained military experience and distinguished himself as an intelligent tactician. There, he fought alongside the younger Ulysses S. Grant, but this union would not last forever.
When eleven southern states seceded from the Union and created the Confederate States of America, Lee initially opposed the war with which he would become synonymous. According to a January 1861 letter, though he could “... anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union” he was “willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation.” Eventually, he considered the prospect of taking up arms against his native state of Virginia to be just that, a sacrifice of honor, and so he joined the Confederate cause.
Throughout the war, he would see stunning victories and staggering defeats, and it was these defeats that ultimately led to his demise. Having lost the war in 1865, and with some six hundred thousand American’s dead, he was allowed to return to Virginia and serve as the president of Washington University, later renamed Washington and Lee in his honor. He died there in 1870, at the age of sixty-three.
“I think it well, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
So why has a losing general who died over 150 years ago suddenly become so significant in today’s world? Why are memorials to him now being torn down? Lee himself even opposed Confederate memorials, saying in an 1869 letter, “I think it well, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
“tell of the glorious fight against the greatest odds a nation ever faced, that their hallowed memory should never die.”
Groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy possessed a diametrically opposing view. Established in 1894, their mission statement is to “tell of the glorious fight against the greatest odds a nation ever faced, that their hallowed memory should never die.” They erected monuments, demanded textbooks show the ‘Southern’, and often pseudo-historical, perspective of the war, and were essential in continuing to propagate Confederate ideology and mythology.
"The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.”
One southern textbook from 1992 blatantly lies, claiming that Lee had freed his slaves before the war, which he definitely did not do. It’s because of groups like these that the mythology continues to be spread. For example, the idea that Lee was opposed to slavery is completely wrong. In fact, he said in an 1856 letter, “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.” At the end of the day, Lee fought on the side that lauded slavery, and though he might not have reveled in it, he also did not disavow it.
The mythologization of Lee is part of the larger ‘Lost Cause’ movement, which has made and continues to try and make it seem like the Confederacy’s cause, as a whole, was honorable. With recent calls for racial justice, statues like the one in Richmond, Virginia, which was torn down on September 8th of this year, are being removed to end the glorification of these Confederate leaders. Those who oppose the statues being torn down claim that this is an attempt to erase history. Whether this trend towards a complete reexamination of history continues, only time will tell. Time, also, will only tell how Robert E. Lee’s legacy continues to evolve in the years to come.