During his lifetime, Lee contributed to many of the mythologizing forces that would later shape his legacy. He modeled his behavior and his personality on the Founding Fathers, the men of the American Revolution (1775–1783) whose deeds were crossing into lore while Lee was coming of age. As the historian Richard B. McCaslin has demonstrated, Lee patterned himself in particular on George Washington, conducting himself in a fashion that was self-consciously grand, courtly, and rigorously self-controlled. In fact, the shadow of Washington remained with him throughout his life. Just as the first president was a seminal figure at the moment of the United States’ founding, so Lee saw himself as a seminal figure at the moment of another founding. But unlike Washington, Lee was the father of an America that failed, the symbol of an alternate American vision that was defeated.
Lee possessed a sense of the dramatic, viewing himself as a character acting within a grand story still being written. In letters, he fashioned important moments into scenes of great tension and drama, characterizations that were later echoed by historians. His decision to resign from the U.S. Army in 1861, for example, was reached at midnight and only after a Gethsemane-like personal struggle at his. Lee claimed to have , to have abhorred (which he likened to revolution), and to have sincerely loved the Union. Nevertheless, he explained to his family that he could not bring himself to “raise my hand” against Virginia—against home and kin. “Save in defense of my native state,” he wrote to his brother Smith Lee, “I have no desire ever again to draw my sword.” That utterance has often been intoned as the final word on Lee’s character and intentions, but, in effect, it was also a deeply ironic line fit for the theater. Even as he wrote, Lee knew that he would likely raise his sword again. What began as an emphatic qualification in light of his decision to resign became, through Lee’s own lofty rhetoric, the doom of a man caught in the tragic hinge of fate.
Lee’s sense of himself as a man of fate was still present in 1865, when he. On April 10, Lee’s headquarters issued General Orders No. 9, a farewell to his beloved , but also an explanation for that army’s defeat, one that contained the stirrings of his own rebirth as a mythic figure. “After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude,” he wrote, “the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” Defeat, in other words, was inevitable, neither the consequence of Confederate mistakes nor the fruit of Union wisdom. Lee’s words formed a creed for Confederate veterans and their descendants, as well as for historians who embedded this interpretation of defeat into their narratives of the war. Because he could not have won, Lee’s struggle became more honorable, more dutiful, and more ennobling. And so the Lost Cause was born.
A Lost Cause Icon
The crystallization of the Lost Cause myth took a generation. The United Confederate Veterans were founded in 1889, thein 1894, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1896. In 1889, the Commonwealth of Virginia for the first time marked Lee’s birthday, January 19, as a state holiday. (Beginning in 1904, the General Assembly combined it with a commemoration of , calling the event Lee-Jackson Day.) The Lost Cause deification of Lee culminated on May 29, 1890, with the unveiling, before a crowd estimated at more than 100,000, of the equestrian Lee monument in Richmond. By then, much of the rawness of the war era had healed (at least for the white population), and what Lee represented to white southerners became bound up in a national sentiment of reconciliation. Because the mythic Lee embodied honor, and because more and more Americans on both sides of the conflict had come to agree by 1900 that the war’s fundamental meaning was not tied to slavery or race—that instead the war was a vast and bloody field upon which the blue and the gray sacrificed themselves to the truth of their valor—Lee was transformed from merely a southern icon to an American symbol of reconciliation.
That transformation had not been simple. Immediately after the war, many northerners, especially radicals with national platforms, viewed Lee as a symbol of treason. Some even demanded his execution, so that Lee himself believed that many northerners thought of him as a “monster.” But Lee’s death on October 12, 1870, marked a crucial turning point. Safely in the grave, he became a benign abstraction—one that could be borrowed for causes; honored by state and local holidays; commemorated in art, poetry, music, and statuary; and hallowed in name by towns, businesses, and families. Trustees of Washington College in Lexington, where Lee had served as president, not only attached his name toin 1868, but also to the school, which became Washington and Lee University upon Lee’s death. The general’s remains were housed in the chapel and, on June 28, 1883, a sculpture of a recumbent Lee by Edward V. Valentine was dedicated there.
For all of the ways Lee was remembered in the years following his death, however, his legacy has been shaped most significantly by the writers of Civil War history. The former slave Frederick Douglass complained that historians, journalists, and the American public were being far too kind to the former slave owner. “Is it not about time that this bombastic laudation of the rebel chief should cease?” Douglass wrote in the New National Era, a newspaper he edited. “We can scarcely take up a newspaper … that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee.” Douglass may have been reacting to figures like, the former Confederate general whose Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence (1867) professed his “profound love and veneration” for Lee and former Confederate president , while detailing “instances of cruelty and barbarity committed by the Federal commanders.”
On January 19, 1872, at Lee Chapel on the occasion of Lee’s birthday, Early delivered an address in which he hailed Lee’s “marvelous ability and boldness as a military commander” while defending his old commander against the suggestion—put forth by former Confederate general, among others—that Lee had made mistakes, especially at the pivotal (1863). Early’s Lee was a daring, brilliant commander, never subjugated but only overwhelmed—godlike and unchallengeable and surely triumphant had the odds been equal. When and where disaster fell, the fault was with subordinates such as Longstreet, who, to the chagrin of many former Confederates, became a member of the Republican Party after the war. Longstreet had been Lee’s second in command and most reliable general, and he had argued that Lee’s plan at Gettysburg had been faulty. Early won the short-term battle over history in part by using Longstreet’s Republicanism against him; at the same time, Early made it nearly impossible for others to criticize Lee while keeping their reputations intact.
This battle over Lee’s memory was about the demands of the present-day as much as it was about history, however. Glorifying Lee on the battlefield was tantamount to defending the Lost Cause interpretation of the war, which denied slavery’s central role in causing the war and which, by 1900, was used to justify a social and racial order in the South that had replaced slavery with blackand segregation. The Lee faithful, in other words, acted as guardians not only of a vision of the past, but also of a vision of the turn-of-the-century South.
Among the best-known of those faithful was, a historian and Richmond newspaper editor. His biography, R. E. Lee, appeared in four masterly volumes in 1934 and 1935 and was an immediate sensation, winning for Freeman the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes and lending scholarly credibility to Lee’s reputation as one of history’s greatest military commanders. Yet Freeman also subscribed to the cult of personality surrounding Lee. While his biography was more comprehensive than anything that had come before, and continued to be used by scholars at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was also hagiography: “Robert Lee,” Freeman wrote in the fourth volume, “was one of the small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved. What he seemed, he was—a wholly human gentleman, the essential elements of whose positive character were two and only two, simplicity and spirituality.” In Freeman’s hands, Lee was not so much a whole human as a paternal model to salute and emulate.
After the Civil Rights Movement
Skepticism of Lee worship was present even in Freeman’s time. Prominent critics included the British military historian J. F. C. Fuller, who wrote The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant (1929) and Grant & Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (1933). Less prominent but more numerous dissenters included African Americans who suffered on the losing end of Lost Cause romanticism. Freeman himself was forced to respond in R. E. Lee to the “mistaken” intimations of unnamed others that Lee was troubled by “deep storms … somber thoughts, repressed ambitions, livid resentments.” But it was not until the 1970s—after the civil rights movement and the upheaval of the 1960s, at a time when social historians were encouraging a focus on history’s lesser-known and less privileged actors—that some scholars staged a successful assault against the Lee myth.
Their relentless attack resembled nothing if not Union general‘s campaigns against Lee. In 1977, The Marble Man by Thomas Lawrence Connelly portrayed Lee as a self-serving commander whose limited vision and provincial concern for Virginia and his own army doomed the Confederacy. In addition, he argued that the sainthood of Lee served the purposes of the Jim Crow South. “The ultimate rationale of this pure nation was the character of Robert E. Lee,” Connelly wrote. “The Lost Cause argument stated that any society which produced a man of such splendid character must be right.”
Connelly was followed by Alan T. Nolan, whose Lee Considered (1991) raised doubts about Lee’s character: his social noblesse, his ambivalence aboutand secession, his magnanimity toward the enemy, even his creed of duty. Historians have traditionally portrayed Lee as generally opposing slavery, even while assenting to it as a fact of his time and place. But Nolan argues that Lee saw slavery as not simply a fact, but a necessary fact. Late in the war, during the debate over whether the Confederacy should , Lee wrote to Andrew Hunter, a member of the Senate of Virginia: “Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.” As Nolan intimated by his title, it was impossible to “reconsider” Lee; he had never been fully “considered.”
In 2000, Michael Fellman authored The Making of Robert E. Lee, a book open to considering the very “deep storms” that Freeman denied existed in Lee. For instance, Fellman investigates Lee’s decision to resign from the Army in 1861 and finds a man so resigned to his fate that he was unwilling to work toward avoiding a war. When the Reverend James May of the Virginia Theological Seminary requested that Lee arbitrate between Northern and Southern politicians, Lee responded in a letter to his cousin: “No earthly act would give me greater pleasure as to restore peace to my country.” In the end, though, he declined the invitation, citing that the political situation was “out of the power of man & in God alone must be our trust.” In other words, writes Fellman: “Perhaps, God willing, the attack might not come.”
The titles of these three scholars’ books suggest a striking progression of modern interpretation of Lee: Connelly chipping away at the monument, Nolan cross-examining the man, and Fellman subjecting the all-too-human inner self to scrutiny. Exposed without and within, from the marble man made by others to the ways by which he made himself, the Robert E. Lee of the twenty-first century has been reconstituted of the pieces that Freeman long had sought to reject out of hand.
The stakes in controlling Lee’s memory continue to be high. At the extremes, he represents both the South’s finest face and its ugliest. He was proud, honorable, and stoic; he was a gentleman. But he also fought to defend a country founded on chattel slavery. These tensions can be found in the controversial combining, in 1983, of Lee-Jackson Day with the new federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. According to an Associated Press report reprinted in The Winchester Star on February 13, 1981, “Cries of shock and outrage came from Virginians unwilling to link a black civil rights leader with two of the most revered figures of the Confederacy.” A Richmond man said in a public hearing that lawmakers “can give Martin Luther King any day you want so long as it isn’t anywhere near Lee-Jackson Day.” At the same hearing, Maxwell Perkinson Sr., the Virginia commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said, “If a day is to be set aside for a black, let it be for a Virginian.” According to the Associated Press, “Laughter from the audience greeted his remark, ‘Some of my best friends are blacks.'” The two holidays were separated in 2000.
For many, Robert E. Lee has come to represent not merely the heroic defense of the white southern way of life, but that way of life itself. He has become, in other words, indispensable to what the South means—for good and for ill—and so to what America means. And that relationship, a profound commentary on the centrality of disunion and reunion to American identity, means that how we remember Lee will always serve the needs of the present day. Lee is a central character in a creation story that is continually told and retold, shaped and reshaped as Americans debate what it means to sustain and reform “a more perfect Union.” To remember Lee is necessarily to take up a story about America’s relationship with itself and to measure ourselves against our creeds of freedom, liberty, and equality.