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From the Archives: Rethinking Robert E. Lee
On National Flag Day, a look back at the Confederate general considered by some a symbol of slavery and division, who also said, “I wish for no other flag than the Star-Spangled banner and no other air than ‘Hail Columbia.’”
By Ernest B. Furgurson
Comments () | Published June 14, 2012
Upon surrendering to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Lee returned to Richmond, where Mathew Brady photographed him. Photograph by Mathew Brady/Corbis-Bettmann.

Though steady rain and bursting dogwood promised rebirth, all Virginia seemed gray in that lush spring of 135 years ago.

Spattered with mud, a cluster of weary riders slogged onto the makeshift pontoon bridge that linked Richmond with the south bank of the James River. Out front, a gray-bearded officer rode a drooping gray horse. His uniform was soaked through, and rain spilled off his war-stained hat. Beneath it, his face was a portrait of gloom. Yet he sat erect, head up. As he passed by, some of those watching wept. Then he crossed the bridge into the ashes of the Confederate capital. When people there saw him coming, they crowded along his route and cheered him. Many were blue-uniformed soldiers of the Union.

The day was April 15, 1865. Robert E. Lee was home from the war.

Federal troops and newly freed slaves had cleared lanes through the rubble of downtown Richmond, burnt 12 nights earlier when Jefferson Davis and his government fled. Through the shambles, Lee rode slowly uphill, repeatedly lifting his hat to answer the cheers. Outside 707 East Franklin Street, the townhouse where his ailing wife had spent the last years of the war, women, children, and old men thronged to reach out and thank him. He found it hard to speak. After shaking a few hands, he made a little bow and backed inside. As he closed the door on the Civil War, he entered into history, into legend, into what some insist is mythology.

In less than three years at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee’s generalship had produced stunning victories. By any military standard, he was a hero, the unafraid underdog, the most admired soldier of America’s fiery trial. His chivalrous conduct toward friend and enemy, private and president had won him loyalty at home and admiration abroad. After his surrender, he set an example of manly acceptance for the defeated South.

Yet in this spring of 2000, nearly a century and a half after he surrendered his army at Appomattox, Lee is again amid conflict—of words and symbols rather than arms. Though he spent far more of his years in Alexandria and Arlington than in Richmond, the current dispute is centered in the erstwhile Confederate capital.

While revisionist historians dissect his record, some aggrieved citizens protest the public presence of his picture there in the city he fought to defend. After officials appeased objectors by removing his uniformed likeness from a display depicting Richmond’s long history, vandals defaced the image of Lee as civilian that had been substituted. They can see Lee only in black and white, as a symbol of the old South and slavery.

He was much more interesting than that.

Peace and reconstruction hardly had begun when those still devoted to the lost cause of the Confederacy set out to elevate Lee to sainthood. They were not alone. As early as 1867, while Lee was president of a struggling Virginia college, a New York admirer wrote a children’s book that raised him to the heights alongside Santa Claus. It tells how a Virginia girl who lived near Appomattox witnessed Lee’s surrender. Rushing to him, she cried, “Oh, General! Oh, General! Has it come to this?”

“The noble old man looked at her for a moment, while the big tears rolled down his care-worn cheek and said, ‘Be reconciled, my child; the Supreme knows best.’”

After the Civil War ended in 1865, lifelong soldier Robert E. Lee became a college president. He's shown astride his horse Traveller in 1866, four years before his death. Photograph from Corbis-Bettmann.

The child who heard this story asked, “Did General Lee say that?” Assured that he had, she said, “Well, then, I will try to say so too, for he is one of the noblest men God ever made. Bless his dear old heart!”

Three-fourths of a century later, the very name of Lee still carried almost biblical significance among white Southerners, from elderly ladies to schoolboys. I grew up in southside Virginia, on Lee Street in Danville, and attended Lee Street Baptist Church. I wasn’t surprised to hear about the boy who came home from Sunday school and asked his mother whether General Lee appeared in the Old Testament or the New. In the fifth grade, at Robert E. Lee School on Loyal Street, I played Lee in our Pageant of Virginia, wearing borrowed riding boots and gauntlets that came up to my elbows. Our Virginia history textbook was less imaginative than Robert E. Lee and Santa Claus, but it had much the same tone of reverence.

More sophisticated authors and orators produced more sophisticated versions of what made Lee special.

Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson, ambitious to become president, said, “We use the word ‘great’ indiscriminately,” for tycoons, writers, orators, heroes—“But we reserve the word ‘noble’ carefully for those whose greatness is not spent in their own interest. . . . Now that was the characteristic of General Lee’s life.”

Former Union colonel Charles Francis Adams Jr., grandson and great-grandson of Yankee presidents, said years after the war that 20th-century America desperately needed someone like Lee as its leader. A noted British military historian called Lee “undoubtedly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, soldier who ever spoke the English tongue.” As late as 1989, the Encyclopedia Americana adopted that language as its own.

Many other soldiers—Rebels, Yankees, and foreigners—agreed with those assessments. More books have been written about Lee than about any Civil War figure except Lincoln. Most have been praiseful. But inevitably, such uncritical praise provoked reaction.

Even before Lee took command outside Richmond in 1862, there was press and political criticism of his soldiering. It grew after the war, when politicians and ex-generals clashed over credit and blame for what had happened. And today, Lee’s heroic image makes him a target for the idol-smashing so fashionable among historians, novelists, and moviemakers.

History is in the very soil of the Northern Neck, the long peninsula between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Three of the nation’s first five presidents—George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe—were born on the Neck within 30 miles of each other. The only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence—Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee—were born at Stratford Hall plantation, just down the Potomac from Washington’s birthplace at Pope’s Creek.

Their family had been a force in Virginia for well over a century when another Henry Lee won the nickname “Light-Horse Harry” as Washington’s favorite cavalryman. After the Revolution, Harry married his cousin and became the master of Stratford Hall. He rose in politics, serving three terms as governor. In Congress, it was Lee who eulogized Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

During Harry’s political ascent, his first wife died and he married Anne Hill Carter of Shirley plantation on the James, bringing together two of the state’s most illustrious families. Their youngest son, Robert Edward, was born on January 19, 1807, at Stratford plantation. His cradle is still there. But when Robert was barely old enough to store away memories, he left Stratford.

Light-Horse Harry’s potential had seemed limitless, but he speculated in land and fell into debtor’s prison. He lost Stratford, and Mrs. Lee had to take her family to Alexandria, where the family lived successively on Cameron, Washington, and Oronoco streets. Harry died in disgrace, leaving Robert fatherless at 11.

Thus, when Robert Lee decided to become a soldier, he had a family name to live up to—and to live down. Light-Horse Harry’s military reputation still gleamed bright enough to help his son get an 1825 appointment to West Point. Four years later, he graduated without a single demerit. Then he spent 17 years on routine engineering assignments in the slow-moving “old army.”

Lee’s greatest satisfaction in that long stretch was personal: In 1831, he married Mary Anne Randolph Custis, great-grand-daughter of Martha Washington. The Custis mansion at Arlington, across the Potomac from the capital, was a virtual memorial to General Washington.

For the next 30 years, Arlington was Lee’s home, “where my affection and attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world.” Six of his seven children were born there. This link strengthened Lee’s devotion to George Washington as model for his own life. As one biographer wrote, “more than ever had he now a reputation to live up to—the reputation of Washington, and from this day onwards he became his representative on earth.”

When Lee departed for the war in Mexico, he carried Washington’s silver as part of his kit. There, as a 40-year-old captain, he got his first lessons of combat under two very different veterans of the War of 1812—generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott.

Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready,” was so indifferent to military trappings that his own troops sometimes mistook him for a stray farmer. But it was with Scott, “Old Fuss and Feathers,” that Lee served first under fire and learned to operate on a command level. Scott loved pomp and glitter but was a bold strategist and serious student of war.

Campaigning toward Mexico City, Lee became the old general’s most trusted staff officer. Later, Scott would call him “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.”

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Posted at 01:30 PM/ET, 06/14/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles