Getting Right With Robert E. Lee


In 1905, on a visit to Richmond, the noted man of letters Henry James was struck by the sight of the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee high atop its pedestal overlooking Monument Avenue. There was about it, James thought, “a strange eloquence … a kind of melancholy nobleness.” Something in the figure suggested “a quite sublime effort to ignore, to sit, as it were, superior and indifferent … so that the vast association of the futile for the moment drops away from it.” Several decades later Lee’s biographer Douglas Southall Freeman passed the Lee statue in Richmond daily and invariably saluted it. “I shall not fail to do that as long as I live,” Freeman said. Lee has that effect on people. For almost a century and a third, Americans, Northerners and Southerners, have been trying to get right with Robert E. Lee.

Such is the paradox of the man that today both those who consider General Lee a detriment to the Confederacy and those who consider him an undefiled military genius reach the same conclusion: The South would have been better off without him. The detractor says Lee squandered the South’s slim resources of men and matériel, destroying any chance for ultimate Confederate victory; the admirer says that without Lee the Confederacy would have crumbled early, thus saving numerous Southern lives and much Southern suffering. It is at least safe to say that the course of the Civil War as we know it would have been very different without this one man.

Creating the mythic Robert E. Lee began only after his death, for in life he would never have permitted it.

Getting right with Lee has never been a simple task. Mary Chesnut, who observed him carefully during the war, wondered if anyone could really know him: “He looks so cold and quiet and grand.” When Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862, writes Bruce Catton, “This gray man in gray rode his dappled gray horse into legend almost at once, and like all legendary figures he came before long to seem almost supernatural, a man of profound mystery.” To the poet Stephen Vincent Benét, Lee was:

A figure lost to flesh and blood and bones,

Frozen into a legend out of life,

A blank-verse statue —…

For here was someone who lived all his life

In the most fierce and open light of the sun

And kept his heart a secret to the end

From all the picklocks of biographers.

Benét called him “the marble man.”

In the aftershock of Appomattox most Southerners were not immediately drawn to idolizing their generals. The war, after all, had been lost on the battlefields, and now there was nothing at all to celebrate except the end to the killing. To be sure, of all the South’s generals Lee was even then the most respected, for back in the days when there had been victories to celebrate, most of them were his. In the years after the war, first in Richmond and then as president of little Washington College in Lexington, Lee was quietly honored by his fellow Virginians whenever they had the opportunity. At his death in Lexington in 1870 there was a modest military cortege and bells tolled and a battery from the Virginia Military Institute fired minute guns. The general’s last words had been “Strike the tent,” and that seemed to sound the proper final note for the old soldier’s passing.

But of course that was not the end of it. The tent was never struck. Creating the mythic Robert E. Lee began only after his death, for in life he would never have permitted it. In life Lee was not without ambition, nor was he self-effacing to the point of false modesty, and he harbored pride in what he had accomplished in the war. ‘There is nothing left me to do but to go and see General Grant,” he had said on the day he surrendered his army at Appomattox, “and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” But the process whereby he was canonized to secular sainthood would have triggered in him that icy anger that withered anyone at whom it was aimed. Those who created him the marble man, however, were out of his reach from beyond the grave. The marbling process, writes the historian C. Vann Woodward, “was the work of many hands, not all of them pious, the product of mixed motives, not all of them worthy.”