On this day in 1806 or 1807, Robert Edward Lee was born at Stratford in Westmoreland County, the youngest son of Henry Lee III and Ann Hill Carter Lee. We have already indicated this week the ways in which Lee’s legacy has been long and troubled. The journalist and blogger James Fallows piles on, posting this letter from a United States Army officer:
Y’know, when I was growing up the “Solid South” was still a Democratic stronghold. The whole region seems to bitch whomever depends on it. But somebody ought to do a sociology Ph.D. on the love the US Army has for the Confederacy.
I drove in this morning behind a huge dualie with a rear windshield lovingly painted with a waving Confederate battle flag and an ornate “CSA” lettered across it. Makes me want to throttle someone. I remember the visiting officers’ quarters at Fort Sam Houston had a painting of General Lee and his fellows riding home from war — I’d look at it and think, yeah, they just shot a bunch of _us_. It’s creepy, but there’s an awful lot of Confederate stuff on and around military bases.
For that matter, there are bases named for Confederates: Fort Lee, of course, and Fort Bragg, and Fort Hood … But Lee’s legacy is more complicated than that, as our yet-to-be-published Lee in Memory entry makes clear:
During his own life, Lee modeled himself after the courtly and self-controlled George Washington and cultivated a sense of himself as a character in a drama and a prisoner of fate. After his death, Lee was less likely to be branded a traitor; instead, he became a symbol of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war, transformed into a crucial agent of sectional reconciliation. The Civil War, according to the Lost Cause, was not about slavery but about states’ rights and, ultimately, the honor and bravery of white soldiers on both sides. In this regard, Lee served the needs not just of the Confederacy or of the South, but of all America. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s encouraged historians to engage a broader social and political canvas when writing about Lee, and this has led some scholars to challenge traditional conclusions about Lee’s significance and meaning. Like Washington, Lee is the seminal figure in a transformational moment, but of a different sort. He is the symbol of a vision that failed, and yet also the redeemer of a cause that has lived a long and often tragic afterlife.
Why tragic? This could serve as Exhibit A.
IMAGES: Left: General Robert E. Lee (2010) by Zach Franzen; top right: detail from postcard image of Stratford Hall (National Park Service); bottom right: a Chevy truck emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag