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How Did Robert E. Lee Become an American Icon?

By James C. Cobb | HUMANITIES, July/August 2011 | Volume 32, Number 4

After President Dwight D. Eisenhower revealed on national television that one of the four “great Americans” whose pictures hung in his office was none other than Robert E. Lee, a thoroughly perplexed New York dentist reminded him that Lee had devoted “his best efforts to the destruction of the United States government” and confessed that since he could not see “how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me.” Eisenhower replied personally and without hesitation, explaining that Lee was, “in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. . . . selfless almost to a fault . . . noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities . . . we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.”

Eisenhower was not the first president of the United States to express such reverence for Lee, nor would he be the last. Needless to say, the story of how anyone becomes a heroic role model to a nation that he has made war upon is likely to be a bit complicated, but in this case it is well worth telling simply for what it says about the extraordinary elasticity of historical symbols when they can be bent to the aims of a cohesive, purposeful set of interests in the present.

Postbellum white southerners borrowed the term “Lost Cause” from Sir Walter Scott’s romantic depiction of the failed struggle for Scottish independence in 1746. For them, however, memorializing their recent and bitter defeat at the hands of the Yankees was no mere flight into escapist fantasy. Rather, it was part of a willful strategy, aimed at both restoring white supremacy in the South and regaining the economic and political power needed to insulate white southerners from any future northern interference in their racial affairs. If this could be achieved, insisted Lost Cause advocate Edward A. Pollard, the South might yet triumph “in the true cause of the war, with respect to all its fundamental and vital issues.” Accordingly, the carefully constructed Lost Cause legend justified secession as a courageously principled act, glorified the society that badly outmanned white southerners had gone to war to preserve, and even transformed their defeat on the battlefield into a source of moral elevation. Lost Cause proponents presented slavery as a benign and civilizing institution and insisted that it certainly was not the reason behind secession. Although he had declared forthrightly in 1861 that slavery was the very “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, its former vice president, Alexander Stephens, was equally adamant by 1868 that the Civil War had not been fought over “that peculiar institution” but was “a strife between the principles of states’ rights and centralism.”

Jefferson Davis, meanwhile, became a moving force within the Southern Historical Society (SHS), composed primarily of prominent former Confederates intent on amassing a formidable arsenal of historical documentation “from which the defenders of our cause may draw any desired weapon.” Sensing that these historical weapons might be deployed not simply to exalt the Lost Cause but perhaps even to regain some of its objectives, Davis marshaled the resources of the SHS to ensure that the Confederacy and his leadership thereof would be presented in the most favorable light.

Davis’s SHS compatriot, Robert L. Dabney, also saw the potential to spin history into propaganda that would stir the emotions of succeeding generations of white southerners and, it was hoped, secure the sympathies of white northerners as well. To that end, as Dabney saw it, what the South really needed was “a book of ‘Acts and Monuments of Confederate Martyrs.’” The most obvious martyr-in-waiting was none other than Jefferson Davis himself. Davis’s presidency had seen its share of conflict, but his two years in prison and unwavering insistence that the South’s cause had been both just and noble soon transformed him into an emotional symbol of Confederate suffering. Even Atlanta journalist Henry Grady, the champion of a “New South” built around business and industry, would exalt Davis as “the uncrowned king of our people.”

In reality, however, Davis’s repeated declarations that even knowing “all that has come to pass . . . I would do it all over again” made him a less than ideal spiritual monarch for Grady’s New South, whose economic fortunes depended on securing the good graces of wealthy northeastern investors. Clearly, this was an enterprise in which no one dubbed “the chief of traitors” by the New York Times stood to be much of an asset.

Davis’s beloved Southern Historical Society would nonetheless prove critical to sacralizing the historical and personal reputation of the man who would actually become not just an embodiment of the highest ideals of the Lost Cause, but one whom succeeding generations of northern and southern whites alike found both admirable and inspiring. As the son of a Revolutionary War hero whose thirty-two years of exemplary military service had actually earned him an invitation to lead the Union Army in suppressing the southern rebellion, Robert Edward Lee had known his own very personal Gethsemane before respectfully declining this offer, explaining that he could not bring himself to take up arms against his native state. In his role as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee had quickly earned the respect of comrades and foes alike, and when it had finally become inescapably apparent that nothing was to be gained from fighting further, he had respectfully rejected Jefferson Davis’s call for continued resistance through guerilla tactics that would reduce his men to “mere bands of marauders” and serve only to inflict further suffering on the civilian population. In stark contrast to Davis’s unbridled bitterness, Lee had advised his fellow southerners to “unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of the war” and endeavor to “promote harmony and good feeling.” Finally, instead of launching an undignified and divisive campaign for personal vindication, Lee had humbly sequestered himself in relative obscurity as president of little Washington College until his death in 1870.

Lee’s death at age sixty-three actually left his would-be canonizers free both to invoke him as they pleased and to ensure that his reputation remained immaculate by dispelling the lingering questions about his leadership at Gettysburg. Former subordinates like Generals Jubal A. Early and John B. Gordon (who was also something of a front man for Grady’s New South campaign) deftly mobilized the Southern Historical Society’s formidable “spin machine” to lay blame for the defeat squarely at the feet of General James Longstreet.

Regardless of whether Longstreet’s failure to advance in the timely fashion that Lee apparently ordered had actually sealed the Confederates’ fate at Gettysburg, absolving Lee at his expense gave Lost Cause propagandists full license to cultivate the legend of Lee’s infallibility as “a public officer without vices [and] a private citizen without wrong.”

In a Gilded Age America rife with scandal and greed, such a selfless and incorruptible hero was not a hard sell. The New York Herald had already declared upon Lee’s death that “here in the North we . . . have claimed him as one of ourselves” and “extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us.” Frustrated and perplexed by such eulogies, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass complained bitterly that he could scarcely find a northern newspaper “that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee,” whose military accomplishments in the name of a “bad cause” seemed somehow to entitle him “to the highest place in heaven.” Twenty years later, a crowd estimated at 100,000 to 150,000 showed up in Richmond for the unveiling of a massive statue of Lee astride his beloved mount, Traveller. Even a writer for the Minneapolis Tribune who took exception to white southerners’ insistence on anointing Lee “as a man of finer and better mold than his famous antagonists” was forced to admit that the “Lee cult is much in vogue, even at the North, in these days.”

Although it had denounced Jefferson Davis as a traitor on more than one occasion, in 1903 the New York Times charged that the Kansas congressional delegation had simply been “waving the bloody shirt” of sectional bitterness when they opposed efforts to place Lee’s statue in the U.S. Capitol. Journalists were hardly alone in helping to nationalize Lee’s appeal. Popular historian James Ford Rhodes, an Ohioan, praised him unstintingly, as did no less a proper Bostonian than Charles Francis Adams II, who felt Lee’s courage, wisdom, and strength could only “reflect honor on our American manhood.” No one put greater stock in American manhood than Theodore Roosevelt, who, with characteristic restraint, pronounced Lee “the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth” and declared that his dignified acceptance of defeat helped “build the wonderful and mighty triumph of our national life, in which all his countrymen, north and south, share.” A generation later, as readers devoured Douglas Southall Freeman’s adoring four-volume biography of Lee, another President Roosevelt would simply laud him “as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”

White Americans’ overwhelmingly uncritical embrace of Lee actually was central to the story of how, in historian David W. Blight’s terms, the campaign for national “reconciliation” thoroughly trumped the old “emancipationist” vision of the abolitionists and Radical Republicans during the first half century or so after Appomattox. In addition to New South propagandizing about the reciprocal benefits of northern investment in southern economic revitalization, the racial practices and attitudes of white southerners seemed far less troubling amid the frustrations of dealing with the nonwhite peoples brought under American supervision by the imperialist ventures of the 1890s. Further discouragement against meddling in southern race relations came not only from Rhodes and Adams, but a new generation of southerners who earned their doctorates at Columbia under Professor William A. Dunning and did their part as academic historians to portray the Reconstruction experiment as both ill-advised and unduly harsh on defeated and struggling white southerners.

Union veterans of the war, meanwhile, were encouraged to forget the bitter antagonisms that had fueled the conflict itself and to respect, even embrace, their former enemies who had battled so courageously for a cause effectively ennobled simply by their steadfast dedication to it. In short, what mattered now was not why each side had fought, but simply that each had fought honorably and well, a fact that should inspire feelings not of resentment but of brotherhood, regardless of who wore the blue and who the gray. When more than 53,000 of these old soldiers came together for the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1913, it was not, as Virginia governor William Hodges Mann admonished the group, “to discuss what caused the war of 1861–65,” but simply “to talk over the events of the battle here as man to man.”

Woodrow Wilson, the first southern-born president since the Civil War (and also an ardent admirer of Lee), praised the gathering as the ideal opportunity “to celebrate . . . the end of all strife between the sections.” In the wake of the affair, the National Tribune, a Union veterans’ organ, eagerly hailed the “death of sectionalism” and the “obliterating of Mason and Dixon’s line.”

More than two generations later, Walker Percy, who had been thoroughly catechized in the Reconciliationist gospel as a youth, found it alive and pervasive as the nation began its official observance of the Civil War centennial. Contemporary writing about the war, Percy noted, “commemorates mainly the fighting. . . . Yet it is all very good-natured. . . . In the popular media the war is so friendly that the fighting is made to appear as a kind of sacrament of fire by which one side expresses its affection for the other.” Compared with politics, certainly, there was “an innocence about combat,” and the centennial’s narrow focus on the military aspects of the war virtually assured that Robert E. Lee would garner even more attention than Abraham Lincoln, especially given “Lee’s very great personal qualities,” not to mention “the American preference for good guys and underdogs, and especially underdog good guys.”

The almost ostentatious magnanimity shown the Confederates during the centennial was especially striking because a century after emancipation, as Percy noted, “the embarrassing fact that the Negro is not treated as a man in the North or the South” was effectively “a ghost at the [centennial] feast.” Sit-ins and freedom rides had already marked a more confrontational turn in the civil rights movement, and centennial officials hoped to avoid having their activities drawn into this conflict, either by segregationist demagogues invoking the idealized states’ rights rhetoric of the Confederates or by black leaders likening their crusade to the struggle for emancipation. On the latter point, as one of them explained, “We’re not emphasizing Emancipation. You see, there’s a bigger theme—the beginning of a new America.”

As the nation entered what would become the most acutely dangerous years of the Cold War, national unity and morale clearly took precedence over the divisive issue of racial equality. All the more reason to use this occasion, as a Georgia centennial pamphlet put it, to “discern from our history what has made us the most powerful and united [nation] on the face of the earth.” Naturally, if facing up to Cold War realities required a renewal of faith in American virtue, a Virginia centennial spokesman could think of no finer example than Robert E. Lee, “a man largely without hate, without fear and without pride, greed or selfish ambition.” Regarded by North and South as easily the war’s greatest general and rivaled only by Lincoln as its greatest man, Lee, as historian Thomas L. Connelly saw it, “emerged from the Centennial more than ever adored by the nation.”

As centennial activities wound down with an April 1965 reenactment of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Congress was considering an aggressive new voting rights bill that would profoundly alter the dynamic of both southern and ultimately national politics. In addition to the sweeping changes in the political and economic status of many African Americans that have marked the last half century, scholars have effectively toppled the historical pillars that once supported the old Reconciliationist temple, showing, for example, that slavery was not only the root cause of the Civil War but an incredibly brutal rather than benign institution. Moreover, contrary to Reconciliation lore, enslaved blacks had readily abandoned their old masters in great numbers as the Yankees approached and thus had played a critical role in their own emancipation, not to mention the outcome of the war.

Fifty years ago, African Americans gained little traction in protesting their virtual exclusion both from the planning process for the Civil War centennial and from the core narrative that centennial officials were pushing. Suffice it to say, the sesquicentennial observance promises to be different. Not only are blacks themselves far better positioned politically and economically to influence the tone and content of the various activities, but in an era of heightened racial sensitivity, a great many whites are less inclined to allow for ambiguity in Confederate symbols, human and otherwise. Over the last generation, we have seen heated conflicts about the Confederate battle flag in Georgia and several other states. Statues and paintings could be just as divisive. Blacks and whites squabbled in 1995 over placing a statue of Richmond’s own Arthur Ashe, a tennis legend and widely celebrated humanitarian, near the likenesses of Lee, Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and other Confederate stalwarts adorning the city’s Monument Avenue. A veritable firestorm erupted a few years later when a black councilman compared displaying Lee’s picture in his inner-city district to hanging Adolf Hitler’s portrait in a public square in Israel and threatened a boycott if a mural featuring Lee were not pulled from an exhibition of paintings featuring historically prominent Virginians that adorned Richmond’s Canal Walk. Not surprisingly, perhaps, sensitivity to historical symbolism has been slow to subside in the former Confederate capital, where in April 2011 vandals spray-painted “No Hero” on statues of both Lee and Jefferson Davis.

Elsewhere in the South, African-American activists demanded the removal of monuments or the renaming of public streets, parks, buildings, and schools commemorating Confederate leaders or prominent slaveholders. In New Orleans, for example, the majority black school board voted to change Robert E. Lee Elementary School to Ronald E. McNair Elementary in honor of the first black astronaut, who was also a victim of the Challenger disaster.

For many black southerners, the widespread assault on Confederate icons and symbols went hand in hand with celebrating the crusade to free the South from the racial system constructed on the ruins of the Confederate legacy. Civil rights museums and memorials became prominent attractions in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Memphis to name but a few, and by 1996 the cities and towns of the old Confederacy accounted for 77 percent of the nation’s streets named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

One of the greatest breakthroughs accompanying the destruction of Jim Crow was registered in opinion surveys, which since the late 1960s have consistently shown blacks about as likely as whites to identify themselves as southerners. This does not mean, however, that the two always agree on how that identity should be represented. Championing efforts to remove the Confederate insignia from the Georgia state flag, Atlanta journalist John Head made it clear in 1993 that “the South is my home [and] I am a Southerner,” but he would not accept “the Confederate battle flag as an emblem in which all Georgians can take pride.” Some fifteen years later, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey sounded much like Head when she insisted, “There are other Souths beyond the white Confederate South. . . . My South didn’t lose the war. We won.”

Trethewey’s dichotomy might be just as applicable to the civil rights movement, of course, and Lee’s decision to choose the wrong side of one of America’s greatest moral crusades ultimately consigned him, by default at least, to the wrong side of the other. Ulysses S. Grant could respect his vanquished counterpart “who had . . . suffered so much for a cause,” even though he felt constrained to add, “that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Not surprisingly, separating man and cause is far trickier today than it was in 1865. Defenders who are quick to point out Lee’s dislike of slavery are not always so swift to note that he actually described it as “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race” or that he believed “the painful discipline” inflicted on the slaves was “necessary for their instruction as a race.” Such a view may have distinguished him but little from the majority of northern whites at the time, but it was Lee, after all, who commanded a massive military effort that, if successful, would surely have extended the life span of slavery regardless of the broad moral or economic currents that had already begun to cut against it. Nor is there any gainsaying that Lee’s installation in first the southern then the national pantheon owes much to the efforts of those who were also bent on restoring and preserving white supremacy in the postbellum South, or that he has been the namesake of many a klavern of Kluxers, or that, of all his contemporary champions, none sing his praises more lustily than the belligerent representatives of neo-Confederate secessionist groups.

Yet, for all these associations with unsavory actors and hurtful causes, not to mention the determined efforts of a bevy of historians obsessed with finding fault, a 1996 survey indicating that he was still admired by 64 percent of respondents in the South and 60 percent of those outside it suggests that, for many Americans, Robert E. Lee remains something of a Teflon icon. Even a reviewer who criticized an NEH-supported January 2011 PBS documentary on Lee for taking it too easy on “a slavery apologist” whose “Old Dominion snobbery and sense of honor” had led him to “back the wrong side for the wrong reasons” had to admit the subject of the film himself was “a whole lotta man.” Not everyone, of course, is willing to grant Lee such benefit of the doubt, particularly African Americans troubled by Lee’s actual and figurative connections with the persecution of their forebears. Understandably, they would prefer to see other, more affirmative icons front and center in a hotly contested public memory that frequently tells us less about a broadly defined past than the aims and sensibilities of those who seem to hold sway in the present. Denying that whites held sole claim to what “the South” means, Natasha Trethewey explained, “I don’t want to take it away from anyone. I just want them to recognize that it’s mine, too.”

Such recognition is also essential if the South’s (and thus, the nation’s) history is to be presented both accurately and comprehensively. However, when Trethewey insists that “my South didn’t lose the war,” she points not to the separate pasts of blacks and whites so much as to the way in which, at critical times, they simply experienced a common past quite differently. Doing full justice to such a past makes stark juxtapositions and contrasts inevitable. It is not necessarily a bad thing that the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site shares top billing as an Atlanta tourist attraction with the massive images of Lee, Davis, and Stonewall Jackson carved into nearby Stone Mountain, or even that Virginia celebrates Lee-Jackson Day on the Friday preceding the Monday observance of Rev. King’s birthday. After all, “We Shall Overcome” never seems more stirring and powerful than when it is performed in places like Birmingham or Selma, where it is still very easy to remember what actually had to be overcome.

Finally, there is surely polarization enough over the far more substantive and urgent concerns of a needful present without incessant quarreling over how the past is represented. When an Annapolis councilman called for the former slave port to issue an official apology for the “perpetual pain, distrust and bitterness” that slavery inflicted on black people, a constituent allowed that she would “prefer that the aldermen have a resolution to atone for the lack of a decent middle school curriculum in Anne Arundel County.”

For all his apparent personal virtues, there is no denying Robert E. Lee’s direct connection with the cause of slavery or his symbolic appropriation by those who succeeded in replacing slavery with Jim Crow. Unfortunately, although it might make for good political melodrama and perhaps even gladden the departed soul of Frederick Douglass, stripping Lee’s name from a school is unlikely to reduce overcrowding in its classrooms, upgrade its computer or science labs, or end drug trafficking in its corridors. If it would, ironically enough, Lee—at least the one Dwight Eisenhower saw in the portrait on his wall—would likely be the first to join Douglass in endorsing the move.

About the Author

Historian James C. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia and the author of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity.

Funding Information

Cobb's work on the book was supported by a $40,000 grant from NEH.