Robert E. Lee, Part II: My Heirloom Portrait of the Confederate General

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Heirloom portrait of Robert E. Lee sitting in my closet.

One fond memory of a trip to Gettysburg National Park consisted of my siblings, my cousins, and myself participating in a juvenile reenactment of the battle, complete with replica hats, jackets, and a discussion of soldierly life.

The instillment of the Civil War era in my life made it so the very idea of the conflict edged unassumingly along the spectrum of familiarity to complacency; to me Lee was always more of a character in a dramatic historical play, more protagonist than antagonist.

Consequently, I never considered the differing perspectives various people might have of the portrait of Robert E. Lee that hung in my childhood home, stoically placed as if the general himself were keeping watch over us.

I never thought twice about asking my parents for the portrait when they moved out of their house and downsized to a condo lacking abundant of wall space for Lee to reside.

As I understand it, portrait was found among knickknacks in my great-grandmother’s house after she passed away, salvaged by my mother to fit snug in our collection of U.S. history paraphernalia; Lee’s portrait hung admidst silhouettes of George and Martha Washington, adjacent to a bookshelf of which the subjects ranged from folklore to religion to the life and times of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

I know not why my great-grandmother owned the portrait to begin with and I submit to you that my family are not confederate sympathizers who take stock of the “Lost Cause” ideology currently surging among white nationalists and group supremacists.

Indeed in speaking about her, my mother suspects that she was more anarchist than racist. She emigrated from politically turbulent Italy with an inherent distrust of power and bureaucracy, and in Lee perhaps she saw an emblem of anti-establishment ethos.

My parents consented to me taking ownership of the portrait and I hauled it out to my Western Massachusetts apartment where I intended to hang Lee amidst my own collection of literature and history.

In the wake of the New Orleans controversy  where residents protested the removal of Confederate monuments,  I wrote that Lee’s historical significance should be viewed through the same lens as Washington, or Thomas Jefferson, or others of note.

Using slavery as the foundation of my argument, my point was that Lee shouldn’t be vilified for defending Virginia, and that Washington and Jefferson, who owned slaves and on occasion subjected them to cruelty, shouldn’t be lionized.

I played up Lee’s career in academia and life as a family man.

Then I read the speech delivered just prior to the removal of Lee’s likeness by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. I encourage you to do the same.

Landrieu eloquently explained that removing the statues isn’t the deletion of an era of our history but rather the confrontation of it head on. It’s taking responsibility to correct prejudicial symbols which do not exemplify our values. 

Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it?

Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential?

Could I justify hanging that portrait among my most treasured possessions? Is Robert E. Lee an appropriate representation for my love of American history? If an African-American friend came over and saw Lee hanging in my apartment, could I validly defend it? 

When Donald Trump attempted to justify Lee statues by invoking the omnipresence of Washington statues, a similar argument to my own prior,  it dawned on me that the estates of Washington and Jefferson (Mount Vernon and Monticello, respectively) face the slavery issue head on, leading tours and explicit discussions about the significance that slavery had in the two men’s lives and surroundings.

They don’t deny that these men were slavers. They elaborate on it. And it doesn’t seem that any of these Lee statue proponents are willing to recognize, or at least state outright, that Lee was a white supremacist if not a full-blown racist.

He wrote to his wife in 1856,

The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.

Lee has become a symbol for white supremacists, evidenced by the tragedy that has swept Charlottesville, VA, a community caught in the crosshairs of protesters demonstrating for and against the removal of a Lee statue. A woman died and dozens were injured when a Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a crowd of people protesting against white nationalists favoring the statue.

Lee has come to represent intolerance and bigotry, and thus his statues must be demolished. His choice to support the Confederacy seems to have warranted in the minds of racists, disguised as free speech advocates, acts of violence in response to perceived threats to their history, i.e., razing a statue of Lee to them is like razing their heritage.

These statues were built to amplify a specific aspect of Lee, not to celebrate all facets of him. They do not depict Lee the educator or Lee the family man. Showing him in Confederate regalia, often mounted on his horse, they were built as rationalizations, a means of trying to paint white supremacy in an empathizing light; the presumption is, Lee was a chivalrous man and so his choice to take up arms for the Confederacy was born of chivalry.

By keeping the statues, and perpetuating this notion, southerners are doing more harm to their heritage than they would by removing them. They are sustaining a lie and passing it down as truth.

If a Lee statue is truly needed to preserve Southern history, let it be of him surrendering to Ulysses Grant. In that moment can be found graciousness, modesty, empathy, sympathy, solemnity, shame, victory, and defeat.

It maintains historical context, correctly depicting the outcome of Lee’s campaign and the ultimate defeat of the subjugation of humans in the United States.

The degree to which we need to recalibrate the legacy of Lee is incalculable. It must begin in school where young children are introduced to Lee the man as well as Lee the symbol, and all sides of which that symbol represents. Pulling down statues of Lee is merely the beginning. There is much work to do to quell the hate and racism he has come to personify.

We must teach with sincerity that Lee’s decision to head the Confederate army was misguided and fundamentally wrong. They must understand that all choices are consequential, that the lens through which figures like Lee are viewed should be corrected.

This act of correction does not revisionist history make.

This act of correction sets straight the record.

We should memorialize those who transcend race, religion, and all of the other differences between groups of people that have sparked dissension; suffragists, abolitionists, philanthropists, volunteers, and non-violent activists. It is they who are most deserving of marble statues, bronze busts, and vibrant portraits. In considering them and posing to ourselves the questions asked by Landrieu, we can respond in the affirmative without question and without hesitation.

I cannot in good faith hang the portrait of Lee in my home. It’s likely he’ll be stashed indefinitely, or at least until I can find a place for him in the right context, surrounded by other Civil War memorabilia without downplaying that Lee and his Confederates lost.

Until that day comes, the general is simply out of place in my apartment. The inhumane acts in Charlottesville have shed a floodlight on the fact that Lee is now representative of a potent yet vile perspective. Until people realize that Lee cannot be celebrated, that he should be used more as a historical tool for depicting the aftermath of a person’s fall from grace, he should not be used for decorating walls.

In 1861, Lee wrote to his son,

Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for ‘perpetual union,’ so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled.

I wonder what my great-grandmother, who considered Lee the model of anti-government sentimentality, would think of that statement.

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5 thoughts on “Robert E. Lee, Part II: My Heirloom Portrait of the Confederate General

  1. I empathize w/ Lee’s moral dilemma – take up arms against the republic he served vs. take up arms against your home. Unfortunately his home and the side he chose was born and bred w/ slavery and fought to keep it. Picture is too good not to hang in your house – looks like he has his west point blue on so you should be good.

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  2. R.E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were proud men. They don’t need monuments to commemorate their valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful fight. The history books will remember them as they were.

    Now roll tide.

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  3. Brilliant article, Nick. I face the same dilemma you did. The Robert E. Lee in my mind is the one from the 1993 movie “Gettysburg”. A grandfatherly figure, noble in his belief that he was doing the right thing. The part that I seem to forget is that Gettysburg was an invasion of the United States, and an invasion on the behalf of slavery. Above all else, the Civil War was about slavery. It’s in the documents of secession. It’s in the Cornerstone Speech.

    As much as my heart admires these confederates, my head corrects: these are men who fought to uphold slavery. You make a great point about the statues. We need to commemorate the abolitionists, the one’s with the clarity of mind to see past their times. The ones who fought to rid us of this “peculiar institution”. Even now, the only abolitionist I can think of is Thoreau’s guy, the violent John Brown. Who are some others we ought to honor?

    Thanks, and keep the articles coming!!

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  4. Dear Love Thy Neighbor (shouldn’t we all?),
    Senator Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe come to mind as notable abolitionists who have been recognized for their courageous stances and should be saluted anew.
    Dear Nick,
    Once again you eloquently captured the true nature of the situation – past and present. However, Lee does not need to be banished to the basement. Hanging him on your wall is different from glorifying him, atop his noble Traveller, etched in marble before the public square. We must not deny the Civil War but recognize that its purpose through the eyes of the Confederates was to preserve slavery. Let us find some Union relics in order to correctly surround Lee with those who vanquished him and his rebels. That would be most appropriate.
    Charlie

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