Lee, Robert E.

Thomas L. Connelly

Lee's hero status benefited from the adulation of three seemingly disparate groups: Virginians, other southerners, and other Americans. Each group lauded and idealized many of the same features when viewing Lee. The devoted son of an ailing mother, Lee was a young man of abstemious habits and a model student at West Point. He was the loving, devoted husband of ailing Mary Custis, the "child of Arlington." In his life before the Civil War and thereafter, Lee displayed elements of a gentlemanly, Christian character shared by few others. His life was the epitome of humility, self-sacrifice, and reserve. Even Robert E. Lee's involvement in the Civil War was viewed as different. Lee was the reluctant rebel who disliked slavery and secession, one whose love for the Union transcended that of the other southern officers in 1860 and 1861.

After the Civil War, lee the Confederate became Lee the American. He refused to prolong conflict by guerilla warfare; Lee declined as well to flee the South or to keep alive the embers of sectional bitterness. Instead, the Virginian shunned lucrative business offers and accepted the modest post as president of Washington College. There he counseled moderation and acceptance of defeat. By his postwar example, Robert E. Lee thus helped to restore the Union. The consistent repetition of these images is evident first in southern writings and then in general American literature from 1865 until World War I.

The rapid development of the Lee mystique is one of the most remarkable developments in the genre of American heroic symbolism. Evidence from contemporary accounts indicates that Lee's status as a hero did not evolve until after his death in 1870. In wartime he shared popularity with such Confederate notables as generals Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Joseph E. Johnston, and P. G. T. Beauregard. A number of writers criticized Lee's military leadership, particularly his direction of the Gettysburg campaign.

By the 1870s, after the general's death, the tone of Lee historiography changed markedly. A high degree of organization was evident in the commemoration of Lee's exploits, as well such as the Lee Memorial Association, and Ladies' Lee Monument Association labored to improve his image. They were aided by the Southern Historical Society, whose Papers became the most respected southern outlet of Civil War history in the late 19th century. The society and its Papers were dominated totally by Lee devotees such as former generals Jubal Early and Fitzhugh Lee and excrebel chaplain John William Jones. For them and scores of others, mainly Virginians, the depiction of the stainless Robert E. Lee became a crusade for the Lost Cause.

The literary dominance of Virginia authors continued in a second generation of writers whose main literary impact was felt in the period between the 1880s and World War I. Although the postwar generation had written mainly for a southern audience, the new authors wrote for the northern public. Virginia authors seemed to dominate the topic of the Civil War in both fiction and nonfiction. For several decades, beginning in the 1880s, the national reading public was fed a version of the war by Virginia writers such as Thomas Nelson Page, Francis Hopkinson Smith, Constance Cary harrison, Robert Stiels, Philip A. Bruce, Robert E. Lee, Jr., Sara Pryor, and many others.

. . . For apologists Lee was the supreme example of the alchemy of the noble and tragic. He was the man of superior virtues entrapped in a civilization beset by environmental faults such as human bondage.

The second generation of southern apologists stressed the postwar Lee-an emphasis that meshed well with the elements of both social Darwinism and new South imagery. Lee the war chieftain was now Lee the nationalist, who stressed reunion, shunned the old issues, and emphasized practical mechanical skills for Washington College students.

Lee, then, was the central focus of two generations of southern authors who used his heroic status for different reasons. The earlier generation coped with a theological dilemma. Defeat had gone against the Calvinistic ideal that success is a sign of God's grace. To replace this, the Lost Cause artists fashioned a complicated image whereby the southern cause became a knightly quest in which the righteous may lose but ultimately endure. Lee, the supreme image of this argument, became almost a Christ symbol, evidence that good men do not always prevail at first.

Henceforth the Lee image would change little, except to be altered in succeeding generations as the national mood demanded. In the 1930s an America faced with economic defeat in the Depression era identified with the imagery of Lee and the defeated South. Later, in the 1950s a nation approaching the Civil War Centennial and reflecting a new post-World War II nationalism would concentrate more upon the qualities of the post-Civil War Lee.

Connelly, Thomas L. "Lee, Robert E." The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Vol. 2. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, eds. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Pp. 502-504

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