Lee, Southern Gentleman

From the 1880s until WW1, Virginia authors dominated publication on the subject of the Civil War. Thus, the Virginia version of the Cause and of Lee was transmitted by writers such as Thomas Nelson Page, Robert E. lee, Jr., Francis Hopkinson Smith, Robert Stiels, Constance Cary Harrison, Philip A. Bruce, and Sara Pryor. Lee and his biography began to act as a symbol for the Lost Cause in the South. The Lee story was picked up across the region and held up as representing the mixture of the noble and the tragic in the South.

Fueled by the constant public advocacy of Southern men of letters, Lee's star continued to rise as the twentieth century began. In 1901, his memory was honored for the first time in a Northern venue, as he was among the first 29 people inducted into New York University's new Hall of Fame. That same year, Current Literature printed a poem composed in his honor by (of all people) Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." In 1902, prominent Bostonian Charles Francis Adams, in a Phi Beta Kappa speech at the University of Chicago, proposed that a statue of Lee be erected in Washington. To justify his position he drew a parallel with Oliver Cromwell, a one-time rebel against the crown, whose likeness was eventually placed in the yard of Parliament House in London. As with Cromwell's statue, he stressed, Lee's statue should be privately financed. He reiterated this proposition the next year at the banquet of the Confederate Veterans Camp of New York, where it was well received Times.

Despite the efforts of the Grand Army, plans to honor Lee continued, as did the positive portrayals of him in print. Perhaps the most influential was collected by his son, Robert E. Lee, Jr, also known as Rooney. Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee, published in 1904, was a loosely structured and unfailingly positive tale of Rooney's relationship with his father. Reaction to the book was almost universally enthusiastic, with glowing reviews appearing in the New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Dial, and Outlook Fillial piety may account for the nature of Rooney Lee's book, but other laudatory works came forth from apparently disinterested figures. In 1912, for instance, Gamaliel Bradford, a descendent of William Bradford and a self-described "psychological biographer," published Lee the American. Relying on material from Fitzhugh Lee (the General's nephew), Rooney Lee, and Lee partisan J. William Jones, Bradford seems to have magnified certain admirable traits in his subject until a near-superhuman figure emerged.

In his Definition of a Gentleman, Lee actually speaks for himself. He describes the qualities which are used by others to describe him. A gentleman yields his power wisely and in a timely manner. He forgives and forgets and shows grace. In this passage Lee is delineating the qualities of one icon--the gentleman--but providing his admirers with a description of another icon--himself.

The Invocation on the Dedication of the Mountain makes many a reference to a whole nation appreciating Lee's "valor," and "greatness." However, in each verse, Carroll addresses "Marse Robert," rather than a less loaded title. Stone Mountain itself functions similarly--establishing an icon in a national place which also happens to be a southern place.

In The Last Gentle Knight, the Kappa Alpha Order gives a brief history of their organization's connection to Lee. He is their "spiritual founder." With a biographical organization the writer reveals the qualities that make Lee a desirable figurehead: "moderation, self control, duty, sincerity, consideration of others, courage, special regard for ladies, courtesy, honor, and deep religious conviction. . . ." Among the admirable features of Lee are mentioned "distinguished families," "plantar aristocracy," and the desire to take "young men" of the "shattered South" and to make them "'good Americans.'" This article illustrates Lee as a Kappa Alpha icon, a Southern icon, and the beginnings of a national icon.

Upon visiting Monument Avenue in Richmond, Stein discusses her feelings about and understanding of Lee and of the Civil War in That Civil War. She does not uphold the virtues mentioned elsewhere in connection to Lee, rather she refutes his hero status and mocks those Southerners who do believe "yes he was a great man a great great man and we all love him." Regardless of Stein's opinion of Lee, her very discussion acknowledges his role as a particularly southern icon.

Lee in the Mountains attempts to show Lee in a more personal, more vital, light. In discussing Lee's feelings about the last days of the war, Davidson uses vocabulary common to the classic, iconographic treatment. He fights for a "sacred cause" for "old Virginia times" with "boys whose eyes lift up to mine." Davidson does personalize the end of Lee's war, but he imposes his very un-personal, iconic understanding in doing so.

In the excellent novel, For the Love of Robert E. Lee, Harper creates a seventeen year old South Carolina girl who, in the 1960s, falls in love with Lee. Garnet falls in love with her understanding of Lee as a person, but at the novel's end, from which this passage is taken, she has changed her interest to Lee as icon. She explicitly states the differing southern and national icons.




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