Lee, National Icon

During the national depression following WW1, Lee's defeat was an emblem with which America could identify. It was during this time that the statue was officially accepted for placement in Statuary Hall. His characterization would change little except for peaks in the national disposition, such as the 1950s when Lee was acknowledged for his nationalism-helping to restore the Union through acceptance of defeat, unsupporting of sectional differences, and general moderation.

In an emerging industrial culture that seemed to many people to be cold, foreign, and valueless, the image of Robert E. Lee and his antebellum Virginia looked more and more appealing all the time. He was a man representing the "finer life" in a time and place where men were strong and honorable, women were dutiful and pure, and the world was predictable and secure. If Lee represented a more stable and genteel world, he also represented a world that was cruel to blacks, rigidly hierarchical, militaristic, and male-dominated. But Lee was attractive because he put an honorable face on that world. Those who did the most to honor Lee were those who had the most to be nostalgic about as the united States raced down the road to industrialization: upper middle class and upper class white Anglo-Saxons.

Lee did posses traits which are indisputably admirable. By all accounts, he was an honorable man, a loyal husband, and a loving father. He served his country and later his native state the way he knew best-in war. By all accounts he was one of the best practitioners of war that the world has ever seen. Robert E. Lee's statue in the Capitol stands for all of these things, but it also stands for the peculiarly American process by which a mortal enemy can become a patriot.

Robert E. Lee is one of many biographies of the general. In this first chapter, Jones provides "factual" information of the very early part of Lee's life, including the role his father played both in Lee's development and in American history.

In He Lost a War and Won Immortality, Lee is exalted: "handsome," "clever," "brave," "gentle," "generous," "charming," "noble," "modest," "admired," "beloved," "never failed," "born winner." Redmond quotes Lee as saying, "Abandon your animosities and make your sons Americans" thus making a case for Lee's nationally unifying qualities.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a national organization, is widely known to uphold the traditions of the Old South, including those gentlemanly qualities of Lee. The preponderance of Lee references in their organization illustrates their iconization of the general.

Jones lists, in The Character of Lee, almost every quality of Lee touted over source and over time. He compares Lee to other icons: Caesar, Frederick, Napoleon, and Washington. Lee is superior to them all.

The Court Martial of Robert E. Lee shows Lee in action during the battle of Gettysburg. Known facts are strung together in such a way as to invigorate the event. Such writing both personalizes Lee's character, but also enforces the legend of Lee as a soldier and icon.

An article about a TV character, The General Lee, illustrates the transfer of icon status to a car on a popular 1980s television show from its namesake, the regional and national military icon. In this piece, the name of the car comes from an icon and the named car becomes an icon in itself. The sweeping popularity of the car version of the General ("helps generate more than $100 million a year") is a more immediate and tangible version of the popularity of the human general. The car has models and posters. The man has honor and duty.

Return to the
Apotheosis of
Robert E. Lee