The Apotheosis of Robert E. Lee


Recumbent Statue of Robert E. Lee (1883) by Edward V. Valentine
The Lee Memorial Chapel, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia


Lingering Bitterness

In the late summer of 1865, just months after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the board of trustees at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia appointed him president of the college. While this development was received with approbation in the South, it struck a raw nerve in the North. Edwin L. Godkin, writing in The Nation, pronounced Lee unfit to train the youth of Virginia (Buck, 14). Several weeks later, in the same magazine, Wendell Philips fumed, "If Lee is fit to be president of a college, then for Heaven's sake pardon Wirz and make him professor of what the Scots call the humanities" (quoted in Buck, 15). (Henry Wirz was the Confederate commander of Andersonville Prison, at that time awaiting execution for alleged brutalities against Union prisoners; the reason for Philips's Scots slander is unknown.)

Such displays of bitterness so soon after the cessation of hostilities come as no surprise; General Lee had, after all, made war on the North for nearly five years, and done it exceedingly well. For his own part, Lee did not wish to wrankle anyone. Both publicly and privately, he firmly favored reconciliation, as in this August, 1865 letter:

The questions which were in dispute having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor to recognize the fact. The interests of the State are therefore the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace (quoted in Buck, 250).

Still, when Lee died in October of 1870, Northern commentators classified him with Bendict Arnold. In the South, meanwhile, reaction was predictably different; one Southerner called Lee a "martyr, of whom America was not worthy" (Buck, 251). This asessment may have been hyperbolic, but it was hardly anomalous. As Rollin Osterweis points out, the act of praising Lee had a therapeutic effect on the Southern psyche. After five years of war and five more years of shame, Lee's death came as "the symbolic resurrection of the Southern myth" (Osterweis, 10) The Cult of the Lost Cause was born. Its life was to be long in the South, nurtured as it was by insecurity, the need to justify so grand a failure, and sheer nostalgia.

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