The Apotheosis of Robert E. Lee


Painting of Lee (1838) by William E. West


National Acceptance

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, 3).

Despite this growing acceptance, there remained opposition to the Lee bandwagon. The same issue of the New York Times that reported Adams's speech to the ex-Confederates reported that the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic had launched a movement to oppose plans to place statues of Lee in the U.S. Capitol and at the Gettysburg battlefield. At that time, the bill authorizing the donation of Washington and Lee statues was pending in the Virginia legislature, and Virginia and Pennsylvania were considering a joint action for a statue at Gettysburg. But even in opposing these moves, a Grand Army spokesman was careful not to soil Lee's personal character:

The feeling among Grand Army men is that Gen. Lee and those associated with him in the armies of the Confederacy were conspirators, and that any proposition to honor them in the manner suggested should be discountenanced instead of encouraged by the Government. We do not criticise Gen. Lee as a man or as a soldier, for he was an honorable man and a brave soldier (Times, 3).
The care taken in this statement suggests that by 1903, Lee's position in the public mind was strong enough that he could not be slandered.

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.(Connelly, 115-116). 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 (Connelly, 120).

Naturally, this growing national acceptance delighted Southerners, especially those who had staunchly defended him with the pen. Their reaction was not to guard Lee's legacy jealously, but to fine-tune his image to make it even more nationally appealing, and if possible, even more sublime. In later editions of their collections of Lee's letters, Rooney Lee and J. William Jones excised derogatory statements made by the General against Northerners, abolitionists, and Mormons. In a less intrusive move, Thomas Nelson Page changed the title of his biography from Robert E. Lee the Southerner to Robert E. Lee: Man and Soldier(Connelly, 118). Leaving aside the ethics of their actions, these custodians of the Lee legacy perceived quite correctly that his national reputation hinged on how well he appealed to impulses and ideas that were broadly American.

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