The Apotheosis of Robert E. Lee


Lee statue (1909) by Edward V. Valentine
Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol


Lee's Special Appeal

By 1909, when Edward Valentine completed the bronze statue of Lee that would, along with George Washington, represent Virginia in Statuary Hall, the former Confederate General's national image was positive and secure. Of course, this does not mean that no Lee detractors still existed; surely they did. But in public discourse, Lee's character was described almost universally in admiring terms. To understand how his transformation from sectional hero to national figure came about, it is important to understand the changes in American society and Americans' self-perception that took place between 1870 and 1909.

At some level, Lee partisans in the South must have recognized a nostalgic streak in the American psyche fairly soon after the end of the Civil War, because they used it subtly to their advantage. An early example of this phenomenon was George Cary Eggleston's "Virginia argument" employed in his 1874 Atlantic Monthly serial "A Rebel's Recollections." Simply put, the argument was that Virginia was not, and had never been, like the cotton South. Unlike these Deep South states, Virginia hated slavery and secession, and in fact bore a unique love of the Union born of its Revolutionary heritage, but it was forced to secede by its devotion to the principle of states' rights (Connelly, 107). This argument, though vague and hardly supported by historical fact, formed the foundation for the reconstruction of Virginia's image, which would then be linked to Robert E. Lee's image. This feat was achieved by the writers who espoused the "environment" argument, which held that Lee was inescapably the product of his environment -- antebellum upper-class Virginia -- so he could not possibly have failed to fight for the Confederacy. Rooney Lee in his Recollections, Philip Alexander Bruce in his Robert E. Lee, and Thomas Nelson Page in his Robert E. Lee the Southerner all combined the environment argument with a focus on the strength of Lee's personal charcter and his "nationalism" (by which they meant his forebearance at the end of the War) to portray him as an eminently admirable figure (Connelly, 108).

Still, these flimsy arguments hardly seem enough to convince a populace that the man who once led an army against them was worthy of their esteem. According to Thomas L. Connelly, what made these arguments take hold was not so much their inherent strength but the rapidly changing social conditions of an industrializing America (Connelly, 100). The period between 1870 and 1909 was one of unprecedented growth in the economy (due to industrialization) and population (due to immigration). Naturally, along with these massive changes came anxiety and its partner, nostalgia. Americans were fast losing the agricultural, Anglo-Saxon culture that had dominated the country for as long as anyone could remember. The changes were more than just economic and demographic -- they were changes in values as well, changes that left people longing for moral stability. This is where Robert E. Lee came in.

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 (Connelly, 100). Or so the fantasy went. From our perspective, we cannot help but see the xenophobia and racism tied up in the anxiety of the "Gilded Age." 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. Admiring Lee was a way to admire a culture predicated on white male control exercised through violence, without having to admit that part of it to anyone, perhaps not even to one's self. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that not everyone held Lee's memory dear. African-Americans were not among his boosters, to say the least, and immigrants could not really understand his attraction. But neither of these groups exerted any noticeable influence in the political or literary arenas, so they could do little to shape the public memory. 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.

These considerations do not, however, make everyone who admires Robert E. Lee a racist. After all, he did possess traits which are undisputably 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 it 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.

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