Lee in History and Memory
As many of you know I am teaching a course on the Civil War and memory next semester and, as you might imagine, it is a class that I am looking forward to with great eagerness. Most of the students that I am currently teaching in the Civil War course are scheduled to take this course. As a teaser I've been sprinkling discussions of memory throughout the semester to get them thinking about some of the subjects which will be explored in much more detail. As part of our discussion of Robert E. Lee's September 3, 1862 letter to Jefferson Davis announcing his decision to invade Maryland I shared some paintings and other images of Lee that have shaped our national memory. One of the more recent images can be found on a t-shirt by Dixie Outfitters.
Most of my students chuckled when they first saw it. One of my students recognized the reference to the Marine Corps Monument and asked whether it was appropriate to use it in this way. It led to an interesting discussion. I also pointed out the scene in the background, which is a copy of the famous Crater painting by John Elder. Of course, I took a few moments to explain that the battle is best remembered for the slaughter of African-American troops by their Confederate captors following the fight.
There is something about this image that I find quite disturbing. Between the Elder image and its blatant racial references and the appropriation of one of the most popular military monuments in the Washington, D.C. area the designer has managed to take Lee out of the mainstream of Civil War memory. Perhaps that was the intention.