Lee in History and Memory

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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.

6 responses... add one

The flag is the third and final national flag of the Confederacy, adopted on March 4, 1865. This was at about the same period in the war as Iwo Jima was in WWII. Appropriate choice for a lost cause image, even if expropriating the marine monument is not.

Speaking as a former UNITED STATES Marine, I am highly offended by this appropriation of what is much more than just a popular monument in DC. The UNITED STATES Marine Corps has a long proud tradition of service to the UNITED STATES, including defending her during the War of the Rebellion. Whenever I have sung the lines “We will fight for right and freedom,” I have never thought of the kind of “right and freedom” that the Confederacy stood for. I think of the kind of freedom that the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA stands for. The “All men are created equal” kind of freedom. How dare they?

Bob, — I didn’t mean to minimize the monument’s importance by referring to it “popular monument” — poor choice of words. Perhaps the appropriation is just a result of bad taste and not an indication of a certain extreme political stance. All the same it is incredibly disrespectful and it is ashame that nobody speaks up about it.

Perhaps it is fitting, or perhaps not, but it is certainly ironic to see this conflation of two mythological symbols – the Confederate “Lost Cause” image of R.E. Lee with the image which greased the transformation of the Federal state’s Iwo Jima action from a colossal mistake and costly disaster to an heroic and significant victory in the War in the Pacific.

From the use of the famous photograph to convert the servicemen who posed for it into persuasive War Bond salesmen to its translation into the apotheosis of Marine Corps valor via a larger-than-life statuary representation at the corner of Arlington Cemetary, which perhaps saved the Corps from being disbanded as obsolescent in the early years of the Cold War, this effective bit of visual mythology, this idol of state, clearly maintains a strong grip on many hearts, as the comments suggest. The newer idol will eventually be subject to the same general de-construction as the idealized Lee, but perhaps not until our Rome-on-the-Potomac has taken its place in past history alongside the short-lived Slave-based Republic which failed in its attempt to establish an identity separate from “Nova Roma”.

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