‘Robert E. Lee is Back and He is Pissed Off’

The image below is being used to announce and celebrate Confederate History Month. I have to admit that this image of stern-faced Lee wielding his sword and leading his men into battle strikes me as highly unusual given popular depictions of the Confederate general going back to the postwar years. I like to think that I have a pretty firm handle on visual culture surrounding Robert E. Lee. What stands out is how rarely you will find him in a battle pose of any sort following the war. He may be portrayed in uniform on monuments such as the one in Richmond, Virginia, but Lee is rarely (if ever) depicted with an unsheathed sword. In some cases it is difficult to discern any indication of Lee’s military leadership given the tendency to portray him as a man of peace and reconciliation.

Lee is remembered as the soft-spoken gentleman warrior whose understanding of war was more in line with the past than with the scope and scale of violence of our modern civil war. He abhorred violence and only embraced a military role with the Confederacy after agonizing over the decision to resign from the U.S. military. Historians such as Gary Gallagher have challenged this popular narrative.

Images such as the one above usually feature the likes of Nathan Bedford Forrest and to a lesser extent Stonewall Jackson.

But this image raises the question of whether we are witnessing a shift in how Lee is depicted in popular culture. Has the increasingly defensive posture of Confederate heritage organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Virginia Flaggers and deepening cultural and political rifts helped to shift our perception of Lee as some kind of modern warrior?

22 thoughts on “‘Robert E. Lee is Back and He is Pissed Off’

    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      But the memory of Lee has certainly been used to promote a political agenda in the past. His image can be seen in the 1948 Dixiecrat convention.

      Reply
      1. Annette Jackson

        At this rate, the war is never going to be over. In fact, if the Internet and other contemporary sources are to be believed, the glorification of the Confederacy is increasing among political conservatives.

        Reply
      2. Forester

        Yep. Just like how George Washington’s image and memory were used to promote the Confederacy. It’s a way of appealing to authority.

        I think it’s important to correct people when they misuse Lee’s image, but we also have to be careful not to promote Lost Cause messages at the same time.

        “Lee would never ______” is a slippery slope.

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      3. leonglapgong

        Lee spent the last 5 years of his life promoting reconciliation. If flawed, since it did not extend to African Americans. But he wouldn’t be a modern warrior. Just an extremely racist, if competent, college president.

        Reply
  1. Ken Noe

    I can’t imagine Lee ever using such a crass expression, although perhaps Walter Taylor would disagree. But to answer your question, no, I think that’s simply a self-serving image of the moment. He’s climbed down from his statue to attend a Charlottesville City Counsel meeting.

    Reply
  2. Shoshana Bee

    A quote from an article about the 16 April 1865 photo sitting that Lee did with Matthew Brady:

    In the wake of Lincoln’s death the day before, and the charges that the South was responsible, Lee might also have chosen to pose in the domestic setting of his home—a leader still in his uniform, but sans sash, braid, sword, and boots, visibly morphing into a civilian—as a symbol of stability and responsibility in very dangerous and uncertain hours. http://www.historynet.com/dignity-in-defeat-mathew-bradys-photos-of-robert-e-lee.htm

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  3. Andy Hall

    “Images such as the one above usually feature the likes of Nathan Bedford Forrest and to a lesser extent Stonewall Jackson.”

    It’s conveniently forgotten by the make-believe Confederates of the 21sr century that Forrest was — at least publicly — working hard to establish his reconciliationist bona fides in his last years. But real people are complex and often contradictory; simplistic cartoon characters are much more fun.

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    1. Forester

      I like to think Lee would have objected to statues and other graven images. Although, I realize such statements are a slippery slope into canonizing him as a Lost Cause saint.

      Certainly, the public persona Lee projected would have objected to giant monuments. Though he was also rather vain, so deep he probably would have loved them.

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  4. Jimmy Dick

    Looks like the usual attempt to forget the reality that the neo-confederates are failing to change the minds of people with their fake information. Instead, the neo-confederates are only proving to the world that they embrace racism.

    Reply
    1. Forester

      Neo-Confederates are just a hate movement, plain and simple. They reject any kind of moderate thought in favor a bizarre alt-right conflation of modern politics and Lost Cause symbols. “History” for them is just a vague mythology to canonize and authorize their modern political agendas.

      Godwin’s Law be damned, the comparison is obvious: it’s the same as how images of vikings and samurai were employed in WWII as “heritage” for the Nazi Germans and Imperial Japanese.

      Reply
  5. bob carey

    I believe that the image of Lee portrayed is nothing more than an attempt by the current crop of “neo-confederates” at recruitment for whatever organization the illustration represents. The monumental Lee would never use such a vulgar expression as “pissed off”, but this expression is used quite frequently in todays’ vernacular.
    BTW, the scale of the illustration seems a little off, I don’t know if Lee is carrying a broad sword of if he has trumpian size hands, I couldn’t resist that one.

    Reply
    1. Ken Noe

      “I don’t know if Lee is carrying a broad sword of if he has trumpian size hands.”

      It’s Mel Gibson’s claymore. He wants his freeeedom.

      Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Good question. I don’t believe so, but there are a few moments where he risked his life in battle only to have his men plead with him to head for the rear. The most famous example is at the Wilderness in 1864.

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  6. B Wetherington

    “In Trimble’s description of the meeting, he said he was never so much impressed with the exalted moral worth and true greatness of Lee than when he perceived the “serene earnestness” of his words and saw “the noble expression of magnanimity and justice which beamed from his countenance.””
    from Glenn Tucker’s High Tide at Gettysburg published in 1958. I’m guessing books and articles about Grant from the 50s and 60s and earlier and perhaps later emphasized that he was a butcher and a drunk. Its amazing how the myths continue to be spun.

    Reply

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