Can We Commemorate R.E. Lee Apart From the Confederacy?

Last night I was invited to join Brown Advisory at the Spangler Farm on the Gettysburg battlefield to talk about the Confederate monument debate. We started out with a quick tour of a couple of key sites on the battlefield followed by dinner and conversation. It was an incredibly enjoyable evening. Great food and even better questions from the audience. I applaud Brown for their interest in engaging their employees about some of the most pressing issues of the day.

One question in particular caught my attention. A graduate of Washington & Lee University asked if it was possible to commemorate Robert E. Lee today in the form of a monument that focused on his time as president of the college. Imagine Lee walking astride one or two students. Lee is in civilian clothing rather than military uniform and carrying a book. Could one be erected in 2017 on campus and if one were already present would people be justified in asking for its removal or relocation?

In other words, is it possible to commemorate Lee without acknowledging his service to the Confederacy?

I attempted to answer the question by drawing a distinction between before and after Charlottesville, but admitted that I am just not sure. What do you think?

I want to thank Dana Cooksey and Michael Hankin for the invitation to join the company for what was a great night of history and conversation. Today it’s back to the battlefield and a stroll along Steinwehr Ave. to look for a few black Confederate souvenirs.

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24 comments… add one
  • James W. Loewen Oct 9, 2017 @ 2:31

    Three comments and a suggestion for the college.
    First, KKK leaders said throughout the 19th century and then again c.1915-30 that they offered its national leadership to Lee and he turned it down because it would interfere with his presidency of the college, in the process declaiming I am with you in spirit, but my support must be invisible. Some Klan leaders claim this conversation sparked the term “invisible empire” for the KKK. Moreover, at least some of his comments after the war, including his testimony before the Congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction in 1866 and the “White Sulphur Manifesto” in 1868 (both included in THE CONFEDERATE AND NEO-CONFEDERATE READER), show his continuing anti-black sentiment. No Longstreet, he!
    Second, other than fund-raising, exactly what was so wonderful about his presidency of the college? Again, about race, he did very little when students seriously harassed and threatened black neighbors of the college.
    Third, it is in the nature of slavery that guerilla operations had to be ruled out after Appomattox. Slavery depends upon state power. Absent state power, that game was over.
    And the suggestion: rename the college for Mary Custis Lee, his daughter, thus commemorating its co-ed nature and also celebrating her humanitarian stance during the streetcar segregation issue. You wouldn’t even have to change the stationery!

    • HankC Oct 9, 2017 @ 6:14

      If Lee, and his sentiments, had stayed with the US Army, he would have fit right in with the Army of the Potomac for, at least, the first 2 years of war.

  • Mark H. Dunkelman Sep 29, 2017 @ 11:54

    Like John B., I have been very disappointed in the limited access to the George Spangler farm–I’ve not yet been able to see it during my visits to Gettysburg. One of these days . . .

  • John B. Sep 28, 2017 @ 16:39

    The interesting thing here is not the conversation or the topic, but the venue. Disappointing to see how the Gettysburg Foundation have chosen to manage the George Spangler farm. Rather than turning it over to the National Park Service (like Civil War Trust acquired properties) they have instead decided to transform it into a rental venue for cocktail parties and management retreats. While I’m sure the discussion was fruitful, and the subject matter certainly relevant and important, the thought of libations and dining in the Spangler Barn, where 1,900 wounded were cared for, and many died, strikes me as somewhat tasteless and crass. As a Foundation member it’s sad to see my donated dollars going to the preservation of such an important place…only to see it hawked out to the highest bidder. Meanwhile legions of visitors and students are denied access for the majority of the year.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2017 @ 17:21

      Thanks for the comment, John. I share your concerns. Rest assured that I talked extensively about the site and tried to connect it to the broader issues of historical that were the focus of last night’s event. At the same time we should remember that you can buy all kinds of nonsense at the Gettysburg Visitor Center – a site that also witnessed bloodletting. My point is that the battlefield and town of Gettysburg have been commercialized and transformed into a place of entertainment, which I find problematic. In other words, if you want to start with the Spangler Farm you are going to have to cast your net wider.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  • Phil LeDuc Sep 28, 2017 @ 12:33

    There is a monument – more of an oversized plaque – in St. Louis commemorating his engineering work there in 1837 that made the river more navigable. No mention of subsequent events, although his later fame undoubtedly made this monument more likely to happen.
    From a photo, it appears to date from 1977.
    Erected by “The Missouri Committee/R.E. Lee Memorial Association”. So erected after Jim Crow days, and well before monument controversies.

  • freedmenspatrol Sep 28, 2017 @ 10:17

    Lee is nobody without the Confederacy. After profiting from branding themselves with him for so many years, I don’t know how W&L can clean themselves up. Changing their name to Washington & Wesley Norris might be a small step in the right direction.

  • redheadedyankee Sep 28, 2017 @ 8:42

    I guess this would analogous to a monument mentioning Robert E. Lee or showing him doing his service during the Mexican American War. Would likely still be very much against it, but more understandable.

    Possible comparisons could be made to a monument being erected at Saratoga to Benedict Arnold, but even that I’m not a fan of.

    • Kristoffer Sep 28, 2017 @ 14:12

      “Possible comparisons could be made to a monument being erected at Saratoga to Benedict Arnold, but even that I’m not a fan of.”
      There already is a monument to Benedict Arnold at Saratoga (the Boot Monument), but understandably it doesn’t have Arnold’s name on it.

  • Rob Wick Sep 28, 2017 @ 7:24

    Only if he had never served the Confederacy. But, as you rightly point out, if that hadn’t happened, the chances of Lee serving as the president of the college would have likely have been nonexistent. Indeed, had the war not been fought, the only thing Lee might have been known for was his relationship to Light Horse Harry and George Washington and for not getting a single demerit from West Point (and even then only by West Point students or historians). It seems to me kind of like saying if Stephen Douglas had not raised the issue of popular sovereignty over Kansas-Nebraska, Lincoln would likely have stayed out of politics and died in his Springfield bed being known as a popular lawyer or judge. No one would have ever considered building a statue to him for serving as postmaster of New Salem or a single-term Congressman. No war, no service, no statue.


    • hankc9174 Sep 30, 2017 @ 5:26

      ‘had the war not been fought’ there is a good chance Lee would have commanded the US Army after Winfield Scott, who wished him for the post.

      • Rob Wick Oct 1, 2017 @ 21:11

        Certainly possible, but who outside of people who study this know who Winfield Scott even was? I can’t imagine being commander of the U.S. Army would have brought Lee that much, if any more, notoriety.


  • Laura Rowland Sep 28, 2017 @ 6:18

    Interesting question. You’re right; Lee would not have been considered for the school’s presidency if he had not been the revered general of the Confederacy. It’s likely, too, that Washington College would’ve soon gone belly up if it didn’t have someone like Lee to attract funding donations and student enrollment. So, from the perspective of the college, I think there could be a case made for a Lee statue, but one in character with his tenure as president, as you suggested.
    But, Lee is so ubiquitous on that campus, it would take a great deal of planning, effort, and time to change the focus from Lee, the great Confederate general, to Lee, the president who saved the college (but, how does one separate the two?).
    Finally, what would/could be done with Lee Chapel? My jaw dropped when I first visited it…It looks more like the tomb of a monarch rather than a tomb of a treasonous General on the losing side of a civil war.

  • James Harrigan Sep 28, 2017 @ 6:04

    Imagine that Lee died in May 1862, just before taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Would he be anything except the most minor footnote in American history? The question answers itself.

    I have some (minimal) sympathy with the people at Washington and Lee. They have thrived by exploiting Confederate nostalgia and the Marble Man myth for over a century, yet the culture has abruptly changed and now the Lee name is an albatross around their institutional neck. I don’t see a path forward for them except slow decline.

  • David McCallister Sep 28, 2017 @ 5:01

    What if Lee had accepted the post of leader of the Union forces?
    What if he had won at Manassas, defeating the Southern forces, and taken Richmond?
    What if he moved on down to invest Charleston?
    What if the WBTS ended in 1861- possibly after Ft. Henry/Ft. Donelson, but before Shiloh?
    Lee might have been President, not of W&L, but the USA!

    • Eric A. Jacobson Sep 29, 2017 @ 5:45

      What if Lee had been hanged for sedition alongside Davis in July 1865? Silly speculation does not advance any thoughtful conversation.

  • William Satterwhite Sep 28, 2017 @ 4:42

    Regarding the general point of whether or not a statue of Lee commemorating his service as President of Washington and Lee would be acceptable, I’ll answer with a question- would anyone, in 2017, genuinely care to memorialize Lee just for his service to the school? While likely justifiable, I tend to think the answer would be no if one were to answer honestly.

    • Andy Hall Sep 28, 2017 @ 10:37

      As recently as 2014 — same year as the flags were removed from the Lee Chapel — W&L was sending out brochures to prospective students touting the school’s honor code and integrity, that they attribute to Lee during his tenure there. (I know because my kid got one.) So they weren’t (at least then) completely separating themselves from Lee the College President, at all — they were using him as a selling point. No idea if they’re still using that.

  • James F. Epperson Sep 28, 2017 @ 3:06

    Many years ago, in a different digital landscape, I interacted many times with a fellow who was, IMO, overly defensive of Lee. He once asserted that, even if the Civil War had never happened, Lee would be a significant figure in American history because of his work as Superintendent of West Point and President of Washington College. I was dubious then, and remain so, especially after reading Elizabeth Varon’s book on Appomattox.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2017 @ 3:17

      There is no reason to believe that Lee would have been offered the presidency of W&L without having served the Confederacy. I tried to make the point last night that the only reason we remember Lee at all is because of his commitment to helping to create a slaveholding republic. Not everyone wanted to hear that.

      I do love Varon’s book.

      • Andy Hall Sep 28, 2017 @ 6:04

        The same thing applies to Forrest and his antebellum career as a slave trader. He used his fortune to outfit a cavalry regiment, who in turn elected him as regimental commander, and his military career went from there. None of what came later would plausibly have happened without Forrest’s wealth made through large-scale slave-trading.

        I think the work Lee did with Washington College is laudable and should be honored, as W&L does to this day. But it wouldn’t have happened without the war and his taking up arms for the Confederacy.

        • James F. Epperson Sep 29, 2017 @ 8:50

          Obviously, in the actual scheme of things, Lee got the Washington College presidency because of his Confederate service. But it is not entirely ridiculous to suppose that—if we assume the Civil War doesn’t happen—he might have been offered the job anyway. He was a distinguished Mexican War veteran, had experience in higher education (as Superintendent at West Point), and strong connections to prominent Virginia families, including Washington. Once he tired of frontier service in Texas, he might well have wanted to take a post like this, and they might well have been willing to have him. Like most counter-factuals, it is not something which can be resolved.

          • hankc9174 Sep 30, 2017 @ 5:32

            Without the Civil War, which has longer odds: Lee becoming president of Washington College or Grant becoming President of the United States?

            As historians, both professionals and ‘buff’s, it’s best to focus on what-is rather than what-if.

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