“This is sacred ground. It is a neutral place, no race, color, religion should be mentioned here.” This is how one person responded to a National Park Service survey which asked visitors to Arlington to assess the relevancy of slavery in properly interpreting life at the home of Robert E. Lee. Another visitor responded that slavery should be taught “only in schools” and another individual seriously suggested that “race has no place in the historical discussion and presentation of a slave plantation.” Across the Potomac River in Maryland, the newest Civil War monument to grace the town of Sharpsburg is of Lee on Traveler and includes the following at its base: “Robert E. Lee was personally against secession and slavery, but decided his duty was to fight for his home and the universal right of every people to self-determination.” I have no doubt that such a belief would have been news to Lee’s slave Wesley Norris.
The fact that such views continue to be embraced by Civil War enthusiasts is worth exploring if for no other reason than that it may tell us something about Lee’s relevance at the beginning of the 21st century. In the case of Lee I suspect that our defensiveness about race and slavery is a symptom of a broader resistance to anything that challenges our ideas of Lee’s moral perfection and ultimately our understanding of the Civil War. As historian John Coski noted in a recent Washington Post interview, “There’s an old saw in the South of a little girl asking, ‘Mommy is Robert E. Lee from the Old Testament or the New?’” I agree with Coski that Lee has been so overly lavished with praise that we have turned him into an untouchable “marble man.” Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock there is no doubt that Lee has come under more serious scrutiny in recent years. Some of the attacks can be dismissed as uninteresting or lacking any scholarly merit. On the other hand, professional historians have introduced interpretive frameworks from psychology, gender studies, political science, and race studies, and although the results have not always held up under scrutiny they have managed to enrich our understanding of Lee’s life, the antebellum south, and the Civil War.
It is not surprising that the increase in Lee studies have brought about a backlash from certain corners within the Civil War community. For many people any challenge to the traditional interpretation of Lee or the Confederacy is tantamount to heresy. Consider the description of a symposium on R.E. Lee sponsored by the Stephen D. Lee Institute in northern Virginia which took place this past spring:
2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee, one of America’s most revered individuals. But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valor and leadership were surpassed only by his honor and humanity? Or was he a traitor whose military skill served a bad cause and prolonged an immoral rebellion against his rightful government? To many, Robert E. Lee is a remote figure, a marble icon. To others he was simply a great battlefield commander. But Lee was much more; his character shines brightly from the past, illuminating the present. The Symposium will cover Lee’s views on government and liberty, his humane attitudes toward race and slavery, Lee and the American Union, Lee as inspired commander and his relationship with the Army, Lee as a Christian gentleman, and the meaning of Lee for today.
It is difficult to imagine how a serious historical discussion is supposed to take place when the terms of the debate are framed around such meaningless concepts as “hero” and “villain.” The above description, however, is symptomatic of the difficulty that characterizes much of the discourse surrounding Lee’s life and legacy.