The Death of Robert E. Lee

RELeeIt’s been a strange experience teaching the history and memory of Lee to my two Civil War Memory sections.  We are going to spend at least 10 days with Lee in preparation for a trip to Richmond, which will take us to a number of sites, including the Lee statue on monument avenue.  What I am finding is a kind of detachment among my students that I did not anticipate.  Even those students who are native to Virginia don’t seem to display the kind of reverence for the general that you might expect.  Today we continued our introductory discussions with an analysis of a number of wartime images as well as a reading of Abram J. Ryan’s poem, “The Sword of Robert E. Lee.”  Ryan was a captain in the Army of Northern Virginia and was considered by many to be the “poet-priest of the Confederacy.”

We spent some time discussing our own needs to venerate the past and cast historical figures as heroes.  We considered the impact of defeat, emancipation, and military occupation as factors, which help to explain the eventual refashioning of the history of the war around Lost Cause principles, with Lee as its centerpiece.

What I am most impressed with is this generation’s ability to ask, “Why Lee?”  In other words, my students are able to ask an objective question that will not threaten any deep-seated emotional connection (one way or the other) to Lee’s memory and legacy.  That itself is an interesting reflection of the memory of the Civil War and one that is no doubt horrifying to certain readers.  As a group, my students don’t see Lee as the embodiment of perfect virtue or a symbol of an age that deserves to be emulated.  In fact, a few of my students were downright disgusted by the idea, especially when it came to the theme of the “Reluctant Warrior.”  I mentioned that one of the most popular stories concerning Lee is his reluctant decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army following Virginia’s secession from the Union.  A few students suggested that Lee’s actions represented outright treason and another student inquired whether we would make an exception for anyone else in American history or even an officer today.  [Just out of curiosity, what would you say to this student and in light of the fact that not all southern graduates of West Point did resign their commissions in favor of their respective states?]  I honestly don’t know how to explain this attitude, although I do believe that it is generational.

Finally, I showed a number of prints of Lee from the war and through the postwar period and ending with some recent samples from the collections of Mort Kunstler, John Paul Strain, and William Maughan – including a few religious themes.  First, most of my students were in stitches and then asked if people actually buy this stuff.  Please keep in mind that these are not little heathens.  Most of them claim a religious affiliation and attend church on a regular or semi-regular basis.  Something has been lost between the image of Lee and their understanding of Christianity.

Please keep in mind that it is not my responsibility as a teacher – nor do I have a vested interest in demanding – that my students believe anything (beyond factual information) about R.E. Lee.  My job is to train my students to better understand why and how we remember the Civil War the way we do.  What is clear to me is that they are approaching this subject from a perspective that reflects both their generation’s interests and priorties as well as their distance from the events of the war itself.  It’s not that they are not interested in the subject; in fact, I can’t think of a historical subject that lights the room up the way the Civil War does.  They simply are not emotionally invested in a certain interpretation of the war as compared to older generations.  I understand that certain people will feel threatened and/or disappointed by what I’ve said here, but there really is no reason for doing so.  It does not necessarily reflect a fundamental shift in values; in other words, this is not a sign of the apocalypse or the end of western civilization as we know it.  It may simply be a reflection of a change in where this generation looks to find certain values at work in their own lives.

26 comments… add one
  • Reconstructed Southern Sep 5, 2009 @ 13:37

    Presentism is a word that comes to mind as I read your piece. Judith Mitchell’s analysis is spot on. Furthermore, Lee’s deification post mortem by some Southern historians would have even made Lee cringe. Although he did exhibit some vanity due to a self-awareness of his popluarity among the Southern populace, Lee was a life long practitioner of self-denial. Since slavery will always stain the memory of those who were wedded to it in some form or fashion, Lee will have his detractors. As an educator, please at least focus on the positives that Lee achieved at Washington University as the titular head of that institution.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 5, 2009 @ 13:46

      Thanks for the comment. This class focused specifically on how our collective memory of the Civil War has evolved and why, so there is a certain amount of presentism involved. In fact, the purpose of the class is to try to come to terms with the past through an analysis of how we choose to remember. As I stated in the post, it is not my job as an educator to present Lee as a saint or demon or to tell my students what to think. Again, my focus in this class was to introduce my students to the concept of memory and heritage. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  • Robert Moore Apr 23, 2009 @ 9:47

    Gordon, I was a little bit at a loss, but no harm done… Robert (aka “cenantua”)

  • Gordon B. Lawrence Apr 23, 2009 @ 7:40


    I just left my address and some discourse on another e-site leaving the individual “CENTURA” completely mystified no doubt as to what is going on. Hopefully, this time I get it right.

    Graduated August 2008 – finally!! Am hosting at the conference on the 29th where you are to be a facilitator. Let’s get together afterward and compare notes if you will. Maybe raise a glass to our good fortune in this life.

  • David L. Wiseman Jan 18, 2009 @ 19:58

    At the end of the day our judgments of whether Robert E. Lee was a traitor or a hero are shaped by our own experience and the values we have come to hold based on that experience. Scholars have done a credible service for all that share an interest in the issues and players of the Civil War. Unfortunately the weight of scholarship upon the formation of attitudes and opinions by today’s students in particular and society in general is probably insignificant. Therefore, in a time when students conditioned by a sound bite media often form snap judgments taking an extended look at an iconic figure like Robert E. Lee is laudable.

  • John Buchanan Jan 14, 2009 @ 8:02

    This is the oath I took as an Army officer in 1980

    “I, _____ (SSAN), having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.” (DA Form 71, 1 August 1959, for officers.)

    This is what R. E. Lee (as well as Davis, both Johnston’s and others) swore when they entered the US Army

    “I, _____, appointed a _____ in the Army of the United States, do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles for the government of the Armies of the United States.”

    Maybe because I served as an Army officer I hold a harsher view, and I recognize that shortcoming, I see no wiggle room in either oath…and they are binding for life.

    Anyone who previously swore an oath of allegience to the US and then violated said oath by serving the Confederacy was a traitor.

    To me, it is a harsh, bright line.

  • TF Smith Jan 9, 2009 @ 15:56

    Don’t forget David G. Farragut, who was born in Tennesee, married into a southern family, and made his home in Norfolk for many years prior to the outbreak of the war…

    Other southern-born regulars and flag/general officers who remained loyal included Ammen, Carter, Cooke, Davidson, Dyer, Gillem, Graham, etc…

    • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2009 @ 8:18

      Thanks for the reminder.

  • Judith Mitchell Jan 9, 2009 @ 11:49

    Thank you, Kevin, for such a fascinating blog. As a serious admirer of RELee, let me throw in my two or three cents re: the current discussion.

    It has never surprised me that Lee chose to stand with Virginia. A priori, it’s my understanding that in mid-nineteenth century America, one’s allegiance was largely centered locally rather than nationally. People felt much much more strongly identified with family (and that usually comprised large, close-knit, local family groups), community, county, and state (States’ Rights issues were pervasive), than with the distant national government. In the agrarian South particularly, there was little migration far from one’s matrix. Among the “patrician” class, one’s family seat and one’s land, were almost sacred. It, and you, thoroughly defined each other.

    Lee was born into the Virginia aristocracy, and despite his father’s profligacy and the family’s straightened circumstances, he was very much a part of Virginia “society”. He counted among his forebears many who had participated in that society as leaders for several generations – including, of course, George Washington and Martha Custis Washington. In other words, his Virginia roots were deep, and consequently, his feelings of and pride in being a Virginian first and foremost, rather than his owing primary loyalty to the “United” States, proved to be his strongest motivation. He did not, however, choose this path lightly; I believe it caused him great agony and, as we Yankees say, “angst”, as he did not support secession no, some historians claim, the continuation of slavery.

    Remember also, that the Southern social structure and that of the North were radically different. And, of course, this was one of the numerous factors that contributed to the Civil War. Unlike much of the industrial and immigrant-populated North, in Virginia, Family, Honor, Loyalty, and Place were sacrosanct. I believe that ultimately it would have been more “treasonous” to Lee to turn his back upon his heritage — in his heart and soul, that is.

    Isn’t it the victors who decide who was a traitor, who was not?

    It’s particularly gratifying to me to have discovered your blog, Kevin, because I am a graduate of St. Anne’s School (centuries ago — 1958). I was a displaced Yankee, and thus had a somewhat objective scope on Virginia (and since have done much ruminating on why I did not — and could never — quite “fit in” with the Old Virginia girls in my class). But mine is a long, and different, story!

    I’ve since become keenly interested in the Civil War and particularly in the Confederacy, and I personally think Robert E. Lee was an extraordinary, admirable, brilliant, and tragic, figure. Should we think of him as a hero? Absolutely.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 9, 2009 @ 12:12

      Judith, — Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. It’s also nice to hear from a St. Anne’s graduate. As you probably already know, the school will be celebrating its centennial next year.

      I also find R.E. Lee to be a fascinating study. That said, I would caution you when it comes to the standard account that assumes Lee had no choice but to resign his commission in the army and follow Virginia into the Confederacy. You may be interested in an earlier post on the subject for clarification. Let me know what you think: About half-way through the essay I offer some statistical data which suggests that Lee’s decision was not inevitable. A number of Virginia West Point graduates, including Winfield Scott and George Thomas remained loyal to the Union. More specifically, among Virginia graduates of West Point up to the class of 1831 (Lee was in the class of 1829) more remained loyal to the Union than went with Virginia. Just something to think about.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      • Bob Pollock Jan 9, 2009 @ 13:26

        The claim that Lee was opposed to slavery is also not supported by the evidence. I suggest reading “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters” by Elizabeth Brown Pryor. As to his opposition to secession, you are correct that he himself judged it to be revolution – until he embraced it by siding with the Confederacy. Many of the leaders of the CSA were pro-Union until they were forced to make a real decision. Does this make them somehow less culpable for the death and destruction their actions produced? Although admirers of Lee don’t like Alan Nolan’s “Lee Considered” (and Kevin has cautioned readers of his blog that some of Nolan’s arguments are not persuasive), I would still recommend it. In short, in my studies of Lee and the Civil War, I can find no reason to admire the man, or call him a hero. Therefore, the most interesting thing about Lee is that that is what he is to so many like yourself. In other words it is the memory of Lee, and how it has been shaped and manipulated, that is fascinating.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 9, 2009 @ 13:32

          I want to second Bob’s recommendation of Pryor’s biography, which I’ve said is the single best volume on Lee. While I believe that Nolan’s book is fundamentally flawed in certain respects I do recommend it as a bold interpretation of Lee.

  • Cash Jan 7, 2009 @ 18:30


    Could it be that your students’ reactions are less a generational shift than a reflection of their families’ influences?


    • Kevin Levin Jan 8, 2009 @ 2:16

      I think it’s important to remember that by the turn of the twentieth century Lee had emerged as a national hero. Such a view was reinforced throughout much of the twentieth century in US History textbooks. Perhaps there is a regional difference among teenagers, but it is perhaps not as easily discernible as it was a few decades ago.

  • Cash Jan 6, 2009 @ 18:43


    By any chance are most of your students children or grandchildren of transplants to Virginia?


    • Kevin Levin Jan 7, 2009 @ 15:48

      I am definitely not the only “Yankee” transplant at my school. We do have a small group of students who come from families with deep roots in central Virginia. Remember, this is a university town so we have families constantly moving into the area from around the country. We also have a growing dorm population made up of students from all over the world.

  • David Rhoads Jan 6, 2009 @ 18:05

    Here’s how I see it.

    Did Lee commit treason?

    Absolutely. Although Lee’s resignation of his U.S. Army commission was not an act of treason, his acceptance of the Virginia commission (three days before his resignation was accepted by the U.S. Army, incidentally) and his waging war against the United States most certainly were acts of treason. The crime of treason for U.S. citizens is defined rather matter-of-factly in the Constitution:

    “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” (Art. III, Sec. 3)

    Seems pretty straightforward, if you ask me.

    Would we make an exception for anyone else in American history?

    You bet. We did it for all the Confederates. Every Confederate officer or soldier committed treason against the United States (though there may have been some exceptions based on foreign citizenship or, possibly, slave status ). After the war, though, almost all of the former Confederates were forgiven via either general amnesty proclamations or special presidential pardons. This was a practical thing to do in the interests of reunification and reconciliation and given the sheer numbers of offenders. Still, there were a few notable exceptions, one of which, ironically enough, was Lee, who never was granted a pardon during his lifetime (although he was finally pardoned posthumously in 1975 by a Congressional Resolution signed by President Ford).

    Would we make an exception for an officer today?

    I doubt it.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2009 @ 18:29


      Thanks for clarifying what I meant to emphasize as an act of treason. You are absolutely correct to note that the resignation of a military commission, alone, does not represent treason. Your point about the timing of Lee’s acceptance of Virginia’s offer is one that was emphasized by Alan Nolan in Lee Considered. I also should have clarified my point about other exceptions as one extending beyond Confederates generally.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Scotty Wiseman Jan 6, 2009 @ 16:39

    I was going to ask exactly what Bob asked, Mr. Levin. Although, today was interesting because I have never looked at Lee in this much detail because, being from Virginia, I was always taught that he was somewhat of a hero; however, I never really asked myself why he is considered a hero even though he defied the United States government, ultimately the South lost the war, etc. I’m excited for what tomorrow brings by further discussing Lee, but I am also very interested to see what others feel about General Grant.

    • Bob Pollock Jan 9, 2009 @ 17:38

      I know this post is supposed to be about Lee, but I would also be interested in what the class thought about Grant.

  • Bob Pollock Jan 6, 2009 @ 15:36

    Ten days with Lee? I just want to know if Grant is going to get equal time.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2009 @ 15:45

      Excellent question Bob. We are going to discuss Grant along the way and read a piece by Joan Waugh on his memory.

  • Crystal Marshall Jan 6, 2009 @ 14:42

    As a high schooler myself I’ll attempt to answer your student’s question as to whether “Lee’s actions represented outright treason” and “whether we would make an exception for anyone else in American history or even an officer today”.

    Once again this discussion goes back to memory and context. Many of my peers do view Lee’s actions, if not treasonous, as gravely misguided. I believe that these thoughts are a product of my generation; we have grown up with a sense of nationalism and duty toward our country, since in our day and age there is not conflict and tension between the states, but rather between our country and other countries around the world. Thus we remember Lee’s actions as possibly traitorous, looking at his actions through the lens of our own views.

    On the other end, some of my peers also believe that Lee was justified in his actions because his commitment to his personal beliefs trumped any commitment to the Union. If his personal beliefs conflicted with the actions of the government, Lee had the right, and indeed needed to excersize his right, to submit to his beliefs rather than to supposedly unjustified government policies.

    Now to the question of whether we would make an “exception” to any modern-day officer who followed Lee’s course of action. I think it depends on the situation. The case of Lt. Ehren Watada is an example. (Watada refused to deploy to Iraq with his brigade because of his belief that the war was a crime and unjustified.) On the one hand, there were those who supported the prosecution of Watada for treason. On the other hand, there were those who applauded Watada for his actions. It all depends on one’s opinion of the Iraq war itself. In some groups Watada will always be remembered as a traitor of sorts; in other groups he will be remembered as a hero. One’s views affect one’s memory.

    Would we make an “exception” if another American historical figure had also done as Lee had done? Once again it depends on the situation and the figure in question, as well as the public’s perception of that situation and figure. Consider Benedict Arnold. From the American point of view he was a traitor. What if George Washington had been serving in the British army at the time of the American Revolution, and due to his personal convictions, had resigned and joined with the Americans? We would look back on him and applaud his conviction and courage. It all depends on one’s perception and interpretation. Part of the fun of studying history is the subjective element to it; of course there are the objective facts, but what of the subjective interpretation?

    Hope this is helpful and useful for your student. (I’d be interested to hear his/her response…) As a high school student living 3,000 miles across the country from Virginia, I can only continue to marvel at the technology that makes it possible for people to have these discussions!

    –Crystal Marshall

    • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2009 @ 15:10

      Thank you so much for taking the time to offer such a thoughtful response to my post. You’ve obviously thought a great deal about the subject. I like your example of Lt. Watada, but there does seem to be a difference between refusing to deploy and resigning your commission altogether. Moreover, what is striking about Lee is that he is celebrated for the way he resigned his commission as opposed to those Virginia West Point graduates who refused to resign from the army.

      I also agree that the war in Iraq has led to a heightened sense of nationalism which perhaps renders Lee’s resignation more difficult. A few of my students read my blog so there is a chance you may hear from one of them. In the meantime I hope you will stop by again and share your thoughts. Thanks Crystal.

    • Robert Moore Jan 6, 2009 @ 17:44

      “Thus we remember Lee’s actions as possibly traitorous, looking at his actions through the lens of our own views.”

      I think this is an excellent point. In fact, I think a lot of people continue to look at historic events and people with contemporary perceptions of what “should be” TODAY. I think, in some ways, we have to learn to detach ourselves from our modern mindsets in order to gain a better understanding of events and people of the past. Was Lee’s act of resignation truly treasonous if the idea of “THESE United States” had not yet evolved to “THE United States.” It goes back to the argument that the G.A.R. tried to make in their part in the textbook wars. Any thought that the United States were a “THESE” before the war gave greater justification to the ability of the Southern states to secede. I just read something about how this threatened the educational goals of the G.A.R.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2009 @ 17:51

        I also thought it was an excellent point. It’s a crucial distinction to keep in sharp focus. On the one hand we can ask how Lee’s contemporaries viewed his decision or how his decision compared with others who were in a similar position. This latter point enters directly into our memory of Lee and the emphasis on the inevitability of the decision. It’s one of the points made in the Ken Burns series. This stands in contrast to our own assessment of what Lee did and what it ought to mean to each generation. In this case there is no answer to the question since it is up to each individual to figure out where they stand on the question.

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