Robert E. Lee, Version 200

Visitor Barbara Norris of New Mexico speaks with Ranger John P. McCarthy at Arlington House, where Robert E. Lee and his wife once lived.
Visitor Barbara Norris of New Mexico speaks with Ranger John P. McCarthy at Arlington House, where Robert E. Lee and his wife once lived. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007

Today, the United Daughters of the Confederacy plan to fly a Confederate flag on Washington Street in Alexandria, on the statue of a rebel soldier who faces South. The Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans will gather for dinner in Richmond to honor the man they hail as "one of the greatest Americans."

It's the 200th birthday of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who is revered by some and reviled by others. Commemorations and protests are planned across Virginia and other Southern states, proving that more than 140 years after the end of the Civil War, Lee is still a pivotal, controversial and complicated figure in American history and continuing race and culture wars.

In Virginia, where Lee was born, fought in the Civil War and died -- no matter whether he's viewed as a hero who fought brilliantly and valiantly for state's rights or as a traitor bent on protecting his state's right to own slaves -- his legacy looms large. Lee highways crisscross the state, including in the Washington region, Lee bridges cross rivers, high schools are named for him and the phone book lists hundreds of Robert E. Lees.

But beyond the heat and noise created by Lee's 21st-century defenders and detractors, there is a new move to reevaluate Lee and his legacy.

The premise of the new look is perhaps as controversial as Lee's image: As the South has become more racially and ethnically diverse and has prospered economically, perhaps the South doesn't need Lee so much anymore. Or at least not in the same way. Perhaps it is time to let him pass from marble icon and touchstone of white Southern identity into the annals of history as a charismatic and important human figure.

"Now there are all sorts of other ways in which Southerners identify themselves -- Salvadorans, Mexicans, Asians -- [and] the politics and economics of the region are no longer based on white supremacy," said W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a historian at the University of North Carolina and a member of the Society of the Lees of Virginia. "It makes all the sense in the world that for more and more Southerners, Robert E. Lee is just a footnote."

At Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery -- the old Lee mansion and plantation where Union officers began burying the Civil War dead -- Lee's bicentennial was commemorated with a symposium, "Does Lee Matter?"

And at Washington and Lee University, where Lee became president after the Civil War, the bicentennial is being marked with "Re-visioning Lee," an art exhibit exploring how Lee's image has been exploited for various causes. A big draw was the discussion "What Lee Means Today," led by two history professors, one white and one African American.

Not too far from Lee Chapel, where Lee is buried and which boasts a marble statue of him reclining with his hand on his sword, ready for battle, Theodore Carter DeLaney, the black professor, passed out a 1928 essay on Lee by African American writer W.E.B. DuBois. "It is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee" because he "led a bloody war to perpetuate human slavery," DuBois wrote.

"At Washington and Lee, all things are on the table for debate and discussion, including Robert E. Lee," Delaney said. "Nothing's too sacred. And that's an important change."

The white professor, J. Holt Merchant, remembers growing up in Virginia when few people questioned Lee's heroic stature as the "Last Gentle Knight."

"But the days when William Faulkner could say that any Southern boy, any time he wanted to, could conjure up images of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg and relive it for himself, are gone. Life's not like that anymore, and it's probably just as well," Merchant said. "Changes in demography, geography, wealth and sophistication have led us to pay attention to other things. As life has gotten better for Southerners, they've been able to look to the present and the future and not hang on to the past quite so passionately."

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