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Robert E. Lee, Version 200
Confederate General's Legacy Reevaluated on His Birthday

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."

Robert E. Lee was born Jan. 19, 1807, at Stratford Plantation on the Northern Neck of Virginia and was the fifth child of Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee. He attended West Point and never received a demerit. By all accounts enormously handsome, tall, charismatic and humble, he had a long and illustrious career in the U.S. Army. In 1861, as Southern states contemplated secession, Lee privately ridiculed the idea. Still, when he was offered command of the Union Army, he turned it down once Virginia -- his "country" -- seceded.

During the Civil War, Lee's troops were often vastly outnumbered but managed to win or fight to a stalemate for years. Once the war ended, Lee resisted calls to continue the fight in the hills as a guerrilla and instead encouraged his soldiers to go home and begin rebuilding the nation. He retired to what was then Washington College, where he set about innovating the offerings, including the first classes in the country in business and journalism.

In other countries, leaders of failed civil rebellions are often reviled. But a strange thing happened to Lee after he died. He became beloved by many. Over the years, he has been praised by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had a picture of Lee hanging in his office.

Northerners, seizing on Lee's early ambivalence about the war, his gentlemanly sense of honor and duty, and his distaste of slavery -- he once wrote that it was a "moral and political evil" -- embraced the Confederate general as a way to foster reconciliation, said John Coski, a historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. In 1901, he was one of only 29 Americans inducted into New York University's Hall of Fame. Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the lyrics for the Battle Hymn of the Republic, composed a poem in Lee's honor.

At the same time, his former generals wrote of him as so perfect and his cause so noble that Lee became fixed as the tragic hero of a romantic "Lost Cause" and that cause became synonymous with white Southern identity.

"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?' " Coski said. "Lee has been so praised and distorted that they made him more than human, and in so doing, made him less than human. He's a complex figure. If we want to understand history in its complexity, we have to understand Robert E. Lee."

The loud and public culture war continues. A Richmond-area Boy Scout troop created a furor over "craven surrendering to political correctness" when it decided recently to strip Lee from its name and logo. The NAACP has protested the use of almost $500,000 in state funds to refurbish the towering Lee statue on Richmond's Monument Avenue. And when the Virginia General Assembly created a special commission last year to plan a year of events to commemorate the Lee bicentennial, the panel wanted Lee license plates and more lessons about Lee in the public schools. Instead, after intensely emotional debate -- one African American delegate said Lee's likeness reduced him to tears -- all that was given was a $5,000 grant to publish a tourist brochure on Lee-related events in the state.

But take a walk inside Arlington's Washington-Lee High School for a look at the New South. Inside the front door, a "diversity quilt" is displayed with symbols of the countries and cultures represented at the school. A map of the world and a photo mosaic of students show them in all colors and hues. The assistant principals are Latino and black. Students pass by the portrait of Lee in the library shrugging. "No one really notices him," 16-year-old Andrew Gilbert said.

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