An indirect descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee said he was “disheartened” that President Trump called his ancestor a “great general.”
Robert Lee IV, a North Carolina pastor who has been openly critical of his great-great-great-great-uncle, accused the president of lying about the legacy of the Southern Civil War general. Speaking in front of 4,000 supporters Friday at a rally in Lebanon, Ohio, Trump declared that Lee was a “true great fighter” and “great general” and claimed that President Abraham Lincoln once had a “phobia” of Lee, who “was winning battle after battle after battle.”
“He is showing us that he supports an idol of white supremacy and of hatred,” Robert Lee IV said of the president in a video statement he shared Saturday with his 31,000 Twitter followers. “Robert E. Lee fought for the continued enslavement of black bodies. It was for states' rights, yes, but it was for states' rights to own slaves. I find myself saddened by the state of our nation.”
On Sunday, Trump tweeted that the point of his comments about Lee, which were made during an anecdote about Ohio-born President Ulysses S. Grant, was to praise the Union general.
Robert Lee IV caused some controversy after a speech at the MTV Video Music Awards in August 2017, a few days after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville — held to protest the city’s plan to remove a statue of the Confederate general — where counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed. Lee, dressed in a black cleric’s shirt and collar, introduced himself as the descendant of the general “whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville.”
“Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head on,” he said. “We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs.”
Lee said later that he resigned from his post at Bethany United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, N.C., after some members raised concerns about the attention the congregation was receiving because of his outspokenness. Some church members were troubled by his comments praising the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March and Heyer, he said in a statement.
Lee is also working on a book about his younger years as a Confederate flag-flying teenager and how he came to denounce white supremacy, he told the Raleigh News & Observer in a November interview. The working title: “A Sin by Any Other Name: On Race, My Love Letter to the South."
The Confederate general’s legacy has been highly scrutinized, and fights over whether to keep monuments dedicated to him and his part in history have consumed cities throughout the country. Historians say leaders such as Lee and Stonewall Jackson defended the Confederacy, which “existed for one reason, and that was to protect the right of people to own other people.”
But one other descendant who came directly from Lee’s lineage has a less cynical view. Robert E. Lee V, the general’s great-great-grandson and an athletic director at a school in McLean, Va., said many people don’t understand his ancestor’s legacy.
“We were never taught in our family that Robert E. Lee was fighting for slavery. He was fighting for the state of Virginia and for his homeland. He was never fighting to keep the institution of slavery alive,” Robert E. Lee V told The Washington Post’s Mike Semel in 2017.
He also criticized the right-wing extremists who espouse and hide behind his ancestor’s name. Dividing the country was not what his great-great-grandfather stood for, Lee said, adding that after the Confederate was defeated in the Civil War, the general called for unity.
Rachel Siegel and Gabriel Pogrund contributed to this article.