The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Robert E. Lee historical marker vanishes in the dead of night: A whodunnit

An orange cone placed over a piece of metal pole protruding from the ground where the “Lee’s Boyhood Home” historical marker used to stand in front of 607 Oronoco St. in Old Town Alexandria, Va. (Andrew deGrandpre/The Washington Post)

Frederick Lowther woke at 3:40 a.m. Thursday to the sound of metal banging on metal. A longtime resident of Old Town Alexandria in Virginia, he looked out the window and saw city workers trying to remove a historical marker next door.

The large metal sign, noting 607 Oronoco St. as the boyhood home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, had already been digitally removed from photos for a listing for the property, which is for sale for $5.9 million. Now it appeared that the sign would be removed in reality.

Robert E. Lee’s childhood home is up for sale. The $5.9 million listing doesn’t mention him.

After hammering the sign proved unsuccessful, the workers sawed through the metal pole holding the sign up and left with it in a city of Alexandria truck in the predawn hours, Lowther said. On Thursday, an orange cone had been placed over the piece of remaining pole protruding from the ground.

“I have mixed views about General Lee, but I don’t have mixed views about history,” Lowther said. “The notion that we can change history by chopping signs down in the dark offends me.”

He wondered who had ordered the marker’s removal and whether it was connected to news stories about the sale of the house.

Mystery solved!

On Friday, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which manages 2,500 markers around the state and owns the one in front of 607 Oronoco, said its “retirement” had been planned for months and was unrelated to its presence in front of the on-the-market home.

The marker, which had been there since 1968, was retired because the text had proved to be historically inaccurate, according to Jennifer Loux, the DHR’s marker program historian and manager.

The sign had asserted that after his surrender at Appomattox Court House, Lee returned to his boyhood home and climbed the wall “to see if the snowballs were in bloom.” It also claimed that the Marquis de Lafayette had visited the home in 1824.

“We fact-checked this text and could not find a primary source that confirmed the ‘snowballs’ quote. This information seems to be based on a legend that we could track only to the 1940s,” Loux wrote in an email. “We also determined that the available evidence does not support the claim that Lafayette visited the house in 1824.”

Let’s get real about Robert E. Lee and slavery

A new sign has been made and delivered to the city of Alexandria, according to Loux.

A spokeswoman for the city said the new sign would be installed after a check for buried utility lines. She also said that the change to the marker’s text was initiated by the current property owner and that the marker was removed so early in the morning because that was the beginning of the city workers’ shift.

The new sign, which Loux said was approved by the Board of Historic Resources in June, will de-emphasize Lee’s residence there, reading:

This Federal-style townhouse and its adjoining twin were built ca. 1795. Original owner John Potts Jr., secretary of the Potomac Company, deeded the house in 1799 to William Fitzhugh of Chatham, member of Virginia’s Revolutionary Conventions and the Continental Congress. George Washington visited his friends and business associates Potts and Fitzhugh here. Maj. Gen. Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Revolutionary War officer, governor of Virginia, and member of the U.S. Congress, moved here in 1811. His son Confederate general Robert E. Lee grew up here and studied at Benjamin Hallowell’s school next door. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish lived here in the 1940s.

In addition, the title of the old marker was “Lee’s Boyhood Home.” The new one will be titled “Potts-Fitzhugh-Lee House.”

The fate of the home has reflected shifting attitudes toward Lee over the past few decades. Once used as a museum honoring Lee and Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, it returned to being a private residence in 2000 when it was sold to Mark and Ann Kington. When the Kingtons put it on the market nearly 20 years later, it proved difficult to sell. Originally listed in April 2018 at $8.5 million, it did not sell until July 2020 for $4.7 million, according to Washingtonian.

The home next door, which Lowther has lived in for decades, is a mirror image of the Potts-Fitzhugh-Lee house and was built at the same time, in 1795. He said that a historic house such as his requires maintenance every day and that the Kingtons “took meticulous care” of the home next door.

Lowther said that he had not met the current owner and that the home appeared to be unoccupied since its purchase. The gardens on the property had not been maintained until recently when it was put on the market, he said.

The real estate agent responsible for the listing did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.

On Friday, the information that the DHR said was inaccurate — that Lee had climbed the wall to look for snowball flowers — remained on the DHR’s online register of historical landmarks.

The old marker will be available for “adoption” by a museum as a historical artifact, Loux said.

Statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were removed in Charlottesville on July 10, nearly four years after the deadly "Unite the Right" rally. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

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