Robert E. Lee V is the great-great-grandson of Gen. Robert E. Lee. The D.C. resident is also the longtime boys’ athletic director at the Potomac School in McLean, Va., which my children attend. I visited Lee in his office to talk about the role that his name, and the historical monuments that bear it, has played in the last week. Edited excerpts follow.
Question: The statues of Robert E. Lee have become a lightning rod. It’s your name on the statues. Wherever you go, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, there’s a Robert E. Lee statue or a Robert E. Lee Highway or a Robert E. Lee whatever. What do you think now of the reexamination of that legacy?
First and foremost, if it can avoid any days like this past Saturday in Charlottesville, then take them down today. That’s not what our family is at all interested in, and that’s not what we think General Lee would want whatsoever. . . . And maybe the second step is put these statues in some place where there is historical context, like a museum, and people can talk about the context. Put it in context of the 1860s and the 1800s, so people better understand the times they [Civil War figures] lived in.
Charlottesville is a place where you send students you know and love every year to play ball, to matriculate. What were your thoughts when you were watching Saturday unfold?
We were on vacation in Lake Tahoe. We were having a little family reunion. We had very little cell service, and Willie Crittenberger — my nephew, he’s living in Chicago now — went down to the lake and he could get more cell service down there. And he comes back and he says, “There’s something going on in Charlottesville. Twitter is sort of blowing up.” So we really didn’t know what was going on in real time.
But it’s such a tragic event. And I just hate for some people to hide behind Robert E. Lee’s name. Saying we are doing this for him and for the South, and that’s not at all what he stood for. He is one who said immediately after the war to put your arms down and let’s bring this nation back together — not divide it even further.
Is that what you think? That people are hiding behind his name?
I can’t tell you the reasoning behind the KKK or the right extremists, but when they hide behind the Confederate flag and General Lee. . . . [He let that idea hang in the air.]
You think they’re misunderstanding or misrepresenting his legacy?
I don’t think they understand his legacy at all. I understand that it’s easy for Robert E. Lee V to be saying this, but 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.
He owned slaves, though.
He did. Absolutely did. That’s what’s so confusing about this. And that’s why you hear stories about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and General Lee. They are just men of their times. . . . It was a horrendous institution. A mar on history. If General Lee’s statue or name is that divisive, you need to take that down.
So the name itself is obviously very important to your family. You’re the fifth.
My father is still alive. He’s awesome. He’s 92. . . . And then I’m the fifth, and we have a son. He’s the sixth.
What does he think?
He’d rather talk about Bryce Harper’s injury than any of this. He recognizes though, to his credit, what is going on. He says, “What going on? Why all the violence? Why all the hatred?” Because to us, that is not at all what General Lee stood for. He would be appalled today.
Has anyone in New Orleans or Charlottesville or any of these places that are grappling with this reached out to your family?
Some of the news media has. Like MSNBC, CNN. But not any of the lawmakers or anything like that. And you know, honestly, I think it’s a community-wide decision, and the communities need to figure this out. . . . [The Baltimore mayor] said they had long discussions about it and decided to do it at night, but it had been teed up for a while.
It needs to happen there — in the community. We can offer our insights. I’m sure Robert E. Lee High School here in Fairfax isn’t going to be Robert E. Lee High School for much longer. If that makes sense to that community, then fine. But I also would say that I hope we don’t paint him out as some figure who was fighting for slavery.
What would he think of the statues?
He was extremely modest. John Kowalik [head of Potomac School] was telling me a story a few weeks ago that I had forgotten. When General Lee became president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee, they asked if they could make it Washington and Lee when he was still the president there, and he said no.
There are six Robert E. Lees in your family. The name is obviously meaningful to the family.
None of my friends would even know the legacy. To them I’m Rob Lee, and they could absolutely care less. But when we named [my son] Robert E. Lee VI, we were doing it in recognition of my father and his father. And yeah, down the road to General Lee. No question. . . . I don’t think it was about the perpetuation of keeping the name alive, like, “By God, we’ve got to keep the name going.” You know, it was more like, “It’s a wonderful family name, and we’re going to recognize it as that.”
When you were growing up and your son Robbie was growing up and your father was growing up, there were all these monuments wherever you go and all these highways named for your family.
During spring break, we went down to Hilton Head, South Carolina, and as you head down there, when you get to Richmond [and south], you give your Visa card to the gas station attendant or to the restaurant owner, and it’s remarkable the reaction. . . . He was the losing general of this major war in our country, and people have such incredible respect for him. People will see your name, and they always have good things to say.
But we are not going to live our lives that way. We are not professional Robert E. Lees. . . . We spend very, very, very little time talking about General Lee.
President Trump said that when the Robert E. Lee statue goes down, then Jefferson is next and then Washington. What do you think of that comparison?
I don’t really know what to say about President Trump. If I had to say something, I’d just say I wish he came out stronger Saturday afternoon. I think I’ll just leave it at that.
The people who organized the march in Charlottesville did so in your ancestor’s name.
They said this was a march just to [oppose taking] this statue down? . . . Nothing wrong with that viewpoint. But I don’t really know that that was the goal of these people. They wanted to be on the cable news networks for 72 hours straight and to have a platform to say some ugly things. To have a peaceful protest is one thing. To have a day of violence is another.
What about the rest of their message? “Blood and soil.” And “Jews will not replace us”?
What? What? I don’t understand that. I think that’s misrepresenting his name. That’s not what General Lee stood for. And I know that’s not what we stand for as a family. . . . If you want to have a conversation about taking the statue down, then terrific. Have a town hall meeting at the University of Virginia football stadium, and have a conversation about it and debate it and let the lawmakers make some tough decisions. And if the Lee family or other families with Confederate ancestry can help with that, we’re happy to. But dear God, we have to avoid days like Saturday in Charlottesville.