Remembering the Forgotten Robert E. Lee

The General’s Redoubt, a group of alumni organized to keep the “Lee” in Washington & Lee University, have produced two short videos exploring Lee’s legacy in American history. The first touches upon his personal humility and gift for leadership, his strong reservations about slavery, and his revival of a university devastated by war.

Amazing fact: Lee freed the slaves of his deceased father-in-law while the war was raging. He converted two slaves into salaried employees at his headquarters tent. Ironically, when General U.S. Grant’s wife visited him in the field, she brought a domestic slave with her. Her family’s slaves were not freed until January 1865, two years after the Lee family slaves won their freedom.

The second video details how Lee played a critical role to reunite the war-torn country, supported reconstruction and the enfranchisement of blacks, and transformed Washington College (as it was called then) to prepare a new generation of Southerners for the emerging industrial economy that was supplanting the old plantation economy.

As Virginians, we can adopt the cartoon version of history that divides everyone into camps of good or evil, or we can embrace history as it really was: complex, nuanced, and replete with cross-cutting currents.

We can measure past figures by contemporary standards, find them lacking, and purge them from our memory. (By that logic, we would have to “cancel” Martin Luther King for his misogyny.) Or we can view figures by a different standard: In the long, 400-year march from the brutal hierarchical world of kings, peasants, serfs and slaves that existed in 1619 toward today’s world, which embraces the ideal (not always honored) of freedom for all, who (to borrow a sports metaphor) moved the ball down the field toward greater freedom?

Despite his role as a Confederate general, Lee moved the ball down the field. He was a great American. We should honor his memory.