A fam­ily house di­vided

Robert E. Lee’s kin grap­ple with rebel gen­eral’s legacy

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT - Si­mon Romero

Few Amer­i­can fam­i­lies are as deeply embed­ded in the na­tion’s his­tory as the Lees of Vir­ginia. Mem­bers of the clan signed the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, served the new na­tion as judges and gen­er­als, law­mak­ers and gov­er­nors, and one, Zachary Tay­lor, even be­came pres­i­dent.

For decades, the fam­ily ap­peared to be united in pro­mot­ing the adu­la­tion of its best­known mem­ber, the pre-em­i­nent Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But now, as tem­pers flare around the coun­try over Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments and what they stand for, the Lees are grap­pling anew with the gen­eral’s check­ered legacy. And along with many other fam­i­lies, they are di­vided over what to do about pub­lic stat­ues of a fa­mous fore­bear.

“Like so much else in this world, the Lees are com­plex,” said Blair Lee IV, 72, a re­tired real es­tate de­vel­oper from Mary­land who de­scribes Robert E. Lee as a “dis­tant cousin.”

“The war pit­ted brother against brother and cousin against cousin,” he said, “and we’re still at this to­day.”

Some of the Lees have is­sued pub­lic calls for the stat­ues to come down, and want to dis­tance the fam­ily from the white su­prem­a­cists who marched in Char­lottesville, Va., to protest the pro­posed re­moval of a Lee statue there.

But oth­ers want the mon­u­ments to the gen­eral to re­main where they are, and Blair Lee is among them, even though he is de­scended from a branch of the fam­ily that sided with the Union in the Civil War.

“I don’t un­der­stand how tear­ing down Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments ad­vances the cause of racial har­mony in this coun­try,” said Lee, whose fa­ther was gov­er­nor of Mary­land in the 1970s. “If we’re

look­ing for peo­ple to be an­gry about, why not erase the names of English mon­archs from many places?”

The statue de­bate pro­vides a glimpse into how the Lees of to­day are re­act­ing to what his­to­ri­ans say has been a mas­ter­ful pro­pa­ganda cam­paign aimed at restor­ing and bol­ster­ing white supremacy in the South through the mythol­ogy of the “Lost Cause.”

White South­ern­ers ap­pro­pri­ated the term from Sir Wal­ter Scott’s de­scrip­tion of the failed 18th-cen­tury strug­gle for Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence, and used it to soften and ro­man­ti­cize the Con­fed­er­ate re­bel­lion, ac­cord­ing to James C. Cobb, a his­to­rian.

Robert E. Lee him­self op­posed build­ing pub­lic memo­ri­als to the re­bel­lion, say­ing they would just keep open the war’s many wounds. But after his death in 1870, ad­mir­ers in the South made him the cen­ter­piece of the Lost Cause cam­paign. His re­mains are kept in a Vir­ginia mau­soleum near those of his wife, their seven chil­dren and even his horse, Trav­eller — an echo of the rev­er­ence some Latin Amer­i­can na­tions lav­ish on their na­tional he­roes.

The pro­pa­gan­dists in­sisted that un­der Lee, the South had fought nobly for the prin­ci­ples of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and states’ rights, de­spite hav­ing lit­tle hope of de­feat­ing the more in­dus­tri­al­ized North. Slav­ery, in their telling, was a side issue, and had been a fairly be­nign in­sti­tu­tion that of­fered blacks a bet­ter life than they would have had oth­er­wise.

By gloss­ing over the main­te­nance of slav­ery as the South’s over­rid­ing war aim, the pro­po­nents of what came to be called the Lee cult di­verted at­ten­tion from Lee’s own record as a slave owner, and from any dis­cus­sion of how the Lee fam­ily tree came to in­clude African-Amer­i­cans.

“There was a re­brand­ing cam­paign that pro­moted a

to­tal fal­lacy about what the Civil War was about,” said Karen Fin­ney, 50, a great­great-great grand­niece of Robert E. Lee. Her mother, Mil­dred Lee, a so­cial worker, is white; her fa­ther, Jim Fin­ney, a civil rights lawyer, was black.

“It’s sim­ple: my an­ces­tor was a slave owner who fought to pre­serve slav­ery,” said Fin­ney, who worked as a spokes­woman for Hil­lary Clin­ton’s 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. “If his side had won, that sys­tem of en­slave­ment would have in­cluded me as well. Sup­port­ers of the stat­ues still want to per­suade peo­ple they’re not about white supremacy. It’s time to bring the stat­ues down.”

Though they are on dif­fer­ent sides of the statue de­bate, what Fin­ney and Blair Lee IV have in com­mon, along with hun­dreds of other close and dis­tant

rel­a­tives, is their an­ces­tral con­nec­tion to Richard Lee, an early set­tler of Vir­ginia in the 17th cen­tury who is thought to have come from Shrop­shire in Eng­land’s West Mid­lands.

Over the decades, that an­ces­try came to con­fer con­sid­er­able pres­tige, abet­ted by the cre­ation in 1921 of the So­ci­ety of the Lees of Vir­ginia, an or­ga­ni­za­tion to “pro­mote a bet­ter knowl­edge of the pa­tri­otic ser­vices of the Lee Fam­ily.”

Carter B. Refo, the so­ci­ety’s mem­ber­ship sec­re­tary, de­clined to dis­cuss the statue issue or the Lee fam­ily’s long as­so­ci­a­tion with slav­ery be­fore the Civil War. “The So­ci­ety has a pol­icy of not mak­ing pub­lic state­ments, so I am un­able to help in that re­gard,” he said.

Lee de­scen­dants main­tain a tra­di­tion of cu­rat­ing the fam­ily’s place in his­tory. Ed­mund Jen­nings Lee com­piled a ge­nealog­i­cal tome in 1895 that re­mains an im­por­tant ref­er­ence work on the fam­ily. To­day, one of the de­scen­dants who helps or­ga­nize and edit the fam­ily’s pa­pers is Robert E.L. DeButts Jr., who works in the fi­nan­cial crime com­pli­ance group at Gold­man Sachs.

Much of the ad­mi­ra­tion for Robert E. Lee cen­ters on his long and dis­tin­guished mil­i­tary ca­reer, on his op­po­si­tion to se­ces­sion, on claims that he dis­liked slav­ery and in his post­war years, when he sup­ported rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween North and South as pres­i­dent of Wash­ing­ton Col­lege (now Wash­ing­ton and Lee University) in Lex­ing­ton, Va.

“There was this pro­mo­tion of the gen­eral as a Chris­tian gen­tle­man who only fought to side with his home­land, the Com­mon­wealth of Vir­ginia,” said Glenn LaFan­tasie, a pro­fes­sor of Civil War his­tory at Western Ken­tucky University. “Of course, Lee was much more than that, an owner of slaves and a man who sought the cap­ture of his run­away slaves. He fought to per­pet­u­ate slav­ery.”

When his com­mand, the Army of North­ern Vir­ginia, in­vaded Penn­syl­va­nia in 1863, some units went on a spree, kid­nap­ping fugi­tive slaves for their Con­fed­er­ate for­mer masters. Lee urged his sol­diers to avoid “the per­pet­u­a­tion of bar­barous out­rages upon the un­armed,” but did not stop the kid­nap­pings.

Slav­ery’s im­por­tance in forg­ing the for­tunes of the Lee fam­ily has gained greater at­ten­tion through the work of Elise Harding-Davis, 70, a prom­i­nent African-Cana­dian his­to­rian who says that she, too, is a rel­a­tive of Lee’s.

Harding-Davis said that Lee fam­ily doc­u­ments had cor­rob­o­rated oral his­tory in her fam­ily that Kizzie, her en­slaved great-great-great­great-great grand­mother, was a daugh­ter of Lee’s fa­ther, Henry Lee III, known as Light-Horse Harry, a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War cav­alry com­man­der.

“We don’t take pride in be­ing Lees, but in be­ing pi­o­neers of North Amer­ica,” Harding-Davis said, em­pha­siz­ing that her an­ces­tors moved to On­tario gen­er­a­tions ago in search of free­dom. “When you un­der­stand the ug­li­ness of the Civil War, and what Robert E. Lee fought for, you know that the stat­ues must come down.”


Pedes­tri­ans look at the statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee that sits in Eman­ci­pa­tion Park in Char­lottesville, Va., one day after a woman was killed dur­ing a white na­tion­al­ist rally in the city. Lee’s im­age as a no­ble sol­dier fight­ing for a “lost...


Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee poses for photographer Mathew Brady in Rich­mond, Va., a few days after Lee sur­ren­dered his army at Ap­po­mat­tox, Va., in April 1865, end­ing the Civil War.

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