A family house divided
Robert E. Lee’s kin grapple with rebel general’s legacy
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 cause” was burnished in the years after the Civil War, but is being questioned anew. Charlottesville has since covered the statue with a black shroud.
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.