Robert E. Lee’s Virginia mansion gets a makeover with the reopening of the Confederate general’s house
A portrait of Confederate General Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee was a decorated Confederate general.
He joined the army in 1825 and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1829.
He married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the only daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington, in 1831.
Lee first saw action with the U.S. Army in Mexico in 1846. He later served as a major general in the Virginia state forces.
He inherited the Virginia mansion upon the death of his stepfather in 1857, leaving Lee to manage the large estate.
The estate was in disarray, and Lee ended up taking a two-year leave from the army to reorganize the restless plantation.
He had extremely strict expectations of his slaves and demanded severe punishments for those who fell short.
His efforts led to near revolts by the slaves on the spot, especially since many believed they would be freed upon Custis’ death.
In 1859, Lee severely punished three slaves – Wesley Norris, his sister Mary, and one of their cousins – after they tried to escape from the plantation.
A newspaper at the time claimed that Lee had them whipped once they were captured and returned to Virginia.
Mary received 20 lashes while the two men received 50 before the pair were sent to work on railroads in Virginia and Alabama.
Many of the 200 slaves he had inherited were either sold to traders or imprisoned by Lee and by 1860 only one family remained intact.
It is believed that he said to his son in 1868: “You will never prosper with the Negroes, and it is abhorrent to a thinking mind to support and cherish those who plot and work for your injury, and whose every sympathy and associations are antagonistic to yours.’
After the Civil War, Lee resisted efforts to build Confederate monuments in his honor and instead wanted the nation out of the Civil War.
After his death, Southerners adopted the revisionist “The Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War and placed Lee as its central figure. The Last Cause argued that the South knew it was fighting a losing war and decided to fight it anyway on principle. He also attempted to argue that the war was not about slavery but about high constitutional ideals.
As The Lost Cause narrative grew in popularity, supporters pushed to commemorate Lee, ignoring his shortcomings as a general and his role as a slave owner. Lee’s monuments were erected in the 1920s just as the Ku Klux Klan was enjoying a resurgence and new Jim Crow segregation laws were being passed.
The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia was erected in 1924. A year later, the US Congress voted to use federal funds to restore the Lee Mansion in Arlington National Cemetery.
The US Mint issued a coin in his honor, and Lee has been on five postage stamps. No other Union figure besides President Abraham Lincoln has similar honors.
A generation after the Civil Rights Movement, black and Latino residents began pressuring elected officials to dismantle Lee and other Confederate memorials in places like New Orleans, Houston and South Carolina .
The dismissals were partly based on violent acts committed by white supremacists using Confederate imagery and historians questioning the legitimacy of The Lost Cause.
A statue of General Robert E. Lee has been removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans as the last of four monuments to Confederate-era figures to be removed in a 2015 City Council vote.
The Houston Independent School District also voted in 2016 to rename Robert E. Lee High School, a school with a large Latin American population, as Margaret Long Wisdom High School.
In this June 30, 2015 photo, activists gather around Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee’s statute in Lee Park while chanting the names of Civil War-era activists in Dallas.
Earlier this year, the Charlottesville, Virginia City Council voted to remove its statue of Lee from a city park, sparking a lawsuit from opponents of the move. The debate also drew opposition from white supremacists and neo-Nazis who revered Lee and the Confederacy. The opposition sparked rallies in defense of the Lee statues over the weekend that left at least three people dead.
Monuments and memorials dedicated to Lee remain extremely controversial. Currently, the Virginia Supreme Court is hearing arguments over whether the state has the right to take down a statue of Lee on a horse in Richmond.
The monument, which depicts the controversial general riding a horse, was unveiled in 1890 and has been the subject of fierce debate in Richmond, the former Confederate capital, for decades. Protesters gathered around the monument last year and defaced it with graffiti and spray paint decrying the death of George Floyd.
In December, a statue of Lee in the United States Capitol was removed and replaced with one of civil rights pioneer Barbara Johns. It was removed after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam requested that it be traded because Lee was not considered an appropriate symbol for the state.
There have also been calls to change the names of military bases, including one named after Lee – Fort Lee – which is named after slave owners.
Massive crowds gathered for days around the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia in June 2020, demanding it be torn down