Virginia’s Relationship with Robert E. Lee

By Jaime Wise, Contributor

Virginia, as a state, is proud of Robert E. Lee. Or, at least, it has been for the past 155 years. From 1983-2000, Virginia celebrated Martin Luther King Junior Day as Lee-Jackson Day. In the Capitol Building, where each state can send two statues representing important figures in their histories, Virginia’s statues are of first president George Washington and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. A giant statue of Lee — the last Confederate statue in the state capital — even stands in Richmond, though there are plans to remove it soon. Virginia has always been proud of Robert E. Lee. But why? And, is Virginia’s attitude towards him changing now?


Robert E. Lee is a figure from a very different past. Some things have not changed since his time, but ultimately, the Virginia that Lee was born in looked very different than the one we know now. An important difference is the prominence of the Lee family, whose remaining descendants have died out or dispersed, and their place in the social structure of Virginia.


The earliest Lees settled in what is now Alexandria in the mid-1600s. As one of the earliest and wealthiest families in the Virginia colony, the Lees were able to quickly buy up land and gain control of nearly all of Northern Virginia. This led to a generations-long connection to the governor and a friendship with the Washington family. After all, the land that became Mount Vernon originally belonged to the Lee’s. They were land-rich, well-known, and powerful. In that time, it meant something to be a Lee.


Robert E. Lee was born and raised on the outskirts of his family’s legacy. He grew up in Stratford, hours away from the Lee family’s center in the Northernmost part of Virginia, and by the time he was an adult, his family had gone broke. But, in a time of deep regionalism, Lee’s family history meant that he had a hundreds-years long and very public connection to his home state.  There was just no way Lee was ever going to leave Virginia. So, when President Abraham Lincoln asked him to lead the Union Army, he refused. And, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis extended the same offer, he accepted. He was fighting, he said, for Virginia.


This isn’t to say that Lee was unaware of or morally removed from the other causes of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee did not have slaves when he was young, having come from a poor family, but once he married Mary Custis Washington (a descendent of Martha Washington), he inherited her father’s slaves. Records from the time describe slave riots on his property, and Lee has been described as a strict and unusually cruel slavemaster. But despite Lee’s other beliefs — he was a slave owner but not a secessionist, and his personal relationship with the war was complex — Lee made clear that his primary reason for turning to the Confederacy was a desire to support Virginia.


And I believe that is why Virginia has defended the memory of Robert E. Lee for so long. Yes, there are still parts of the state that refer to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression” and fly confederate flags in their front yards. And no, not all the problems of the past have been solved, or will be solved in the immediate future. But, Virginia has been steadily moving away from its past for a while now, and with the state recently turning blue, a greater focus has been placed on this change. However, through it, Robert E. Lee has remained a prominent part of Virginia history.


Why? Because almost every public move Robert E. Lee made was out of loyalty to Virginia, rather than a personal expression, so his own ideals — most of which are no longer an accepted part of the moral zeitgeist — are easy to disregard. But the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death demands that nothing be disregarded.


Now, Robert E. Lee is being examined in full, with each aspect of his legacy weighed equally. And, Virginia is re-examining its relationship with this complicated figure of our state’s past. But Lee is not this state’s only historical figure. Virginia’s history is the longest in the U.S.; some parts are good, others quite bad. But it’s a place I’m proud of, that I’ve always been able to be proud of. And, I hope that as statues come down, others come up in their place. Ones we can all be proud of.