The Robert E. Lee monument and scaffolding during construction in Richmond in 1890.
Cook Collection/Valentine Museum
origin story / memory

The Day White Virginia Stopped Admiring Gen. Robert E. Lee and Started Worshiping Him

Stripping Virginia of its Lee tributes is far harder than it is in other places.
Nowhere is the retreat on Lee more fraught than in the Old Dominion, his beloved home state.

In Virginia, Lee tributes have included at least five high schools, two elementary schools, an Army base and a university. His name is stamped on both a state holiday and a trans-commonwealth highway that stretches from Rosslyn to Bristol. The Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington is a cathedral-worthy shrine that includes a statue of the general in eternal marble repose and his tomb one floor below it. The Lee mansion overlooking Arlington National Cemetery is a Park Service memorial that draws more than a million visitors a year.

That legacy is now under pressure all over the state. In Charlottesville, where officials are awaiting a  federal judge’s ruling on plans to remove it permanently, city workers Wednesday covered the Lee statue with black tarp. A few hours later, a man approached with a knife and tried to cut off the shroud. “This is a desecration,” he declared, “and this cover needs to come down.”

In Arlington, residents are pushing the school board to strip Lee’s name from Washington-Lee High. Arlington County board members are seeking permission to rename the stretch of Lee Highway running through the county. R.E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, the historic Episcopal church where Lee once worshiped, is considering a name change.
Some of Lee’s own descendants, including Robert E. Lee V, have called for moving the memorials in the name of reconciliation, a virtue they say was their ancestor’s greatest final wish for the country.
And in Richmond itself, the former capital of the Confederacy, Mayor Levar Stoney (D) said last week that he was asking the city’s Monument Avenue Commission to examine the removal of some or all the confederate statues — including Lee’s. Asked to talk more about those plans, the mayor declined further comment.

For many white Virginians, Lee ascended to the very ranks of the hallowed founders of the republic: Washington, Jefferson, Madison. When the Virginia legislature got to pick two notable natives to honor in the U.S. Capitol, it was Lee, not Jefferson, they chose to stand forever with Washington in Statuary Hall. Only one of those choices sparked controversy outside of the commonwealth; the appearance of Lee in the Capitol of the nation he went to war with was condemned by many outside the South.
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