History, History Column

Robert E. Lee, the Marble Model


Sarah Becker ©2018

Robert E. Lee, the Marble Model

Lee at age 31 in 1838, as a Lieutenant of Engineers in the U.S. Army

West Point classmates called Virginia-born Robert E. Lee the Marble Model, the Marble Man. He was nicknamed such probably for reason of heritage; his statuesque quality, dignity and bravura. Lee entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on July 1, 1825, mostly because it was free.

“We beg leave to recommend to your personal consideration Mr. Robert Edward Lee, a son of the late General Henry Lee of Virginia, as an applicant for admission to the Military Academy at West Point,” the Congressional signers wrote. “The assurances which we have received of the talents and attainments of this young gentleman, apart from the regard we feel for the military services of his deceased father, induce us to hope…for the admission.”

A plebe cum cadet staff sergeant, Lee was born January 19, 1807, the fifth child of overspent Revolutionary War hero General Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee and his second wife Ann Hill Carter. Robert E. did not live the “legendary Victorian virtue” as “celebrated in a thousand marble statues across the South.” His sense of Duty did not include the South’s “terrible hardening of the heart.” Lee emancipated his in-laws’ slaves on December 29, 1862; approximately three months after President Abraham Lincoln’s September 23 Emancipation Proclamation was published in draft. The Emancipation Proclamation became law on January 1, 1863.

“Know all men by these presents, that I, Robert E. Lee, executor of the last will and testament of George W.P. Custis deceased, acting by and under authority and direction of the provision of the said will, do hereby manumit, emancipate and forever set free from slavery the following named slaves.”

“[Lee’s] specialty was finishing up,” Alexandria school teacher Benjamin Hallowell said of young Robert’s studies. “He imparted a finish and a neatness, as he proceeded to everything he undertook…The same traits he exhibited in my school he carried with him to West Point.” Robert E.’s early education included the Alexandria Academy and Benjamin Hallowell’s school mathematics especially.

Robert E.’s decision to opt for a military career was sustained in part by his deceased father’s friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette, an invaluable Revolutionary War ally. In 1824 President James Monroe, also a Revolutionary War veteran, invited Lafayette to participate in a triumphal United States tour. General Lafayette, a Frenchman, arrived in New York in August 1824 and Robert E. Lee’s Alexandria Boyhood Home was among the requested stops.

Lee graduated from West Point in 1829, second in his class. His rank: second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It was from Ft. Monroe that Lee courted his wife, Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter; George Washington Parke Custis’ daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis.

Lieut. Lee married Mary Custis on June 30, 1831, and together they lived, on and off, with her parents at Arlington House. The marriage took place 18 months after the U.S. Senate’s Robert Y. Hayne [D-SC]—Daniel Webster [F/Whig-MA] states’ rights debate.

“The great scheme of our Constitutional liberty rests upon a proper distribution of power between the State and Federal authorities,” President and former Army Brigadier General Franklin Pierce [D-NH] said in his 1853 Inaugural Address. “I believe that involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution. I believe that it stands like any other admitted right, and that the States where it exists are entitled to efficient remedies to enforce the constitutional provisions. I hold that the laws of 1850, commonly called the ‘compromise measures,’ are strictly constitutional and to be unhesitatingly carried into effect.” Jefferson Davis [D-MS] served as Secretary of War.

“The views of the President: of the systemic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the institutions of the South, are truthfully and faithfully expressed,” Lee wrote wife Mary from Ft. Brown, Texas, in 1856. “The consequences…& purposes are also clearly Set forth,…In this enlightened age…slavery as an institution is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white than the black race, & while my feelings are strongly interested in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race & and I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is Known & ordered by a wise & merciful Providence…While we see the Course of the final abolition of human slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers…we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who Sees the end…”

The nation divided North-South beginning in 1860. South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860; Texas seceded February 23, 1861; Virginia on April 17. Robert E. Lee respectfully resigned his U.S. Army commission on April 20, only to assume a Confederate commission. “I cannot raise my hand against my birth-place, my home, my children,” Confederate Major-General Lee wrote in August 1861.

Arlington House is the Nation’s Memorial to Robert E. Lee. It honors him for specific reasons, including his role to promote peace and reunion after the Civil War.

A defeated Confederate Commander-in-Chief as of April 9, 1865, Lee declined an 1869 request to help mark the positions of the troops in the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg with granite memorials. “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife….” Nephew Fitzhugh Lee also refused. “If the nation is to continue as a whole, it is better to forget and forgive rather than perpetuate in granite proofs.” Lee was indicted for treason on June 7, 1865; applied for a pardon on June 13 and absolved.

University President Robert E. Lee died on October 12, 1870, one month before The Robert E. Lee Monumental Association of New Orleans was incorporated; a decade before The New York Times described The Lost Cause Regained. In 1880 the political worm had turned. In Virginia 72.7%, eight of the eleven Congressional office holders had Confederate roots. Of the eleven Southern States 75.8%, seventy-two of the ninety-five Congressional officer holders were ex-Confederates.

“The memory of the Confederate soldiers who fell in the Battle of Manassas…has at last been perpetuated by a monument, which today was formally turned over to the Ladies Memorial Association,” The Washington Post reported in 1889, President George Washington’s Centennial year. Said U.S. Senator, speaker and former Confederate Major John W. Daniel (D-VA) of the Revolutionary War:

“Through eight years of war the fathers of the republic gained their independence, and rendered the name of rebel forever the proudest name in history….”

Senator Daniel continued: “There was an irrepressible conflict between the free-labor system of the North and the African-labor system of the South. That northern sentiment was growing very rapidly because of immigration and the addition of new States, and in excess of the Southern sentiment, it was apparent that it was bent upon destroying slavery and that the fight must come….”

The War Between the States lasted four years [1861-1865]; took 700,000 lives and devastated the South. “Northern politicians do not appreciate the determination and pluck of the South,” Lee said, “and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources, and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans, and…if it comes to the worst we must do everything in our power to mitigate its evils.”

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.

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