Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Constructing the Cause, Bridging the Divide: Lee's Tomb at Washington's College

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Constructing the Cause, Bridging the Divide: Lee's Tomb at Washington's College

Article excerpt

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As Robert E. Lee lay dying on the morning of October 12, 1870, some 16,000 Union soldiers moldered in their graves outside the front doors of Arlington House. The Lees' beloved family home had been passed down to them from George Washington Parke Custis, popularly known as "the child of Mount Vernon" because he was George Washington's only (adopted) son. Custis had built the estate to be a memorial to the first president and a repository of his belongings. In this spectacular and historic home on the banks of the Potomac River, G. W. and Mary Fitzhugh Custis reared their only surviving child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. In June 1831, Mary Anna stood in the family parlor at Arlington and married a dashing young army officer by the name of Robert Edward Lee. And for the next thirty years the Lees called Arlington House home. Yet in 1861, Union troops who commandeered the property were far less concerned about the plantation's storied connection to George Washington than they were its status as the family home of the Lees. As a gesture of spite towards the man who "crowned his career by deserting his flag at the moment of his country's sorest need," the Union Army began using the grounds immediately surrounding the house as a military cemetery. When Lee surrendered at Appomattox, there were already 1,800 Union dead from First Manassas buried in his wife's rose garden. (1)

Unable ever to return home, the Lees became comfortable refugees in Lexington, Virginia. The general had accepted the presidency of Washington College in 1865. The college trustees built a new home for the Lee Family on the edge of campus, and the general and his wife lived there for the remainder of their days. Yet the home never belonged to the Lees; they were never more than permanent guests. Had his life followed the trajectory it appeared to be on in, say, 1858, Lee would have grown old at Arlington House, surrounded by the relics of Washington's life. He would have died there and been buried there in the same earth that shrouded the remains of his in-laws. There he would have been forever linked with his illustrious kin. But Robert E. Lee died 150 miles away from Arlington House. Interment in its grounds, now filled with Union war dead, was impossible. To his immediate family, and perhaps even more so to the white population of the South that considered him the pater patriae of the Confederacy, the federal government's final insult kept Lee from assuming his rightful resting place and therefore his rightful place in history and legend: in lineage, in word and deed, the only right and true heir to Washington. Something would have to be done.

The deeply personal troubles of the Lee Family in October 1870 were in some way a microcosm of the hardships faced by their culture at large. Former Confederates, especially those of Lee's socio-economic background, knew all too well the constant struggle between the humiliating realities of defeat and the unquenchable desire to vindicate their history. This dichotomy was perhaps best summed up by Father Abram Ryan, priest and poet laureate of the Confederacy. Ryan often told a favorite story about a visit to his brother's home in Virginia in the years following the war. Early one morning, while passing through the family's dining room, he found his young niece standing before a painting of the Crucifixion. He picked up the small girl and asked her if she could identify the wicked men who were crucifying their Savior. Much to his chagrin the child instantly replied, "Oh yes, I know," and informed him that, in fact, it was "the Yankees" who were responsible for the deed. (2) Ryan's repeated telling of such a tale, and more importantly the child's response at the center of it, indicates the extent to which former Confederates were engaged in the cultural transformation of the meaning of their defeat. Martial defeat quickly gave way to what Richmond Daily Examiner editor Edward Pollard celebrated as a "war of ideas. …

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