Robert E. Lee and the Politics of Historic Preservation

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Podcast, Episode 4: Robert E. Lee and the Politics of Historic Preservation

In this episode, Colin talks about the recent efforts to remove statues of Confederate leaders, including one of Robert E. Lee, in New Orleans. Is this a good idea? And if so, by what criteria do we measure historical figures?

Colin’s discussion takes him from Robert E. Lee and Huey Long, to Andrew Jackson and Johnny Cash, discussing how we remember people–whether soldiers, authors, politicians, or musicians.




Douglas Southall Freeman

Douglas Southall Freeman, who was born in Virginia and was the son of a Confederate soldier, worshiped Robert E. Lee. Freeman lived most of his life in Richmond, where he worked at the city’s News-Leader newspaper. On his drives to work, he liked to salute Lee’s statue on Monument Avenue.

Freeman was a creature of his time. He lived and worked in a segregated, Jim Crow South; and his works on the Confederate army rarely discuss the importance of slavery in the southern military. Thankfully, we can now pull Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army off the shelf if we want to read more about the racial dynamics of the Army of Northern Virginia and to get more of a “bottom-up” view of the Rebel war effort. Yet, Freeman’s work still holds up well. A few years ago, I read volume three of Lee’s Lieutenants, which is beautifully written and well-argued. It epitomizes great, sweeping narrative military history. Freeman did for the AONV what Bruce Catton did for the Army of the Potomac; only Freeman did it first. Freeman was also active in battlefield preservation. When I visited Gaines’ Mill battlefield last year, I saw a monument that D. S. Freeman had helped put there. He also worked hard to preserve the Petersburg battlefield.

Freeman’s unrelenting personal schedule is well documented. He liked to rise before dawn, make breakfast and then head to the newspaper office. Around mid-day, he’d drive home for a nap and lunch. After work, he’d spend four or five hours doing research and writing. His house was also equipped with a radio studio room, where he recorded news broadcasts. Freeman did all this in addition to being married and raising several children. Of course, having a few servants didn’t hurt. Even though he died at the relatively young age of 67, Freeman completed three multi-volume works on Virginia history. His personal correspondence was also voluminous. At one point in college, Freeman was so wrecked from denying himself sleep that he had to walk with a cane. His father helpfully pointed out that his son needed to get eight hours of sleep a night.

I think Dr. Freeman wished he could have attained military glory himself. Unfortunately for him, he was too old for World War I and was much too old for WWII. However, he wrote to his son at one point during WWII about the possibility of serving with the forces in Europe, perhaps as an adviser. Freeman wanted to be close to the action. He never made it to Europe, but he left his stamp on the war effort all the same. It was Freeman who came up with the term “liberation” of France, rather than invasion. And Freeman was very influential in Eisenhower getting the presidential nomination in 1952.

Douglas Southall FreemanĀ  set a high standar for Civil War scholarship. If his multi-volume histories are not the kind of writing most Civil War scholars strive to emulate anymore, good narrative studies are still very popular among Civil War buffs. Academics don’t write like Freeman today, but they don’t usually grip the reader the same way either.

As are all historians, Freeman was a flawed man. It is the fate of all scholars to have their worked eclipsed by the next generation of historians. Yet, Dr. Freeman rightly deserved the accolades and awards he earned in his lifetime, including two Pulitzer Prizes. Not bad for a boy from Lynchburg.

Ed Ayers and the Governor of Virginia

Here’s a link courtesy of Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory.

All this was happening while I was in Virginia, and I think it takes a special talent to piss off Ed Ayers. I’ve never met him, but I’ve seen him speak on several occasions and have seen him walking the halls at the VHS. He seems like a very nice guy, but I can understand how Gov. McDonnell would annoy him. Ayers has had a brilliant career (both as an academic and administrator), which has included some great scholarship on the South and race. As the head honcho at the University of Richmond, it would’ve been disappointing had he not spoken out against what McDonnell was saying, just a few miles away on the capitol grounds. Ayers is too good a historian to let the governor whitewash (literally) the Old Dominion’s past.

To be fair to McDonnell, he did backtrack after the public outcry against the governor’s proclamation. And we probably shouldn’t have been surprised at what he said: McDonnell rode the Tea Party-inspired, anti-Obama wave into office. But given that this is the 21st century, not the late-19th, it was distressing that the governor of Virginia could be so out of touch with his adopted state’s history. Granted, McDonnell is Pennsylvania-born, with degrees from Notre dame and Boston University, but he’s mostly lived in Virginia.

Virginia law allows its governor only to serve one term. McDonnell will be gone in a few years. Maybe Ed Ayers should run?

Slaves at Arlington, Redux

With apologies to Brooks D. Simpson, John Neff, who works at the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi, has already provided me with some very helpful information, via h-net, about the newspaper column I quoted from in my previous post. Arlington, Neff informs us, was established by George Washington Parke Custis (Gen. Washington’s adopted son), Lee’s father-in-law. After Custis died in 1857, Lee took a leave of absence from the army in order to become a planter. Although Lee never owned more than a few slaves himself, there were two hundred of them at Arlington. Among them was a daughter of a slave (named Maria Syphax) and G.W. Parke Custis. This woman, who spoke to the Massachusetts cavalryman, was the half-sister of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, who was married to Gen. Lee.

Our man in the 2nd Massachusetts, it appears, was understandably confused, thinking “master” meant R. E. Lee, not Custis. Given the complexities of Virginia genealogy, and the Lee family’s in particular, I can understand how he would’ve conflated the Lees and the Custises.

Slaves at the Lee Family Home


By Colin Woodward

In doing research on an unrelated topic, I came across an article in a Greenfield, Massachusetts, newspaper, the Courier & Gazette, of 15 June 1863, on the Lee family slaves at Arlington. The writer was in the camp of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. Here’s what he said:

“At the cook house for the overseer’s family I noticed an octoroon, nearly white, with fine features. She told me that her mother, long since dead was a quadroon and Gen. Lee’s housekeeper at Arlington, and to the question, ‘Was your father a colored man?’ she answered without hesitation ‘No,–master’s my father.” And this father and master now leads an army, the sole purpose of which is to establish a government founded on an institution which enslaves his own children, making his own flesh and blood saleable property!”

I’ve never read before of someone accusing Robert E. Lee of having fathered a slave. I’m tempted to dismiss the accusation out of hand. But the historian in me is intrigued by this newspaper article. For years, a former slave at Arlington, named Wesley Norris, who said Lee whipped him, was dismissed by historians like Douglas Southall Freeman. Yet, more recent historians, including Elizabeth Pryor, believe Norris’s story.

I’d be interested to know if a historians has done research on this topic of Lee possibly having fathered a slave.


Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He published his first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War in 2014 through University of Virginia Press.