Textbooks and the Lionization of Robert E. Lee

Bruce Janu
7 min readJun 21, 2020
One of many heroic images of Robert E. Lee. This one by Charles C.J. Hoffbauer, 1920

History, as is taught in our country, lionizes and mythologizes Robert E. Lee. Even as a high school student in the North in the 80s, I was not immune to this. I remember being told three things about Robert E. Lee:

1) He hated slavery and had freed his slaves before the war
2) He was honorable
3) He was against secession and only reluctantly joined the Southern cause

Never, not once, was the term “traitor” ever used to describe Robert E. Lee. In my youth, Robert E. Lee was depicted as a mythical hero. Even the Dukes of Hazzard had a car named the “Robert E. Lee” that played “Dixie” on its horn.

I loved that show.

The Dukes of Hazzard soundtrack album, cassette version — 1982 (Discogs.com)

This idea of Robert E. Lee was never truly challenged in my education. Never. Not even in college. Not once in my education was Robert E. Lee ever referred to as a traitor.

By definition, Robert E. Lee was a traitor. But textbooks and the historical narrative presented in American classrooms go out of their way to present Lee as something else altogether.

When I first started teaching in 1992, I was using the popular textbook The Americans: A History published by McDougal Littell. This is what was stated about Robert E. Lee in that version of the textbook:

The Americans: A History, 1992.

This text minimizes and outright lies about Robert E. Lee. “He had freed his slaves some years earlier,” it states. That is objectively not true. Look at the words it uses to describe the general: “Quiet, modest” and “won more respect from Northern leaders;” “bold and imaginative.” He “directed the most brilliant military movements of the war.” Really? The two times he took the offensive and invaded the North, he lost. You want to talk about brilliant military moves, look to William Tecumseh Sherman who forged a path of destruction through the South, virtually bringing the Confederacy to its knees, especially considering some 17,000 or more enslaved people followed him on this “March of Liberation,” as they called it. Here is what that text says about Sherman:

The Americans: A History, 1992 p. 376

“Sherman was not cruel, but…” You see what it does there? Not at all the same treatment that Lee gets.

Here is what the new version of The Americans says about Robert E. Lee:

The Americans, current version, p. 396.

Ugh. This is even worse. By linking Robert E. Lee to George Washington, the text is legitimizing his place in American history, implying that he is as important as a founder. It implies that Lee joined the South only because he thought it would be dishonorable not to do so, even though he thought “slavery” was evil.

Let’s clear something up right now: Robert E. Lee was an enslaver. He became one in 1829 when his mother, Ann Lee, died. How many enslaved people did he inherit? According to Lee’s son, “three or four families.” As a military man, he brought some of these enslaved people with him on his various deployments prior to the Civil War.

He inherited even more enslaved people when his father-in-law died in 1857. According to the will of George Washington Parke Custis, Robert E. Lee was granted 189 enslaved people, forced to work on three homes owned by the family. However, the will also stated that these people were to be freed within five years. Because he was in debt at the time, Robert E. Lee worked those people extremely hard in order to lift himself out of debt. The enslaved people knew, however, about the stipulation in the will. When it became clear that Robert E. Lee was not going to free them, many began running away.

This man the textbooks say who thought slavery was “evil,” did everything in his power to recapture these runaways. And when caught again, Robert E. Lee wanted to teach them a harsh lesson. According to one enslaved person who was recaptured through the efforts of Lee:

[W]e were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. (The American Civil War Museum)

The people in charge of the Custis estate were worried that Robert E. Lee was not going to live up to the stipulations of the will. And they were right: Robert E. Lee went to court twice in order to keep these people enslaved longer.

That’s right: Instead of freeing his slaves, he did the opposite: Robert E. Lee went to court in order to keep his slaves in bondage longer.

And he lost those cases. Twice.

Robert E. Lee ended up freeing the people he kept in bondage on December 29, 1862 only because he was required to by the stipulations of his father-in-law’s will. And this was done three days before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. And, to top it off, some of those slaves were not actually freed until late 1863 when Lee admitted in a letter that he was waiting until the fall crops were in and only then to get the “free papers” and “emancipate” those still enslaved.

Claiming that Robert E. Lee freed his slaves “some years” before the Civil War as stated in The Americans: A History from 1992 is blatantly not true, and only serves to preserve this mythology of Lee that started during Reconstruction. In fact, Frederick Douglass wrote about this lionization of Lee in an editorial published in the New National Era in 1870 upon the death of the general:

“Is it not about time that this bombastic laudation of the rebel in chief should cease? We can scarcely take up a paper that comes from the South, that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee; and many Northern journals also join in these undeserved tributes to his memory.”

The New National Era, November 10, 1870

Lee might have publicly stated words that hinted of a disdain to the institution that built the South (he actually supported the efforts of The American Colonization Society), but his actions did nothing of the sort. When he invaded the North in 1862 and 1863, his army seized free blacks living in Maryland and Pennsylvania and sold them back into slavery. It is estimated that on the campaign that led to the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee’s forces captured some 1,100 free Blacks and brought them back to the South upon Lee’s retreat.

In 1864, Robert E. Lee recommended using slave labor to rebuild forts and be used to fight in the war. When he was criticized for this by other Southerners, Lee responded in a letter that “the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity” was “the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country.”

During reconstruction, Lee wanted nothing to do with offering rights and privileges to African-Americans. He told his youngest son in 1868 that “you will never prosper with the blacks.” He went on to say,

“It is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours. I wish them no evil in the world — on the contrary, will do them every good in my power, and know that they are misled by those to whom they have given their confidence; but our material, social, and political interests are naturally with the whites.” (Letter from Robert E. Lee to Robert E. Lee, Jr. March 12, 1868)

He called Reconstruction a “farce.” In a letter in 1868 he proclaimed that “the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.”

This is not the Robert E. Lee embraced by our textbooks. The fact is that Lee voluntarily took up arms against the United States and he is part of the white supremacist legacy of the United States. This legacy has built monuments to Lee and others, waves the Confederate flag as if a part of our “heritage” and has led to the dismal treatment of our history in American history textbooks.

Robert E. Lee was not a hero.

He was a traitor.

Anything less is an affront to history.

The Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond was erected in 1890. Here it is 130 years later. (reddit.com)