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A West Point conundrum: What to do about Robert E. Lee?

Robert_E_Lee_1838.jpg
William Edward West
/
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Robert E. Lee at age 31 in 1838, then a young Lieutenant of Engineers in the U. S. Army.

Former Army Captain Jimmy Byrn graduated from the military academy at West Point in 2012. He spent late nights studying in the library underneath a giant portrait of Robert E. Lee in his gray Confederate uniform, a slave tending his horse in the background.

“When I was a cadet, I didn't really think a whole lot of the portrait itself or what it meant, that there was a man dressed in a Confederate uniform up on the wall that was actively trying to break the United States apart,” Byrn said.

There’s also a dormitory named Lee Barracks, plus Lee Gate and Lee Road. Byrn said it’s time to rename them, and remove the portrait that honors Lee as a hero of the Civil War.

But there’s another picture — of young Lee from long before the Civil War, when he was still part of the U.S. Army and wearing his blue uniform. It hangs among portraits of every other superintendent of the academy. Byrn said that one should stay.

“He did have a big mark on the academy that you can't really erase,” Byrn said of the years Lee served as superintendent.

“You can't just pretend like Robert E. Lee was not the superintendent. And we need to remember that. But we need to remember it in a way that does not honor the final actions that Robert E. Lee took against this country,” Byrn continued. He wrote about the issue at length last year in a research paper for the Modern War Institute at West Point.

His point — that Lee should be remembered, but not honored — flows from Lee’s complicated history at the academy, and who he was before the Civil War. Congress charged the federal renaming commission with developing a plan to remove or rename any federal property that commemorates the confederacy. But it faces a unique question at West Point: Does the young Robert E. Lee, master tactician and former superintendent of the school, deserve to be removed? Or is that Lee somehow different from the bearded, older General Lee, who led the rebel army in a civil war to preserve slavery?

Commission chairwoman and retired Navy Admiral Michelle Howard offered a clue in September about how it might approach Lee’s legacy at West Point.

“Lee's in a long row of photographs and portraiture of other superintendents,” Howard said about the picture of young Superintendent Lee while speaking with reporters.

“There is nothing about that, that says, ‘This is Lee as a Confederate General.’ It's very clear it's just a historical reckoning of Lee as the superintendent when he was a major and in the United States Army. We look at that and go, ‘That's probably not within our remit.’”

Howard said the portrait of Lee in his Confederate uniform — the one that watched over Byrn in the library — is different.

“That is clearly a portrait done to commemorate Robert E. Lee as a Confederate General,” she said.

“Maybe a better place for that portrait is in a museum, rather than in a federal building.”

But some graduates said dissecting Lee into pre- and post-Civil War characters is a distinction without a difference.

Timothy Berry, a former Army captain who lived in Lee Barracks, was one of just a few dozen Black graduates in the class of 2013. Now, he’s a scholar with the Pat Tillman Foundation and created a non-profit that helps diverse candidates get into the service academies.

“I understand Lee had dual roles, but I think Lee can be remembered through honoring those who made the decision to not betray their country,” Berry said. “General Grant made a different set of decisions than Lee, but throughout our history has not been given the level of fame as Lee has.”

For Berry, Lee’s ultimate decision to take up arms against his country overshadows any merits he earned prior to the war. It’s not disputed that Lee was superintendent of West Point from 1852 to 1855. But Berry pointed out that’s not the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the name “Robert E. Lee.”

“We spend so much time just spinning our wheels about what to do with this person who made a very particular decision that, in my opinion, voided him of any consideration,” Berry said.

The renaming commission has until October of next year to make recommendations to Congress about which items should be removed, at West Point and every other Defense Department installation. Then the department has until 2024 to complete the overhaul.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.