A Personal Essay by Anne Hobson Freeman

Commonwealth Magazine, 1979 January


The other day I was waiting for a filling in my tooth to harden. I asked my dentist (who grew up with me in Richmond in a district we were not then chic enough to call “The Fan”) what associations came into his mind when I said, “Robert E. Lee.”

“Well,” he said. “I think about the statues that was right around the corner from my house. It had a beehive in it once. Do you remember that? Inside Traveller I think. Who has, by the way, all four feet down in the ground. That’s important someone told me. Here the horse’s feet are on a statue. If they’re on the ground, it means the rider died a natural death. But if one foot’s in the air, as on Jeb Stuart’s statue, then the rider died in battle. Same thing if the horse is facing North . . .”

“But what about Lee the man?” I asked.

“The man ..,” he said, pulling himself back from his mental stroll around the monuments. “Let me see. A great military hero?” he was stalling now, I noticed, working up his thoughts, “. . . kind of like . . .,” then he blew the word out: “God!”

We both laughed then because there was a Truth there. Truth about the nimbus we as children growing up in Richmond in the late ‘30s and ‘40s perceived around the name of General Lee. Even his appearance in the pictures, which were everywhere around us, with his bright white hair and beard, suggested a trimmed Virginia version of the Hebrew God, or Moses, or maybe Santa Claus.

But if he was Santa Claus, his presents were meager ones. My grandfather still kept the dried-out peel from half an orange that General Lee had shared with his father once in camp. My great aunt, on the other side, stored in her top bureau drawer a purple velvet box containing a frayed piece of hemp (from the rope with which she’d helped pull lee’s statue to its pedestal on Monument Avenue), two brass buttons from his coat, an a lock of white hair.

To our immature minds these things seemed less like presents than religious relics. And our confusion was confounded if we went to St. Paul’s Church. There, year after year, one month after Christmas, they staged a second birthday celebration on whichever Sunday fell the closest to January 19, he day Lee was born.

First, they would fling out the Confederate Flag and let it float from the pillared portico. I guess I have to explain that this was back when the people at St. Paul’s were still proud of the fact that their church had served as the “cathedral of the Confederacy.” And long before tv and ad men had begun to promote the “logo” as a substitute for reading and independent thinking. And somewhere in that process, and the intervening years, the star-crossed, bright red battle flag of the Confederacy shrank, in some people’s minds, at least, into a simplistic symbol of redneck racism. And so the church no longer displays it.

Back then, though, that flag was still full-sized in the popular mind, i.e., laden with complex and tragic historical associations, as it may be, let us hope, someday soon again. The people at St. Paul’s were, therefore, glad to fly it from the portico as a symbol of the Lost Cause of Southern Independence and a public invitation to the birthday celebration for the one widely acknowledged Southern saint.  

Inside, the congregation would join in the singing of Lee’s favorite hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.” And finally, the minister would climb into the bright brass pulpit and deliver a sermon on some Christian quality exemplified by General Lee—courage, gentleness, forgiveness (it was different every year). Submission to the Self to the Sense of duty, or maybe just plain coping with defeat.

There were still some people in that congregation then who remembered seeing Lee in church, in Pew Number One-Hundred-and-Eleven. My great-grandmother among them. She had been a teenager during the War and could tell you all about it, as she saw it from Pew Fifty, and would, too, even if you didn’t ask her. I can still see her sweeping in, like a fragile black bat, trailing veils of mourning for a husband, a Confederate, of course, who had died some 37 years before.

She, in turn, died at the age of 93 when I was only five, before she managed to communicate to me any concept of the cost that General Lee had come to represent for her and for her generation. Not just the cost in loss of property and all hope of prosperity, but the loss of almost one-third of the white male adult population in the South. (As well as the mutilation—physical and psychic—of God only knows how many others.)

It took another war and a bizarre incident in that same church to bring that concept home to me. Up until that point, I think I thought of General Lee and his War Between the States (or “W.B.T.S.” if you were in a tearing hurry on a history test, but were not brave enough to face if you wrote “Civil War”) as being just about as bloodless and symbolic as the statues that we saw all over town.

Then one Saturday night, during World War II, a shell shocked sailor wandered into St. Paul’s Church, went berserk, and drove his fists through the bottoms of the stained-glass windows facing Ninth Street. Next, apparently, he wiped his bleeding hands on some of the hymn books before somebody came and took him out.

The next morning when I came to church and saw those jagged, multicolored shards of glass hanging in those old familiar windows (windows I had studied every inch of through interminable sermons), I thought about the bombed-out cathedrals of Europe I had seen flickering in black-and-white newsreels without once ever feeling they were real. Now terror squeezed my heart, for it occurred to me suddenly that war, real war, could leap out of the newsreels, and cross the Atlantic, and get at me, a child of eight, supposedly safe at home at Richmond.

My knees still felt unsteady as we rose to sing the processional hymn. I smoothed the skirt of my velvet Sunday jumper and glanced across the aisle just as one of my father’s friends opened his hymnbook and discovered bright white pages soaked and stuck together with red blood.

As I stood there, horrified, staring at the hymnbook, I was truck with an almost unbearable knowledge—the knowledge that war—any war—means not just statues and hero-saints, or even broken glass. It means, mainly, bloodshed. Dark, red, human blood.

From that day on, I began to notice something I had missed before in General Lee’s ubiquitous postwar photographs and portraits, and even in the statues. An air of almost indefiniable sorrow suggested by lips that are turned slightly downward and pressed together tightly as if holding something back. Could that something be the dreadful knowledge I had gained?

As I grew on through World War II and then Korea, then Vietnam, as an adult, I came to see Lee more and more not as a god or saint, but simply as a man, who would bleed if he were shot or cut and deep if he were hurt. A world-weary, prematurely old man at that.

Today, in portrait after portrait, if I take time to stop and look at them, I now see Lee, the man burdened with knowledge, but still doing his best to appear optimistic for the photographer, the painter, or the sculptor, and beyond them, of course, the ruined south that looked to him, almost alone, for leadership through their defeat.

But he couldn’t quite pull it off, it seems to me. Though he held his chest as high as he must have wished his hopes could be, the corners of his mouth still drifted downward. As if he simply could not keep that dreadful knowledge of the human cost of the Lost cause from leaking through.

Maybe someday somebody will celebrate the birthday of the man, and not the hero-saint, Robert E. lee, a man who bore inhuman burdens, not because he was inhuman, but because his peculiar, now archaic sense of Duty to his home-state imposed on him its tragic, inescapable obligation.



Source: The archives of the Valentine Museum, Richmond, Virginia

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 August 24