Of the many statues of Robert E. Lee that still decorate American cities, towns, universities, and even the United States Capitol, the vast majority have been designated by state legislatures and other local councils and organizations. But the Confederate general also has the honor of an official national memorial, bestowed by Congress in 1955.
“Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial” was the general’s home before the Civil War and overlooks Arlington National Cemetery, the military burial ground built as a final resting place for Union army members that Lee fought to defeat.
The National Park Service now runs the site as a museum, which will soon close to the public while it undergoes a major rehabilitation funded by a $12.35 million donation from David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group and a philanthropist who has written large checks to a number of American historical sites. Yet while President Trump has staunchly defended honoring Lee and other Confederate figures, officials at the Park Service decided to rewrite the description of the Lee Memorial on its homepage in the days following the demonstrations by white supremacists in support of a statue of the general in Charlottesville, Virginia. The change was made without publicity or explanation, flagged only by a notation that the page had been “updated on August 14, 2017.”
As of August 4, according to a cache of the page accessed through archive.org, the Park Service described the Lee Memorial this way:
The Robert E. Lee Memorial honors Lee's military and public leadership in pre- and post-Civil War America. Congress designated the memorial to recognize that “the desire and hope of Robert E. Lee for peace and unity within our Nation has come to pass.” From the portico you can contemplate our nation's fate as you gaze across the river that once divided us.
The language now is different. The description lessens the focus on the memorial as a celebration of Lee and places it in a slightly more neutral context. It makes a new reference to “the most difficult aspects of American history,” including slavery:
Arlington House is the nation’s memorial to Robert E. Lee. It honors him for specific reasons, including his role in promoting peace and reunion after the Civil War. In a larger sense it exists as a place of study and contemplation of the meaning of some of the most difficult aspects of American History: military service; sacrifice; citizenship; duty; loyalty; slavery and freedom.
In a statement, the Park Service acknowledged it made the change this week but did not directly attribute it to the events in Charlottesville and the ensuing public debate over Confederate memorials.
“It is our mission to provide historical context that reflects a fuller view of past events and the values under which they occurred, and the update was made in that spirit,” the Park Service said. “The National Park Service is committed to sharing our nation’s history inclusively and holistically, and we have elicited scholars’ advice on how to present, more completely, the experience of those who were enslaved at Arlington House. Their stories will be prominently featured when the rehabilitation of the house, slave quarters, gardens, and exhibits is complete.”
As my colleague Adam Serwer has written, the notion of Lee’s “role in promoting peace and reunion after the Civil War” is itself a matter of dispute, subject to historical revisionism highlighting his letters opposing the construction of Confederate monuments while ignoring his racist views toward blacks and his opposition to their enfranchisement.
Arlington House has a complicated history: It was originally built in the early 1800s as a memorial to George Washington by the first president’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. Custis’s daughter married Lee, then serving in the U.S. Army, and he lived there for most of his adult life. And it was, according to the website, at Arlington House where Lee resigned his military commission once Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861. He never returned.
The Union Army occupied the house during the war, and knowing that it belonged to Lee’s family, Quartermaster General Montogmery Meigs, whose son was killed in battle by Confederate soldiers, secured approval to begin building a military cemetery on the grounds in the hopes that it would render the home uninhabitable and dissuade Lee from returning after the war.
The plan worked, and Lee settled with his family in Lexington, Virginia, having decided not to try to reclaim Arlington House back from the U.S. government. Years later, Lee’s son, George Washington Custis Lee, sued the government for illegally seizing the property. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor, and Lee sold the property back to the government for $150,000.
When Rubenstein agreed to give $12.35 million to the National Park Foundation to restore the mansion in 2014, both he and the Park Service emphasized Arlington House’s original link to George Washington as well as its prominent location next to the national cemetery. Rubenstein is a Washington aficionado, and he previously made substantial donations to refurbish the Washington Monument and his estate at Mount Vernon. “He viewed it as kind of the trifecta,” a person familiar with Rubenstein’s thinking told me, referring to his donation to Arlington House.
As with Rubenstein’s donation to other historical sites, including Thomas Jefferson’s estate at Monticello, a portion of his gift to Arlington House will go toward restoring the slave quarters and enhancing the museum’s focus on the experiences of enslaved people who lived there. “Washington and being able to tell the enslaved people's stories have animated all of his giving, including Arlington House,” said the person familiar with Rubenstein’s thinking.
Rubenstein’s interest may be the Washington connection, but 60 years earlier, Congress had twice explicitly designated the site as a permanent memorial to Lee—first in its establishment in 1955 and then in 1972 when it changed its formal name from the Custis-Lee Mansion to “Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial.”
The 1955 act, a joint resolution, was timed to the 90th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox—or, as Congress more generously described it, “the cessation of hostilities between our States.” The text lauded Lee in glowing terms and linked him to his Union rival, General Ulysses S. Grant, saying they were “two great figures.”
“Whereas one of the two great figures therein involved, one, General Ulysses S. Grant, has been highly honored as President of the United States, but the other, Robert E. Lee, has never been suitably honored by our National Government,” the resolution said. It continued:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United
States of America in Congress assembled, That the Congress of the
United States, at this anniversary time, does hereby pay honor and
tribute to the everlasting memory of Robert E. Lee, whose name will
ever be bright in our history as a great military leader, a great educator,
a great American, and a truly great man through the simple
heritage of his personal traits of high character, his grandeur of soul,
his unfailing strength of heart.
That glowing description is one with which President Trump seemed to agree when he placed Lee’s memory on equal footing with Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But as the National Park Service appeared to acknowledge with its quiet revision this week, the historical truth is more complicated.