Grasping at Will-o'-Wisps at West Point

Robert E. Lee’s military career began at West Point Military Academy, where he graduated second in his class in 1829. From there, Lee rose through the ranks of the United States Army, gaining particular notice for his role in suppressing John Brown’s 1859 uprising in Harper’s Ferry.[1] Lee also served as superintendent of West Point from 1852 to 1855.[2]

But after Virginia’s secession from the Union, Lee defected from the United States to the Confederacy, where he eventually rose to become the supreme Southern military chief. This left a complicated legacy at West Point: Lee was an illustrious leader known for skilled generalship, but also a traitor who fought against the United States. Black journalists were particularly interested in exposing West Point’s efforts to whitewash Lee’s betrayal.

In 1931, the Afro-American published an article on the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s donation of a painting of Lee to West Point, in which they connected the receipt of the gift to existing patterns of racism at the institution: “There is so much of the spirit of this rebel general and of the Confederacy in West Point,” they wrote, that Black students have a difficult time getting admitted and “find it impossible after graduation to secure assignments with troops.”[3]

The article pointed out the absurdity of hanging a portrait of a rebel leader at a military institution:

Strange is it how a defiant and rebellious Dixie, beaten and surly still, seeks covert means of fostering its spirit and perpetuating its heroes. The West Point painting shows General Lee as a brevet Colonel of Engineers of the U.S. Army in the 50’s. No hint there of the rebel he became; no suggestion that he was to violate his oath and use his West Point training in an effort to dismember the union.

The authors proposed a careful distinction that could be made to honor Lee for his service as a US military officer who had not attained the rank of general:

A painting of General Lee in his rebel uniform could not be accepted by West Point. A painting of Colonel Lee is accepted. A statue of Jeff Davis, as president of the rebel confederacy, could not stand in the Capitol at Washington, but the statute of Senator Davis does stand there. So, the South, defeated, and humiliated, still grasps at will-o’-wisps to soothe its pride, but never gets very far.

In a 1933 article by the Pittsburgh Courier, the newspaper covered another UDC-sponsored commemoration at West Point: “each year a Robert E. Lee sword” was presented “to a West Point Military Academy cadet.”[4] They reported the opinion of the Grand Army of the Republic—the Union veterans’ fraternal league—which condemned the UDC’s involvement. “The Civil War veterans, as their 67^th^ encampment ended, urged the government to abolish the practice,” and it was noted that this was the first time in their history that they advocated for such an action.[5] The Grand Army of the Republic, it was reported, also denounced the sale of 50-cent coins “to aid in defraying the cost of the Stone Mountain Memorial to Confederate soldiers.”[6] The Afro-American published a shortened version of the article on the same day.[7]

Justin Seward


Afro-American. “G.A.R. Raps D. of C. for R. E. Lee Sword.” September 30, 1933.

Afro-American. “Lee Sneaks into West Point.” January 31, 1931, 6.

Pittsburgh Courier. “Awarding Lee Sword to West Point Cadet Attacked by G.A.R.” September 30, 1933.

Public Broadcasting Service. “Biography: General Robert E. Lee.”

Public Broadcasting Service. “The Life of Robert E. Lee.”

  1. Public Broadcasting Service, “Biography: General Robert E. Lee.” ↩︎

  2. Public Broadcasting Service, “The Life of Robert E. Lee.” ↩︎

  3. (Afro-American, “Lee Sneaks into West Point.”) ↩︎

  4. Pittsburgh Courier, “Awarding Lee Sword to West Point cadet Attacked by G.A.R.” ↩︎

  5. Pittsburgh Courier, “Awarding Lee Sword to West Point cadet Attacked by G.A.R.” ↩︎

  6. Pittsburgh Courier, “Awarding Lee Sword to West Point cadet Attacked by G.A.R.” ↩︎

  7. Afro-American, “G.A.R. Raps D. of C. for R. E. Lee Sword.” Both articles drawn from the CNS news agency in St. Paul, Minnesota. ↩︎