This graduation season, another small step in the dismantling of the Lost Cause occurred in Virginia. Following last year’s removal of Robert E. Lee statues from Richmond and Charlottesville, students at Washington and Lee University will no longer receive diplomas that include Robert E. Lee’s face — or George Washington’s. The faces were added in the late 19th century, after Lee’s son, Custis, succeeded his father as college president. But, last summer, Washington and Lee’s trustees announced plans for the images’ removal.
Several law students had been requesting face-free diplomas since 2019, and the trustees’ action came after being petitioned to remove Lee’s name from the university. Lee-supporting alumni responded last fall by erecting a billboard just south of Lexington that included the faces of Lee and Washington.
A face on a diploma might seem harmless, until you explore the historical use of Lee’s image. According to Lee biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor, “Amid hundreds of conflicting characterizations of Robert E. Lee, there is a single point of unanimity: He was an extraordinarily handsome man.” Pryor never considered whether postwar expressions of this “unanimity” might have been propaganda-based.
Ever since Lee showed up for his surrender at Appomattox wearing a new dress uniform, his looks have been used to promote the myth of a beautiful, lost civilization. The depressed Lee knew it is better to look good than to feel good, and he managed to leave Ulysses S. Grant feeling shabby. In his memoirs, Grant explains why he didn’t have time to change before meeting Lee, although his mud-spattered “rough garb” would prove as iconic as Lee’s sash and sword.
Grant denounced the Confederate cause as “one of the worst for which a people ever fought,” but nevertheless admired Lee’s “faultless form,” as if the elegance of the form lessened the enormity of the fault. It’s a sentiment that would echo into the 21st century. In a 2011 Historical Hotties blog post, where a youthful Lee appeared among the “top-twenty sexiest men of all time,” the caption beneath his portrait read: “Yeah, he fought for the wrong side. But you can’t ignore that face.”