Date of Award

Fall 2020

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Master of Arts

First Advisor

Jason Sokol

Second Advisor

Jessica Lepler

Third Advisor

Kimberly Alexander


Since 1955, Arlington House has been a memorial to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, despite his beliefs in slavery and white supremacy. For almost a century, scholarship on Lee has been comprised of more positive interpretations, yet historians have recently begun to challenge these versions of Lee by examining his life more fully. This study aims to view Lee through the history of Arlington House, in order to more closely understand his character and to underscore that he is not as noble as was once thought. Building on the history of Arlington’s enslaved community this thesis asks: how did the legacy of enslavement at Arlington steer Lee toward joining the Confederacy in 1861? In this context, the legacy of enslavement at Arlington refers to slaveholding methods and traditions that existed before the house was even built.

By analyzing the material history of Arlington within the context of eighteenth and nineteenth century political ideologies, alongside slave narratives and Lee’s personal letters, I have found that Lee’s years at Arlington House were a significant influence on his decision to join the Confederacy. Lee’s experiences with Arlington’s enslaved as well as his commitment to protecting Arlington House reveal that he actively sought to protect the institution of slavery, and therefore should no longer be positively memorialized at Arlington House, or elsewhere.