Article Thumbnail

The Tale of Two Robert Lees

A couple of Chicago guys on sharing the name of the famous Confederate general

“‘Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee,’” says the wife of Virgil Caine, the fictional protagonist of The Band’s legendary rock anthem, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

It’s unclear whether Virgil’s wife meant the general himself, or the Mississippi steamboat that bore his name. Either way, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Drown” remains the greatest song ever written about the antebellum South by a Canadian rock band (this tune has layers).

Despite its lionization of Gen. Robert E. Lee and other members of the Confederate Army, however, the song has never carried much political significance. (We’d never suspect Canadians of supporting something as vile as slavery.) Rather, it has been viewed as a master class in writing from perspective — in this case, a man who works the Danville train.

But one could imagine the song raising some eyebrows today, as the mere mention of Robert E. Lee has become a political flashpoint (beyond just the ongoing debate over what to do with statues memorializing members of the Confederacy). Case in point: Two weeks ago, ESPN announced it would remove part-time play-by-play guy Robert Lee from announcing last Saturday’s University of Virginia football game in Charlottesville, in light of the violence that’s erupted there in recent weeks.

In other words, it’s an awkward time to be a Robert Lee.

To determine exactly how awkward, I interviewed two young men named Robert Lee — both of whom happen to live in Chicago, both of whom are the third Robert Lees in their families and both of whom have found themselves considering their name in ways they never had before.

Robert “Bobby” Lee, 27

When the ESPN commentator got taken off the Virginia game, so many people sent me articles about it. I was like, Oh, I’d never thought about that until now. Previously, the only bizarre thing that’s ever happened with my name is people assuming I’m Asian.

It’s probably because of where I grew up. I’m from Berkeley, Illinois, a small suburb of about 5,000 people that’s 15 miles west of Chicago, so no one ever associated it with the Deep South or the Confederacy.

I certainly didn’t.

Plus, for me, it’s just a family name. In that regard, I’m the third Robert Lee in my family — both my dad and my grandpa are named Robert Lee, and they’re actually Robert E. Lees. My grandpa went by Robert; my dad went by Bob; and I was always called Bobby.

They’re in the construction business, and when they started their construction company, they named it Robert E. Lee & Sons. There’s never been any issues, backlash or trepidation with the name. Most people refer to it as Lee & Sons, anyway.

That said, you might not have a company named that in the South. Or maybe you would. I guess it depends where you fall politically.

To see my name in the news in this manner is strange, and I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it’s just a name. I’m not related to Gen. Robert E. Lee, and just because I share his name doesn’t mean I sympathize with the Confederacy. But on the other, I understand that the name might evoke certain unpleasant feelings in some people.

It’s certainly not lost on the kids at the Catholic school where I teach second grade. When the older ones read about the Civil War in their textbooks, they’ll come up to me and say, “Oh, your name was in our book.”

It’ll definitely be interesting what they say to me during the Civil War segment this year.

I find it just as interesting, however, to think about the Confederacy in relation to how we teach kids about Christopher Columbus. I was taught Columbus discovered America. Today, we teach that the Native Americans were here first, and that Europeans colonized them. We don’t get into the gory details, but we do try to honor the Native Americans and their culture — who they were, and what they did. Instead of Columbus, we read them books about Native Americans.

Not that the Confederacy was ever revered the way Columbus was, but still, we as a culture are distancing ourselves from those things that we regard much differently today than we did in the past.

As for my future, it’s unlikely I’ll name my son Robert Lee IV. But not for political reasons—or for any of the history associated with the name. I just wouldn’t want to give my son the same name as me. It’s time for my family to switch it up a bit.

Robert “Bob” Lee, 30

I’m the third Robert Lee in my family, too. Likewise, my grandfather was always Robert, and my dad was always Bob. To differentiate us, I went by Bobby, and I introduced myself as such until the first few months into my first job after college. Bobby seemed a little childish, so I shortened it to Bob, which sounds more professional. But I still go by Bobby among my friends.

In high school, though, I picked up the nickname “General Lee.” Everyone on the football team called me it. A few of my dad’s friends used to call him “The General,” too.

I was naive as to what the nickname truly meant. I knew about Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, but I didn’t know the details — history was never my thing. I more closely associated it with the General Lee, the car from Dukes of Hazzard. I was a big car guy, and I loved that show.

At night, I would watch Nick at Nite with my parents, and Dukes of Hazzard would come on, and I’d just be mesmerized by the car chases. You could’ve taken Bo and Luke Duke out of the show, and I still would’ve watched it for the car.

So I embraced the nickname as a teenager, and ignorantly, I bought a cell phone cover with the Confederate flag on it. I never associated it with politics or the Deep South. I had no idea what that symbol actually meant. I was so naive that I thought it was about the car.

Luckily, I never encountered anyone who was offended by it. I grew up in Streator, Illinois, a small, rural town 100 miles south of Chicago, and it definitely fit the small, rural town stereotype in terms of race. I never experienced anything blatantly discriminatory, but I did hear the N-word from time to time.

Instead, people would see my phone case and joke that I supported the Confederate Army. I would just say, “No, I have this because of the car.”

Looking back, I was ignorant, and it’s never something I would do now.

I first realized the significance of my name when I was 21, and pulling out my license to buy beer for the first time. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard, “You’re one letter away from being a famous Confederate general.” (My middle name is Arthur.)

That’s when I took the initiative to learn about Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy and what he and the Confederate flag really meant. Afterward, I no longer connected the flag to the Dukes of Hazzard. Its connection to slavery really churns my stomach. I’d never support anything like that, and I want nothing to do with the flag.

I’m much more educated on the topic now, and I’m more conscious of my name than ever, especially in light of recent events. After the ESPN incident, I went out to a bar, and when I handed over my ID I thought, Will people respond to my name differently now?

Needless to say, I’m embarrassed about the phone case now more than ever. Eight years ago, I stumbled upon it when I was moving, and I just kind of shook my head, because there’s no way I would do anything like that ever again.