At 63, I threw away my prized portrait of Robert E. Lee

At age 63, the same age at which Lee died, I concluded I was wrong—to some extent wrong about Lee as a leader, but certainly about the message that Lee as a symbol conveyed. And although I was slow to appreciate it, a significant part of American society, many still impacted by the legacy of slavery, had felt it all along.

Most accounts of Lee as a man, and a leader—his physical presence, demeanor, valor, and apparent serenity—reflect almost quintessentially desirable leadership traits. But staring into a bright light makes it hard to see clearly. More than most, Lee is portrayed either in a glare of adulation or, more recently, under a dark cloud of disdain.

At West Point, Lee and the other Southern heroes became icons whom other cadets and I instinctively sought to emulate. In a painful contradiction, they also betrayed the oath we shared, took up arms against their nation, and fought to kill former comrades—all in the defense of a cause committed to the morally indefensible maintenance of slavery.

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