West Point expected to be ordered to take down portrait of Robert E. Lee

Last updated on July 4, 2022

For 70 years, the slave-owning Confederate general Robert E. Lee has stared down at West Point cadets from a massive portrait in the academy’s library, a slave guiding his horse in the background.

But that portrait could be coming down.

The commission that was established to rename military bases that honor Confederate generals is expected to recommend that West Point remove the 20-foot portrait of Lee in his gray Confederate uniform, according to two people familiar with the group’s deliberations.

The commander of the Confederate Army, who served as superintendent from Sept. 1, 1852, to March 31, 1855, before breaking up with the Union, has a long and complicated history with West Point. His name and likeness are all over the New York campus, from street signs to another portrait hanging in the dining hall. But the portrait in the library has drawn particular scrutiny.

Other depictions of Lee as superintendent, before the Civil War, are more of a gray area. One portrait, gifted to the academy by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1931 and displayed in the dining hall, depicts Lee in his blue U.S. military uniform.

The commission is expected to recommend that West Point — which is now led by the first Black superintendent in its history, Army Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams — remove anything that commemorates Lee in association with the Confederacy, one of the people said. Anything “historic” that commemorates Lee when he was superintendent may remain. A spokesperson for the commission declined to comment.

The commission will submit its recommendations, which have not yet been finalized, in a written report to Congress by Oct. 1, as mandated by the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Congress and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the nation’s first Black defense secretary, must approve the recommendations.

What to do with the depictions of Lee at West Point is just one of many questions the commission is grappling with in the coming months. The eight-member group is charged with reviewinga long list of Defense Department “assets” that commemorate the Confederate States of America, including 10 honoring Lee at West Point alone.

After receiving more than 34,000 submissions during a public comment period, the group last month released its recommendations to rename nine Army bases that commemorate Confederate leaders.

Austin said in a statement at the time that he was “pleased” to see the group’s progress.

“Today’s announcement highlights the Commission’s efforts to propose nine new installation names that reflect the courage, values, sacrifices, and diversity of our military men and women,” Austin said.

One Black Army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, praised the recommendation, noting that West Point should strive to build “better leaders who can learn from and not repeat history.”

“The civil war without a doubt represented a pivotal and for some a painful moment in history,” the officer said. “Removing symbols from public areas that underscore a racist ideology is one of the best and fundamental ways to bring a broken nation together.”

As of October 2019, 63 percent of cadets were white, while only 12 percent identified as Black.

The creation of the commission was one of the reasons then-President Donald Trump vetoed the 2021 NDAA in December 2020, resulting in Congress’first override of his presidency. Trump gave the commencement address at West Point in June 2020 amid controversy over renaming the bases and accusations that he was politicizing the armed forces.

After the override in January 2021, the Trump administration named four individuals to the commission, including several loyalists to the former president. President Joe Biden’s Defense secretary, Austin, removed all of these members.

Retired Adm. Michelle Howard, the Navy’s first female four-star admiral and the first Black woman to command a Navy ship, now serves as chair, and the group’s members include retired Gen. Thomas Bostick, the first Black graduate of West Point to serve as chief of engineers of the U.S. Army and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The most high-profile decision from the group’s initial recommendations is the renaming of Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the headquarters of Army Special Operations Command and the home of the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, which was named after Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg. If the proposal is adopted, the base would be renamed Fort Liberty, in commemoration of “the American value of Liberty.”

Some critics argued that the name is too bland and the base should be renamed after a person who served the community. But the local community advocated strongly in favor of Fort Liberty, the people familiar with the discussions said.

“The Naming Commission sought to find names that would be inspirational to the Soldiers and civilians who serve on our Army posts, and to the communities who support them,” said Howard, the commission’s chair, in a statement when the names were released last month.

Although the commission’s other recommendations have not yet been approved, there is already opposition to removing likenesses of Lee from West Point.

“What does bother me is when you have woke, politically correct liberals who are trying to erase history,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in 2020.

“West Point is not just a military academy. It is, essentially, a museum to the United States Army. And the cadets there need to learn about their history,” Cotton said. “That’s why they have a line of portraits of every superintendent of West Point. Robert E. Lee was one of those superintendents, from 1852 to 1855.”