“Plaintiff Reverend Robert Wright Lee IV (“Lee”) is a white resident of Iredell County. Lee is the fourth great-nephew of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.”
— Statement in a lawsuit seeking removal of a Confederate statue, filed in Iredell County, N.C., May 5
“As a descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s family, I have borne the weight and responsibility of that lineage.”
— Rob Lee, in an opinion article published in The Washington Post, June 7, 2020
“We’ve been talking about his great-great-grandfather.”
— Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), introducing Lee during a speech in Richmond, June 4
The Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, known as Rob, has, since 2016, parlayed his ancestry on behalf of what many may regard as a noble cause — removing Confederate statues and memorials. The pastor stood with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam when the governor announced last June, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, that a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond would be removed.
“There are members in my family who are shaking in their boots. I’m sure my ancestor Robert E. Lee is rolling in his grave, and I say, let him roll,” Lee told a crowd.
When Northam introduced Lee, he said: “We’ve been talking about his great-great-grandfather.”
This is a common mistake. Lee says he is the great-great-great-great nephew of the famous general.
There is a Robert E. Lee V, great-great-grandson of the general, who works at the Potomac School in McLean. He speaks rarely about the debate over historical monuments. Meanwhile, Rob Lee has made numerous public appearances, including on “The View” and the MTV Video Music Awards. At a House committee hearing in 2020, he was introduced by then-Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) as a “descendant of the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee.” In that hearing, he called himself a “nephew” of the general.
But there is no evidence that Rob Lee, who was born in North Carolina, is related to Robert E. Lee, according to The Fact Checker’s review of historical and genealogical records. We were aided in our search through these records by a retired Los Angeles trial lawyer and Civil War chronicler named Joseph Ryan, as well as an official at Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of the Virginia Lee family.
On his website, Rob Lee describes himself as “a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.” At an appearance in Tulsa in 2020, he suggested that he was connected to Robert E. Lee because he is a direct descendant of Lee’s older brother, Charles Carter Lee.
So we looked for evidence that Rob is related to Charles Lee or any other brother of Robert E. Lee. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment — via email, text message and Twitter — but his own writings are vague on the connection.
In his 2019 book “A Sin by Another Name,” Lee says that for as long as he can remember, there was a painting of Robert E. Lee on his grandmother’s den wall. He describes how his “Nana” decades ago called him into the den and pulled out a “thick, leather-bound book” that contained the records of the family. “You come from a long line of people who have been in this country a long time,” she said.
She then pointed to the painting, he wrote. “You are related to him, a nephew separated by many generations.” He asked if the family was famous and he said she replied: “Not quite. It’s complicated.”
The family referred to Robert E. Lee as “Uncle Bob,” Lee writes.
The Lee family of Virginia
Let’s follow the genealogical path with the widely available records of this storied American family. Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 at Stratford Hall, the family estate in Virginia owned by a succession of Lees instrumental in the politics of the early Republic. His older brother Charles Carter Lee was born in 1798, also at Stratford Hall, and married in 1847.
For Rob Lee to be a descendant of Charles Carter Lee, who lived in Powhatan County, near Richmond, one of Charles’s five sons would need to be his great-great-great grandfather: George Taylor Lee, 1848-1933; Henry Lee, 1849-1901; Robert Randolph Lee, 1853-1940; Williams Carter Lee, 1855-1882 (who died unmarried in a railroad accident); and John Penn Lee, 1867-1924.
But when we traced the genealogy, the trail quickly ran cold. None of the direct descendants of these Virginians led us to Rob Lee.
Instead, when we worked backward from Rob Lee’s family — the various Robert W. Lees — we ended up in Alabama, not Virginia. Lee’s book makes a nod to that fact, quoting his grandmother as saying: “The original Lees came to Virginia and then made their way down to Alabama. Some of those Lees came back to North Carolina.”
With the exception of the reference to Virginia, that describes the path of Rob Lee’s family.
The Lee family of Alabama (not related to Robert E. Lee)
In tracing the lineage of Rob Lee’s family, we need to start our story with William Lee of Alabama.
He has no apparent relationship to the Lees of Virginia, who first arrived on the shores of the Americas in 1639. The origins of this William Lee are obscure, but in the 1880 census, his son reported he was born in England — which would be in the 1700s, at least 100 years later than the first Virginia Lee.
William Lee’s life is first chronicled in Georgia, where he appears to have managed a plantation. In 1810, he had posted a notice about a runaway enslaved person on behalf of the plantation owner.
In 1817, he purchased land in Butler County, Ala., shortly after Alabama Territory was created when the western part of the Mississippi Territory was granted statehood. His story and those of his children are recorded in a fascinating 2020 account for the Butler County Historical & Genealogical Society Quarterly, written by Judy Atkins Taylor.
After moving to Butler County, William Lee became a judge and played a role in early Alabama politics, helping craft the state constitution. He died sometime around 1823 — the exact date is unknown — not long after a son, named Robert Scothrup Lee, was born in 1822.
This Robert S. Lee, a farmer and a carpenter, fought for the Confederacy late in the Civil War and earned a Civil War pension. He lived a long life, until 1916, when he was regarded as the oldest native Alabamian. When he died, the Greenville Advocate reported that “nearly all his friends throughout the county” called him “Uncle Bob.”
He also appears to be Rob Lee’s great-great-great grandfather.
“Uncle Bob” and his wife had nine children, one of whom was John Osborne Lee, born in 1865. The records show this is Rob Lee’s great-great grandfather.
“John married Nettie Eleanor Wright around 1896,” Taylor writes. “John Osborne was a traveling salesman for a while before moving to Montgomery, where he was a salesman for a lumber company. By 1930, he and his family had moved to Statesville, Iredell County, North Carolina, where he worked for years as a salesman for a veneer plant.”
John and Nettie bestowed one of their sons with her maiden name: Robert Wright Lee, born in 1902.
So now we are in Iredell County, just north of Charlotte, where Rob Lee was born. John and Nettle’s son, who died in 1998, became known as Robert Wright Lee Sr. He is Rob’s great-grandfather. The trail continues to Robert W. Lee Jr., Robert W. Lee III and finally Robert W. Lee IV, all born in Iredell County.
As we noted, Rob Lee did not acknowledge our many queries for evidence of his connection to Robert E. Lee. His father also did not return a phone call. Chris Hollinger, an attorney at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, which filed the Iredell lawsuit, said he would not discuss whether he tried to verify Lee’s claim.
“We are able to note that Reverend Lee has been identified as a descendant of Robert E. Lee by the Washington Post itself and the Post has published at least two essays by Rev. Lee wherein he discusses his lineage,” Hollinger said in an email. “Accordingly, we have no reason at this time to doubt the accuracy of the allegation in the Iredell County Complaint regarding Reverend Lee’s heritage or to doubt the sincerity of Reverend Lee’s public representations regarding his lineage.”
Shani George, vice president for communications at The Washington Post, said in a statement: “We do our best to verify a contributor’s credentials. This was clearly a more complicated case, though at the time, our research gave us no reason to doubt his lineage claims.”
The Pinocchio Test
Family tales and memories can often be inaccurate. Rob Lee may have firmly believed he was somehow related to Robert E. Lee, based on stories he heard at home about “Uncle Bob.”
Instead, he appears to be a descendant of Robert S. Lee, also known as “Uncle Bob,” who served in the Confederate forces — but was not a general.
Many people with Confederate ancestry have stepped forward to denounce the racist symbolism embodied in Confederate monuments. But, without new evidence that confirms his claim, the pastor should not state he is related to Robert E. Lee, especially in legal filings — and news organizations should not echo this claim. (Within an hour of this article appearing online, Lee tweeted that he had withdrawn his name from the Iredell County lawsuit.)
Editor’s note: McClatchy has published several stories in recent years that featured Rob Lee’s statements about being a relative of Robert E. Lee. We will be adding a correction to digital versions of those stories.