With the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans, the relentless drive to erase any celebratory vestiges of the rebellious Southern Confederacy rolls on. This is not an easy issue to address and is far more nuanced than the display of the Rebel Battle Flag…a symbol co-opted by the defiant forces of segregation and race hatred to the point where it has lost much of the essence of “heritage” it may sincerely represent to segments in the South. But the statues of often complex historical figures are not so easy to just erase from our collective memories. Who were these men? And what are the criteria to decide that this man, who had a very real impact on the story of America, should remain, and that fellow should be banished from the public square?
Consider Robert E. Lee, the latest target of this movement. His wife, Mary Custis, was the daughter of George Washington’s step-grandson. Lee’s own lineage boasted Revolutionary War hero Richard Henry Lee, the delegate who introduced the resolution for American independence to Congress in 1776. It is as if drawn from a Greek tragedy that R.E. Lee should one day be the very personification of the armed rebellion against the nation his forefathers had risked so much in establishing. The second highest-scoring cadet in his West Point class, and even having a stint as its superintendent, Lee served the country faithfully for over thirty years, at great personal sacrifice to his family life. By 1860 he was America’s most respected soldier. When the Southern states seceded and war seemed inevitable, Lincoln first offered command of the Union Army to Lee…an offer he refused after a painful night of deliberation and soul-searching.
It is not out-of-bounds to call Lee a traitor. But in his mind his first loyalty was to Virginia which had seceded. He was not in favor of secession, and had Virginia remained loyal, as did four slave states, it is very likely he may have taken Lincoln up on his offer...he certainly would not have raised his hand against the Union. It is difficult for us to imagine today but the hierarchy of loyalty in 1860, especially in the South, was first to one’s state, then region, then nation. Shelby Foote offered that before the Civil War people would say “The United States are…” Now we say “The United States is…” Lee and many others on those statues came of age in the era of “are." So he did what he thought was his duty and went with his state.
The great stain on the Confederacy, indeed the reason so many find any celebration of its heritage offensive, is, of course, that it was founded as a true slave state. Revisionist neo-confederate historians aside, the casus belli for the Southern armies was first and foremost the preservation of a government founded upon slavery. The push-back is that secession was about “States’ Rights." Very well. A state’s right to do what exactly? The answer is obvious. In short, the Southern soldiers, and the men enshrined in marble who commanded them, fought for a government dedicated to the proposition that all men are not created equal, and indeed certain races demanded to be subjugated. Or as CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens explained in March 1861: “[The Confederacy’s] foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slaver, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
But at what point does the guilt for their government’s raison d’etre fall so heavily upon the men on the battlefield that their collective memory should be banished from the public square? Is it their complicity in slavery that makes them moral pariahs today? Fair enough. Yet one can walk the mall of our capital city and see two very prominent monuments dedicated to the memory of men who owned far more slaves than did Jefferson Davis or Stonewall Jackson. So what then is the demarcation point? And where does it end? Are Washington and Jefferson next? One wonders where would these two Virginians, whose very livelihoods depended on slave labor, have stood on Secession had they been born a generation later?
One-third of signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. As the Briton Samuel Johnston asked in 1775: “How is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” And to continue the moral purge, Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford were anti-Semites. Do we then strike them from the national blotter? Whom do we spare? Indeed, is no one whose mark was left before 1965 and was not a card-carrying abolitionist or suffragette worthy of a shrine?
It certainly is reasonable for an African-American today to walk past a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest who, for all his brilliance on the battlefield, was a slave-trader and founder of the KKK, and take offense. But for the last five years of his life after the war ended, Robert E. Lee sought to help reconcile the nation he once fought so aggressively to tear asunder. Even as lesser generals were plotting endless guerrilla war against the United States, he ordered his men home to live their lives. Lee applied for a pardon and citizenship and pledged a loyalty oath. His example to not just his army but others throughout the South is considered an essential element to the restoration of the Union. In many ways Lee redeemed himself in both the eyes of his contemporaries as well as history.
The fact is the Civil War, like those who waged it on both sides, was the most complex and emotional event in our history. Its causes, meanings, and ramifications are still subject to vigorous debate a century and a half later. Serious thought, not just knee-jerk political correctness, should go into ripping out significant pages of our story just because some find the very image of the Southern soldier so offensive as to be intolerable in public. But there is a serious slippery slope here (sometimes clichés just work). One can draw a direct line of reasoning that leads to the removal of any monument to those Americans whose stories are essential to the creation of this nation, but have practiced the wrong sins in the wrong time and thus must be banished to the badlands of our history. Why should Washington, Jefferson, indeed anyone who owned slaves—or even those in free states who nevertheless tolerated it—have any monuments to them at all? Why not blast their visages off the face of Mount Rushmore and re-chisel in their place Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony or John Brown? And who will sit on the committee to decide? Do we really want to ever to get that point?
The road leads there. Think hard before moving forward. You may find yourself more in a more Orwellian place than you ever imagined. Whoever controls the present controls the past. It is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.