On The Robert E. Lee Statue
Patrick Sullivan argues that taking down the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia will do nothing to advance the cause of racial justice but is likely to make an already tense situation worse.
Robert E. Lee is more complex historical figure than most other Confederate Generals. In the 1950s both President Eisenhower and Speaker Sam Rayburn had pictures of Robert E. Lee hanging in their offices. Today, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is to announce the removal of a statue of Lee in Richmond, the State’s capital. This is the same Governor Ralph Northam who wore black face multiple times when he was a young adult. This is also the same Governor Ralph Northam who was defending infanticide little over a year ago. This is a politician allowing the passions of today to dictate his decision making giving scant regard to the complexities of America’s history with race.
The murder of George Floyd was just that, murder. The officers responsible should face the full force of the law and serve as examples that police brutality will not be tolerated. The legitimate and heartfelt concerns of peaceful protestors should be acted upon. Politicians should be looking to provide solutions to unweave systemic racism out of institutions. The virtue signalling move planned by the Governor of Virginia today will do nothing to improve racial justice. It is likely to alienate many Americans, who would otherwise be naturally supportive of what those genuinely marching in memory of Mr. Floyd are trying to achieve.
We must first recognise the history of race in America is so complicated a surgical approach ought to be taken rather than taking a less considered broad brush approach which will likely serve to inflame tensions rather than calm them.
It should be recognised that a statue commemorating General Lee is far different than statues commemorating Jefferson Davis or Nathan Bedford Forest. Then there is the issue of when the statues were commissioned. The Lee Monument Association and the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia were both established in the November of 1870, a month following the General’s passing. The lithograph on which the statue is based was commissioned six years later. Both of these significant events occurred during Reconstruction. The statue was unveiled in May 1890 which was still a time of relative interracial cooperation in Virginia. Essentially, the Statue was built to commemorate Virginia’s native son and not for the purpose of celebrating the Civil War. That is important.
There is a strong argument to move the Confederate memorials that were built in the 1910s and 20s out of the public square. At that period in time, the Ku Klux Klan was undergoing a revival as illustrated by the first movie being shown in the White House in February 1915 being the pro-Klan film, The Birth of a Nation (based on the novel, The Clansman).
The President responsible for the first film shown at the White House being an ode to intolerance was a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, who had previously been President of Princeton University, was an out-and-out racist and segregated much of the Federal government, including the US military.
This time was also the height of Jim Crow in the South and the statues and memorials built in many of the formerly Confederate States were built for the purpose of making the political statement peaceful protestors are rightly standing up against. They were built to say the moves towards equality (made during Reconstruction) were reversed and to send a message to Black Americans that they had no power. As the intent behind building such monuments was to subjugate Americans; it is beyond time that those statues were relocated to museums where they can be put in their proper historical context. The statue of General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia is not one of those statues.
Lee was a reluctant Confederate and did not believe Virginia should have seceded from the Union. When it did, he believed his first duty was to his State. He resigned his US Army commission and reluctantly took charge of the Confederate army.
After Lee’s surrender to then General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, he was granted a pardon by President Lincoln. Lee did much after Lincoln’s death to try and heal the wounds of war urging former Confederate Soldiers to re-join the United States.
In contrast to General Lee, the erstwhile President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis did not want to accept that the fight was over and after Lee surrendered at Appomattox sought continuation of the war. Many, many years later, Johnny Cash would sing a song called God Bless Robert E. Lee.
The song thanks Robert E. Lee for surrendering at Appomattox, despite the likely objection of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Lee surrendered because he could see that the loss of life that his troops would suffer in the forthcoming battle was just too much, in a war that had already seen over 600,000 casualties.
It is too often forgotten was that the typical Confederate soldier was poor as dirt and was fighting the rich slave holders war. Lee was fighting not because he believed in secession but because he believed the decision to succeed had been made democratically. To many Lee is considered heroic not for his role in fighting the war but for making the decision to end it.
After Lincoln’s assassination, his successor as President Andrew Johnson, a southerner, launched a nationwide manhunt for Davis offering a $100,000 reward for his capture. In little over a month Davis was caught and imprisoned at Fortress Monroe. Davis was released on bail two years later but remained bitter about losing war and made unhelpful noises about reconstruction. Jefferson Davis would go on living until 1889.
In 1885, Davis even managed to get into a letter writing spat with up and coming New York State Assembly leader, Theodore Roosevelt who had publicly compared Davis to the traitor Benedict Arnold. Well to Americans Benedict Arnold was a traitor, to Brits he was a counter-intelligence officer.
In contrast, the now-President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a glowing public letter about General Lee upon the centenary of Lee’s birth in 1907. Lee had died in 1870, 5 years after the end of the Civil War. In the subsequent years, he was treated as somewhat close to the other side of the same coin as Abraham Lincoln. The challenge after the Civil War was bringing America back together.
In President Lincoln’s second inaugural address, made a little under a month before his assassination he proclaimed:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds”.
For over a century after his death General Robert E. Lee was held up as the reluctant General, motivated in the Civil War by what he saw as his duty to his State but who also gave a dignified surrender and sought after the fighting was did was the leading figure from the former Confederacy seeking to bind up the nation’s wounds and begin the healing. At Fredericksburg, General Lee said that “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it”.
Many former (and later neo-) Confederates were too fond of conflict and came to belief in The Lost Cause of the Confederacy and that The South will Rise Again. In many ways it was not until the next southerner to become President, also called Johnson, passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act that the Civil War really came to an end.
The cause for which Robert E. Lee fought was slavery and it was a blight on the soul of America. In many ways, slavery is America’s original sin and one which each new generation of Americans must reconcile with.
Robert E. Lee should not only be remembered for the war that he fought but also for how he brought it to an end and how he sought to bind the nations wounds after the war. For wounds to be bound together leaders from both the victorious and defeated side needed to be seen to reconcile. That President Lincoln immediately pardoned General Lee upon his surrender at Appomattox indicates that he saw the General as someone with whom he could work to bring America back together. For something close to a modern analogy, we can look to how Nelson Mandala worked with F. W. De Klerk to heal the wounds of apartheid.
There are some historians who claim that “Kindly General Lee” is a myth and there is a chance that they are right but much of American history has involved myth making. Until recently multiple generations grew up being taught that “myth” as fact and as such spent their lives believing it to be so. As “myths” go it is a uniting, not divisive one anyway. Even if it may not be strictly historically accurate; wouldn’t it serve race relations better to let it stand?
To many Americans from both former Confederate and Union States I imagine it must be jarring to have someone they grew up revering being reassessed in this way. If the statue of General Lee is to be taken down it should be done so with more thought and more care than has gone into today’s decision.
Patrick Sullivan is the Political Editor of The Commentator @PatJSullivan
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