Mixed Emotions

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It’s been uncomfortable to watch the media coverage from Louisiana about the removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue in New Orleans. As a life-long student of the Civil War the idea of removing reminders of our nation’s past somehow feels misguided. At the same time, with a strong background in African American history, I fully grasp the righteous indignation of having to see that relic in the middle of my city. Robert E. Lee’s prominence as the Confederate commander, and the South’s aim to make war rather than risk Yankee abolitionism places the General right in the crosshairs of modern sensibilities. Still, appropriating the past to wage modern political warfare feels equally amiss.

Robert Edward Lee was a consummate gentlemen, a Virginia Cavalier of the highest order. So reserved and deliberate in his life and career, that he was one of a very few who graduated West Point without a single demerit. Married to a descendent of Martha Washington, Mary Custis, Lee had American stature added to his already esteemed pedigree. (The Lee-Custis Mansion, “Arlington House” is situated at the top of Arlington National Cemetery. And yes, this General was a slave holder, however he appears to have found the institution distasteful).

When hostilities opened in April of 1861, the War Department tapped Lee first to lead Union forces, so prized were his qualities. But the General declined, stating he could never fire a gun in anger against his fellow countryman, meaning Virginians.

On the battlefield Lee was tough to whip, but he also wasn’t perfect, despite his army’s adoration. Eventually, after four years of bloody fighting, low on fighting men and supplies–facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate Commander surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

Meeting Lee face-to-face for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck himself in the presence of the General, blurting out something about seeing Lee once during the Mexican War.

In a letter to his surrendering troops Lee instructed, By the terms of the agreement Officers and men can return to their homes. . .

But Robert E. Lee’s story doesn’t end there.

Despite outraged Northern cries to arrest and jail all Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve to apprehend Lee. And that’s saying a lot considering the hysteria following Lincoln’s assassination, and John Wilkes Booth’s Southern roots. The former general remained a free man, taking an administrative position at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. It was in Lexington that the General died in 1870, and was  buried.

Lee led by example, consciously moving on with his life after the surrender at Appomattox. He had performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what I have learned regarding General Lee, he would have no problem with the removal of a statue he never wanted. Moreover, I don’t believe he would have any patience with the vulgar extremists usurping his name and reputation for their hateful agenda.

This controversy isn’t about Robert E Lee. It’s about America in 2017.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available on Amazon.

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