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 dignity. 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 royalty 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 men seeing him so. Eventually, after four years of fighting, running out of men and supplies, facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate General surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Meeting Lee for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck in the company of the celebrated General, blurting something about seeing Lee once in the Mexican War, years earlier.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Despite outraged cries to arrest and jail Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve. And that’s in the hysterical aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, and John Wilkes Booth’s death. Robert E Lee 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 and is buried.
Lee consciously moved on after the Civil War. He performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what little 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 politicizing his name and reputation.
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.