Marble Man: Thoughts on Robert E. Lee

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Robert E. Lee/ Image via Public Domain

In today’s United States, racial and socioeconomic tensions are amplified by the rapidity of Internet sharing. The senseless death of a young minority by the member of an historically oppressive race can ignite the emotions of Americans from one corner of the country to the other in a matter of minutes, like a spark in a tinderbox on a bed of kindling.

Cities are attempting to revise the mindsets of those who harbor racist sympathies and to promote race equality by taking aim at the tangible symbols that evoke sentiments of inequality.

In New Orleans, for example, “adversaries marched in a second-line parade to the traffic circle where [Confederate General Robert E.] Lee’s statue stands — centurion-like, stationed above the treeline atop a white stone pedestal — to protest the monument’s place in the circle and to bury Lee’s place in history, which some revere and others revile.”

The basic argument against monuments like Lee’s in New Orleans is that Lee was the leader of the Confederate Army which fought and killed on behalf of a loose band of belligerent, secessionist states that advocated for the institution of slavery — i.e., Lee is one of the de facto faces of slavery in America and is undeserving of celebratory recognition.

Conversely, there are those who think preserving the legacy of Confederate soldiers who laid down their lives for a certain belief is something of a civic and moral obligation. Individually those rebels are ancestors; collectively they comprise a regional heritage.

I happen to think that when it comes to contentious memorials such as those of notorious Confederates, they should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

When it comes to Lee, I happen to think he should be lauded. Jefferson Davis, no thank you.

Having stated that, I feel obligated to pronounce that I am very much a proponent of equality, am not a Confederate supporter, and I abhor the thought that our country once waged internal war on the basis of owning human beings.

But I am captivated by Lee and I think his place in American history should not be one that draws ire, contempt, or resentment. He should be viewed through the same lens with which we view other leading American figures. I’ll return shortly to that statement.

Secession is Nothing but Revolution

Lee’s legacy is overwhelmingly overshadowed by his role in the Confederate army and understandably so. He was a brilliant tactician whose military ingenuity combined speed, boldness, foresight, deception, and leadership with knowledge of artillery, engineering, and topography. His most dangerous weapon, perhaps, was his wartime reputation which evolved to nearly legend.

As a man, Lee was beyond reproach. An archetypal southern gentleman, Lee held high the code of chivalry living his life by values like honor, loyalty, and duty. He adored his family and dedicated his life to public service.

Those values, though, proved to be his fatal flaw, for he recognized it as his duty to remain loyal to his native country: Virginia. According to Lee’s obituary in The New York Times, October 13, 1870,

His personal integrity was well known, and his loyalty and patriotism was not doubted. Indeed, it was in view of the menaces of treason and the dangers which threatened the Union that he had received his last promotion, but he seems to have been thoroughly imbued with that pernicious doctrine that his first and highest allegiance was due to the State of his birth. When Virginia joined the ill-fated movement of secession from the Union, he immediately threw up his commission in the Federal Army and offered his sword to the newly formed Confederacy. He took this step, protesting his own attachment to the Union, but declaring that his sense of duty would never permit him to ‘raise his hand against his relatives, his children, and his home.’

Now bear with me for a moment. If we think of Lee’s life and career without the Civil War, his accomplishments are exemplary. He served with distinction in the Mexican War, was a deft superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, worked tirelessly to save his wife’s family’s Arlington estate from debt and disrepair, and later in life returned to academia to serve as the president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University).

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Lee, age 31 (1838)/ Image via Public Domain

When we reinsert the Civil War into equation we mustn’t forget that Lee was appointed to Colonel, a commission that was signed by President Abraham Lincoln, and was assumed to become second in command to then-military commander General Winfield Scott, whom Lee greatly impressed in Mexico.

Lee had always vehemently been pro-union, second only to his stance of pro-Virginia. Lee biographer Douglas S. Greeman Freeman notes that when Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address, “His views on many aspects of the crisis were those of Lee.”

Further, he wrote to his oldest son Custis in 1861 expressing how helpless he, Lee, felt with being unable to halt the four states that had seceded thus far and an additional four in the process of doing so.

Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for ‘perpetual union,’ so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled.

Ultimately Lee’s decision to remain with Virginia, which remained with the Confederacy, was of dual fault. His devotion was to a sovereignty built literally and figuratively on slavery, and, in doing so, he committed treason.

And, of course, hundreds of thousands of men died as a consequence of this.

On the issue of slavery, there is evidence to suggest that Lee was indifferent, if not personally against it,  though he also considered African-Americans beneficiaries of the institution.

In 1856 he wrote to his wife, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country… The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.”

This particular letter goes on to lend credence to the perspective that Lee wasn’t for slavery, but believed it was by the will of God, and that by God would the slaves be emancipated.

Philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, though, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religion conviction.”

All the Arlington Slaves Should be Freed

When I ponder Lee, I do so with the echos of other historically significant Americans ringing in the back of my head. That is to say, as I mention above, that I view Lee through the same lens with which I view his forebears.

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Lee, 38 and son Rooney (c. 1845)/ Image via Public Domain

A recent list of best U.S. presidents based on 10 “attributes of leadership” by 91 presidential historians puts Lincoln on top (the 2017 ranking, as well as the 2009 and 2000 rankings). If you guessed the runner up is George Washington, you’d be correct.

Washington, so revered as the father of the nation for his generalship during the American Revolution and his even-mindedness as the first president that innumerable people named their children after him, innumerable towns have a Washington Street on their maps, and innumerable copies of his likeness have been reproduced from the one-dollar bill to this awesome hat I bought and placed on the head of the statue of Thomas Jefferson (more on him in a minute).

Even our nation’s capital is called Washington.

George Washington and Robert E. Lee had much in common, from personality traits to their professions to the fact that they were intertwined by marriage and friendship (Lee’s wife was Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter by the latter’s first marriage and Lee’s own father was a confidant of Washington himself) but people seem all too willing to forget that the illustrious Washington owned 123 slaves at the time of his death, according to Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon adds, “Washington frequently utilized harsh punishment against the enslaved population, including whippings and the threat of particularly taxing work assignments. Perhaps most severely, Washington could sell a slave to a buyer in the West Indies…Washington conducted such sales on several occasions.”

Washington ordered that all of his slaves be granted freedom upon the death of his wife Martha.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. president, ranks number four on the list, behind Franklin Roosevelt.

Jefferson, too, owned hundreds of slaves throughout his life and even made his thoughts known that he detested slavery. His attempts to eviscerate it, though, were futile if not half-hearted. Most infamously, Jefferson is alleged to have had children by his slave Sally Hemings. If this is true, can we really believe it was consensual given that by law, Sally was the property with which Jefferson could do as he pleased?

In fact, all of the top 10 presidents except Lincoln harbored prejudicial views towards a race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and/or sexual orientation.

Franklin Roosevelt interned the Japanese during WWII and was an adulterous husband; Theodore Roosevelt considered all races as lesser to whites, was the first president to invite an African-American (Booker T. Washington) to dine at the White House but did so only once, and was a blood-drunk warmonger; Dwight Eisenhower regretted appointing Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whose bench handed down the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling; Harry Truman was an unapologetic anti-Semite; John F. Kennedy acted reluctantly in pushing for civil rights and was an adulterous husband; Ronald Reagan opposed Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights acts, tone-deafly delivered a states’ rights speech near the site of a Mississippi lynching, and turned a blind eye towards the LGBTQ community; and Johnson claimed “I’ve had more women by accident than [JFK’s] had on purpose.”

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Lee and his generals (1869)/ Image via Public Domain

Not all of these men committed offenses on par with Lee’s, but some of them did. Why are they beheld with esteem? Why are their hands of good intention able to wash their hands of malevolence?

When Lee’s wife inherited Arlington and the slaves that came with it, the estate was deeply in debt. Her father’s will stipulated that “all the Arlington slaves should be freed upon his death if the estate was found to be in good financial standing or within five years otherwise.

Lee was named the executor of the estate and with slave labor rehabilitated it to a working farm. In 1862, in accordance with the will, the slaves were granted their freedom. When pitted against the list of best U.S. presidents, Lee is the only individual to have freed his own slaves during his own lifetime.

The Most Harm in the World

After the Civil War, Lee sought and signed an oath of amnesty, and did his best to retreat into obscurity. A proponent of Reconstruction, he endeavored for retirement but subsequently was offered and accepted the presidency of Washington College.

Here, according to one account published after Lee’s death, “The standards of scholarship were rapidly advanced; and soon the graduates of Washington College were the acknowledged equals of those from the best institutions elsewhere…due directly and immediately, more than to all other causes, to the personal ability and influence of General Lee as president of the college.”

While military hopefuls to this day pore studiously over his stratagems, his greatest contribution was arguably as an educator where his students admired and adored him much like his army subordinates did.

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Lee’s amnesty oath (1865)/ Image via Public Domain

Lee was generally a decent man who made a calamitous mistake in siding with the Confederacy and he should remain accountable for that throughout history. Good men and women often make fatalistic mistakes but it’s not their one defining trait and should neither be Lee’s.

Perhaps it’s because Lee was such a good man that over time we’ve come to view him, and the lasting monuments to him,  through contemptuous eyes. Historian Henry Adams once observed, “It is always good men who do the most harm in the world.”

The Full Rights of Citizenship

In 1975, Lee was posthumously restored the full rights of citizenship — a clerical oversight that stood for over 100 years when he resubmitted to the Union.

Despite this it seems his presence, whether in marble, granite, or bronze, continues to do harm in the world.

Symbols are funny things; there is no correct or incorrect interpretation. It’s not wrong to associate any Lee monuments with slavery and secession. But it is incomplete. Lee cannot, and should not, be viewed in the simple but weighty judgement of right vs. wrong, good vs. bad.

Lee and his legacy are intricately nuanced and as such, we should all afford his historical contribution (whether one agrees with them or not) the same thoughtful deliberation and consideration as we do other titans of American history.

If we were to collectively educate our neighbors and our kin on the full and absolute background of who we’ve decided as a society to remember through the ages, it may result in less conflict among those who associate these monuments with the piecemeal traits of whom they represent.

It would also afford us the tools to make a wholly informed decision about who a person is instead of basing his or her entire existence on mere factoids that may be taken out of context or completely incorrect altogether.

I began this essay by noting how our digital infrastructure can intensify socioeconomic issues because of the expeditious nature of social sharing. People can see and dispatch news clips or tidbits to thousands of connections at the simple click of a mouse. Our history, and the people of whom it consists, are at risk of becoming casualties of the digital age.

Indeed the contemporary digital landscape is one apt to be set ablaze by incriminating videos or images of social injustice. That, though, is just one blade of this double-edged sword. The other is the ability for one to share and receive as fact an out of context quote, photo, video, etc., and using only that to render judgement.

While Lee’s list of positive contributions to society may not warrant statues of him anywhere, his follies should not condemn his legacy to the realm of terrible people.

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One thought on “Marble Man: Thoughts on Robert E. Lee

  1. This is a difficult topic. All humans are flawed; it is just a matter of degrees.
    As you point out, George Washington owned slaves. However, he did not take up arms against the United States.
    Confederate soldiers may be admired for their honorable personal traits or military acumen but they took up the sword for the cause of slavery. And, if they had won the Civil War, they would have perpetuated slavery in their own country.
    I always enjoyed the stories of General Lee but he cannot be revered in the form of a public monument.

    Like

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