Would Lee have wanted a memorial?

Robert E. Lee did not want to help with the Gettysburg Memorial.
Robert E. Lee did not want to help with the Gettysburg Memorial.
Based on a portrait by James Fuller Queen
To drive through the South is to see the face of Robert E. Lee, etched into the side of Stone Mountain, Georgia, or standing guard before various county courthouses, or perched upon his horse. 

      Those representations of the South's leading Civil War general are among more than 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in public places throughout the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Discussion of whether to take down those symbols heated up in 2015, when nine African-Americans were murdered in a South Carolina church, and, more recently, after an Aug. 12 protest focusing on Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia.
      White nationalists had arrived in the college town to protest the planned removal of a Lee statue. Before the weekend was over, two state troopers died in a helicopter crash and a 32-year-old woman was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of pedestrians. 
       In the weeks that have followed, Lee's descendants have been among those denouncing the white supremacists. But who was Gen. Lee and what would he have thought of all those statues of himself? Lee's views about the issues of his time were complex, but historians have taken issue with the post-Civil War beatification that placed him on a pedestal. Here are starting points for study, along with links for further research.

About Lee: He was born in 1807 in Stratford, Virginia, the son Ann Hill Carter and a Revolutionary War cavalryman, Light Horse Harry Lee. Robert E. Lee graduated second in his class at West Point in 1829 and married a distant cousin, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the great-granddaughter of George Washington’s wife. He was first asked to lead the Union Army in an effort to force seceded states back into the union, but turned down the appointment and resigned. Instead, Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia in a rebellion against the United States. The war ended in 1865 with Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia. After the war, he took a job as president of Washington College (now Washington & Lee). He died in 1870 in Lexington, Virginia.

His tangled views regarding slavery: In 1856, Lee wrote this in a letter 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. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages.”
    But then he also rationalizes slavery this way: “I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. 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. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

His reputation as a soldier and as a slave owner: In his book, April 1865: The Month that Saved America (2001; HarperCollins), historian Jay Winik writes that Lee's mentor was Gen. Winfield Scott, who described Lee as a "military genius," and the "best soldier I ever saw in the field."
    But Lee was also a slave owner. In her book, Reading the Man, A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters (Penguin Books; 2008), historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor describes life at Arlington, Lee's plantation. "The youngest and strongest (slaves) were chosen to be hired away because they brought in the greatest revenue," she wrote. "By 1859, old men and little boys were the only workers left at Arlington. Worst of all, Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families. By 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days. There was singular distress among the slaves."

His mixed emotions about going to war: He told a friend he was against secession but would fight for Virginia if it seceded, recounts Roy Blount Jr., in the biography, Robert E. Lee, A Life (Penguin Books; 2003),  “If Virginia stands by the old Union,” Lee said, “so will I. But if she secedes (though I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution), then I will follow my native state with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.”

On the finality of his surrender: After the war was over, Lee resigned himself to surrendering and taking the consequences. He did not want his men to continue fighting as a guerrilla force. He told Col. Edward Porter Alexander that "the men would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many wide sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.”

Attitude toward a memorial at Gettysburg: Would Lee have approved of those memorials? In his lifetime, he didn’t want to be part of an effort to build a memorial at Gettysburg.  
    In a letter dated Aug. 5, 1869, Lee wrote:
    “Absence from Lexington has prevented my receiving until to-day your letter of the 26th ult., inclosing [sic] an invitation from the Gettysburg Battle-field Memorial Association, to attend a meeting of the officers engaged in that battle at Gettysburg, for the purpose of marking upon the ground by enduring memorials of granite the positions and movements of the armies on the field. My engagements will not permit me to be present. I believe if there, I could not add anything material to the information existing on the subject. I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered."

    To know more:


     What were Lincoln's accomplishments?

     Mr. Lincoln's (diverse) neighborhood

     Folklore shrouds writing of Gettysburg Address

     Symbol of hate, oppression to fade from view 

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