As Statues Topple, Should Robert E. Lee’s Remain?

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to write on the looming assault on George Washington’s monuments given the expanding hostility to the Founders due to their history of slavery.  I noted that Robert E. Lee’s prominent place in history, reflected by his statues, was directly under assault.  I suggested that we should not forget the remarkable role that Lee played in unifying the nation and welcoming the African-American to the Lord’s Table.

One who read it said that Lee’s prominence was actually a sham as he was really the cult figure of later southern racists.  They sought to use him to justify Jim Crow laws by celebrating the nobility of the “lost cause” of the Confederacy.  As I reflected, if such were so, then I would question the wisdom of the Lee statues.

So I consulted with a colleague with a known mastery of the overall 19th Century history of the United States in general and the Civil War history in particular. He affirmed what I stated of Lee’s role in welcoming a freed African-American slave to the Communion Table as well as Lee’s noteworthy role in pursuing reconciliation between the fractured states.  While there have been faulty motives for honoring Lee as we’ll see below, there are substantial reasons to remember all Lee did to secure the reunion of the nation.  

To begin, the Communion service in May 1865 when Lee took the Eucharist with the slave should be considered. First, there were Federal troops present in the Episcopal Church at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, VA to make sure that the Book of Common Prayer was followed in offering the prayer for the President of the United States.  This of course, was a strange entanglement of Church and state.  But regardless of that, the issue was exacerbated when two northern soldiers brought a “freedman” forward to have communion ahead of the white congregation with the obvious purpose to create an incident. At St. Paul’s the white congregation would be served communion at the altar first and then the black congregation from the balcony afterwards. As the congregation was paralyzed in response Robert E. Lee came to the Table and joined the “freedman.” Thus Lee’s leadership moved the congregation to join in the  sacrament, thereby diffusing the tension and avoiding what could have been a rancorous scene that would have stalled efforts at reconciliation. The event also became the impetus for eradicating segregated communion at St. Pauls.

Lee’s role as reconciler of the nation is substantial and remarkable.  He refused to grant his name to an insurance company that would have secured a substantial annual salary for himself stating that he didn’t want to profit from his fame which had been secured at the cost of so many lives. He also said to the company, “my name is not for sale at any price.”.  He refused to run for public office fearing that his presence would hinder the process of  national reconciliation.  Horace Greeley, the famous northern newspaper publisher had called for the execution of Lee at the end of the war.  Yet a few years later, Greeley held fundraisers for Washington College where Lee served as president (today’s Washington and Lee College) because of the quiet and principled role that Lee played in healing the nation.  In fact, one of the last pictures taken of Lee is a photo of him near Greeley after a Greeley assisted fund raiser for the college.  George Peabody, a northern financier, followed the example of Greeley and helped raise funds for the College in response to Lee’s efforts at national reconciliation while noting the number of northern young men attending Lee’s college.  A statue on the grounds of the College honors a Chicago based entrepreneur Cyrus McCormick who founded International Harvester and made significant contributions in honor of Lee and his efforts at reconciliation. Peabody’s picture is still displayed in Lee’s office where it has been since the days when the former General occupied the space.

Furthermore, Lee was proactive in his efforts to unite the nation.  He wrote to Southern ex-patriots to return from exile in Brazil, England, Mexico and Europe imploring them to work for reconciliation.  Lee’s intervention in two Lexington race riots not only saved lives but effectively promoted harmony  and racial reconciliation within the town.

In such efforts, Lee acted consistently with principles evidenced before the Civil War occurred. Lee and his wife were both founding members of a society under the direction of his Pastor, William Meade, devoted to securing the freedom of slaves by purchasing their emancipation. During 1857-1862, he freed all 196 slaves he had inherited at Arlington.  Before their manumission, he pursued three objectives for all of them. First was their education, even though it was supposedly against Virginia law. Secondly, he helped them develop a marketable skill and thirdly the pursuit of property ownership.  In 1859 a Civil magistrate came to Arlington with an indictment.  Lee responded that he was prepared to be arrested for educating his slaves.  However, he argued that it was legitimate as his slaves were being homeschooled—in the northernmost room of Arlington.  He had participated in a Protestant Episcopal manumission organization that proactively sought to free slaves.  Lee’s wife supported their work of freeing slaves in that she from time to time traveled to visit them to assure they were well, and if in need, provided funds for their continued improvement.  These trips took Mrs. Lee as far north as New York City. In response to this there is an interesting collection of letters that these emancipated slaves wrote to the Lee’s during the 1860’s which are available in the Lee archives.

Finally, to keep things in perspective, we should remember that the role of statues in human experience plays different roles at differing moments in history.  In the case of statues related to the Civil War/Confederacy, they can be grouped four ways.  First, they marked graveyards and battlefields.  Second, they were erected to honor heroism and competence.  Third, for the longest period, perhaps from 1870 to 1920, they were erected to acknowledge those who furthered the spirit of national reconciliation which was promoted and esteemed during that era.  And fourth, and most uncomfortably, from 1950 to 1970 or so, they were erected to use the Confederate flag and other emblems of the old South to reinforce racial inequities and the so-called “separate but equal laws” of the South.  The concept that one size fits all for the iconography of the Civil War in order to celebrate racial superiority seems to be an over-reaction, and potentially the logical fallacy of guilt by association.  While it’s no easy task, critics of the statues have a duty to consider the timing, distinctives and legitimate purposes of the various monuments.

Interestingly, General Lee purposefully took no part in seeking the erection of the statues or in their dedication, although his daughters did.  He did all he could not to profit from the War or prolong its memories given the vast sacrifices involved and his commitment to national reconciliation.  He even refused to publish his memoirs in spite of the urging of many lest some might claim he enriched himself at the expense and sacrifice of others.  While he knew that some (such as his pastor and friend William Pendleton) sought to make Lee the rallying image of the old South, to celebrate its former glory and to diminish the stigma of southern slavery, this approach was alien to Lee’s commitments as revealed above.

So to conclude, it is not merely historically short-sighted to dishonor General Lee given his role on battlefields and his remarkable competence as a heroic military leader but to attack the statuary of Robert E. Lee is to banish the best of the soul of the South that sought to reunite the nation, free the slaves and give them a running start for success in a new era of freedom.  The assault on Lee’s legacy is especially ironic for America’s African-Americans.  For Black lives mattered to Robert E. Lee.  

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