It is now known that the spark that lit the explosion in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend was the decision of its city fathers to remove a longstanding statue of General Lee.
The crusade against Confederate memory, and especially of monuments to Lee, makes it urgent that something cautionary be said, lest a racist rabble have the dispute to themselves.
The many monuments to Lee (and to Confederate soldiers, including “Silent Sam” on the UNC campus) are caught in a sanctimonious cross-fire. On one hand, we have a-historical zealots who believe that the way to cultivate “democracy” and racial harmony is to obliterate physical markers of the past, especially mementos of slavery. Even as ugly rioting marred the usual peace of Mr. Jefferson’s city, in the valley just across the mountain, at the university Lee once headed, Confederate battle flags have recently been banished from Lee Chapel. In that hallowed place, General and Mrs. Lee are “gathered with thy saints in glory everlasting,” but such sentiments are assuredly dead among the self-righteous.
Nothing, however, could more tarnish Lee’s memory than its association in deluded minds with white supremacists and “white nationalism.” And for many reasons, not least the character and career of Lee himself. Like Washington and Jefferson before him, Lee was a slaveholder, and a substantial one chiefly through Mrs. Lee’s Custis family legacy. Otherwise, as even casual students of his life are aware, he was a professional soldier, the flight of his errant father, a hero of the Revolution, an impoverishing embarrassment in his youth. He became an innovative superintendent of West Point, an influential civil engineer and hero of the Mexican War. When the South seceded, he was summoned by the Chief of Staff and offered command of the Union forces. He declined on grounds that he had no disposition to fight his family and kin. It is likewise familiar lore that as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, he became a celebrated warrior, having emerged by default during a siege of Richmond when General Johnson was disabled. It is a record as honorable in principle as his decision not to fight his kin. It also imposed a tragic choice, as warfare tends to do. He was stripped of his citizenship, and it was not restored for a century.
Apart from an urge to set the historical record straight, I admit that personal neutrality is impossible. In 1861, my maternal great-grandfather, a lawyer and planter in Georgia, organized a fighting company. This ancestral figure, an admirer of the founder of law studies at Athens (for whom he named my grandfather), fought at Lee’s side until August 1864, when he died in a James River battle. I taught for a decade at Washington and Lee University.
In a lecture at the Virginia Historical Society, I described Colonel Logue’s history as a Confederate officer and pondered its meaning for me:
“These familial researches ... [have] little to do with racial pride, to say nothing of accord with the Confederate cause as it would have been understood in Georgia in 1861. For a remote descendant, the satisfaction ... lies in a sense of rootedness, the establishment of continuity with the history of a nation largely shaped by conflict. ... I do not doubt that the national destiny was better served by the principle of union. That was, after all, the view of Robert E. Lee himself until the threat to home and kin prompted him to affirm deeper local loyalties.”
“I am,” Lee wrote to a friend, “one of those dull people who see no value in secession.”
What more is there to say than that the madcap drive to cleanse and prettify our mixed American history is more likely to freeze than eradicate lingering hatreds. Nations, ours any more than others, are not of immaculate conception, although that pretense seems to be gaining. Even Lees and Washingtons, great men by any earthly measure, found themselves unwillingly entangled in institutions and acts they would have preferred to avoid. And it is our responsibility to the past to take it whole. As William Faulkner unforgettably put it, “The past isn’t over, it isn’t even past.” By erasing its signs and monuments we merely bury for a time what we should understand.
It is the ultimate fool’s errand.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.