Look at Gen­eral Lee — the whole man

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OP/ED - Bon­nie At­wood, a free­lance writer based in Richmond, is a proud de­scen­dant of Con­fed­er­ate vet­er­ans. Con­tact her at bon­at­wood@ver­i­zon.net.

If Con­fed­er­ate Gen­eral Robert E. Lee were a one-di­men­sional man, a cel­lu­loid or card­board car­toon char­ac­ter, then I might go along with his de­trac­tors who say that he is a man best for­got­ten. But he is not a oned­i­men­sional man. He is a ma­jor his­tor­i­cal fig­ure with se­vere flaws, and also ad­mirable qual­i­ties that made him a hero, in­deed a Christ fig­ure, to some five gen­er­a­tions since the end of the Civil War. He was a com­plex man, wor­thy of study, re­mem­brance and, for some things, re­spect.

To be clear: Ownership of hu­man be­ings is phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture. It doesn’t seem nec­es­sary to say those words. It is an odi­ous prac­tice. Noth­ing will ever make that right. Other as­pects of the war, less sig­nif­i­cant only by com­par­i­son, in­cluded wide­spread death and de­struc­tion, very real to South­ern­ers — sol­diers and civil­ians. They are real and re­cent, and not to be ig­nored.

Some­times lost in the out­rage about slav­ery are the sto­ries of oth­ers. If his­tory were merely a set of facts, then we would not need his­to­ri­ans; we could just record static dates and events and keep them to the end of time, with­out in­ter­pre­ta­tions. But facts can be slip­pery. Peo­ple want to be “on the right side of his­tory,” and that con­cept keeps chang­ing. As in a messy di­vorce, each side sim­pli­fies the story and adds de­tails that are con­strued as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of wrong­do­ing, and each side ac­cuses the other side of de­nial. We are all talk­ing past each other.

Why is Robert E. Lee rel­e­vant to­day? Why should we study this man at all? There are many rea­sons. One theme run­ning through the writ­ings of bi­og­ra­pher Emory M. Thomas is that Lee’s life was a con­stant ten­sion be­tween free­dom and con­trol — a ten­sion that plays out in the lives of all of us ev­ery day. That ten­sion can be felt in his most fa­mous quote: “It is well that war is so ter­ri­ble, or we should grow too fond of it.”

Lee owned slaves. This is a hard re­al­ity. He con­sciously tried to do the right thing, not by the stan­dards of our day, but in his own time and place. Lee was a dis­tin­guished mil­i­tary gen­eral, en­gi­neer and col­lege pres­i­dent, with an in­ter­est­ing lead­er­ship style. His de­ci­sion to fight for Vir­ginia, de­spite his ex­pressed op­po­si­tion to slav­ery and se­ces­sion, came at great per­sonal cost when, in a mo­ment, he lost his 32-year ca­reer in the U.S. Army and his wife’s es­tate, Arlington, which is now Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery. Lee never re­turned.

Do good qual­i­ties can­cel out bad works? Do good works can­cel out bad? Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion asks the ques­tion. We could name pres­i­dents, pro­test­ers, artists and celebri­ties whose ac­tions make us won­der.

Should this old sol­dier fade away as a hyp­ocrite and a loser? His­tory is a harsh judge. None of us will with­stand the scru­tiny of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. To­day, we’re crit­i­cal of, or ap­palled by, our his­tory with squan­der­ing nat­u­ral re­sources, public hang­ings, smok­ing, fur coats, child mar­riages – and many things that we now do ev­ery day will be seen as trav­es­ties by our prog­eny.

To the se­ri­ous stu­dent of Robert E. Lee and the Civil War, noth­ing is more dis­heart­en­ing and dan­ger­ous than stir­ring to­gether Lee with the Ku Klux Klan, Dy­lann Roof and racists who would ag­gres­sively and in­sen­si­tively wrap them­selves in the Con­fed­er­ate flag — all float­ing in one slimy cesspool. Those who want to get rid of such so-called nos­tal­gia are miss­ing some very im­por­tant lessons.

It is un­for­tu­nate that Lee’s birthday, Jan­uary 19, falls so close to the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Peo­ple want to — and should — honor the great Dr. King on his birthday, and the story of Lee gets over­shad­owed. He and an­other great Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral, Thomas “Stonewall” Jack­son, are re­mem­bered on Lee-Jack­son Day, which has been ob­served in some parts of Vir­ginia for more than a cen­tury. In 1983 it was merged with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the merger was re­versed in 2000. Still, Vir­ginia of­fi­cially ob­serves Lee-Jack­son Day on the Fri­day be­fore the fed­eral King holiday, giv­ing state work­ers a four-day week­end.

My Alabama-born mother had one thing to say about Richmond when she moved here in her 90s. “They’re still fight­ing the Civil War.” No mat­ter who I quote that to, they al­ways blame the other side for the pro­longed an­i­mos­ity. If we are se­ri­ous about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, then we should look at Lee, the whole man, and not the car­i­ca­ture. His­tory is fuller than that. We won’t come to peace by de­mo­niz­ing what is held dear to the other side. Such talk does not di­min­ish them — it di­min­ishes all of us.

A memo­rial ser­vice for Robert E. Lee will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Thurs­day, Jan. 19, at the Con­fed­er­ate Memo­rial Chapel, 2900 Grove Ave., Richmond.


This por­trait of Gen. Robert E. Lee was cre­ated by pho­tog­ra­pher Ju­lian Van­ner­son in March 1864.


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