Look at General Lee — the whole man
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.