Do Confederate memorials honor soldiers killed in war or memorialize racism?
When news came this month that the magnificent statue of Robert E. Lee that the city of Dallas had removed from public view had been rescued from obscurity and sold, it signaled the piece could again be available to teach valuable history lessons to current and future generations.
Readers who support the nonsensical notion that such statues, monuments, and memorials should be eradicated across the land may condemn this idea. But let me explain why it’s important that such historical pieces remain just as they are — part of our country’s heritage, including its many faults and failings.
The opportunity to stand at the Lee statue and discuss his life, along with the transformation of our country through the Civil War that saved our union and ended slavery, provides insight beyond the simplistic conclusion that he should be forgotten as a traitor and owner of black people.
It’s not that simple. Lee provides a profile in history that illuminates our society in its formative years beyond our hard-won independence as a new nation.
Encyclopedia Virginia tells us that Lee’s personal record on slavery is “mottled with contradictions and ambivalence.” His family owned slaves as he was growing up. He later inherited slaves from his wife’s father and during the war, he freed them.
Lee insisted that his decision to support the Confederacy was not founded on a defense of slavery. He is portrayed as dismayed that his country had declared war on some of its states and refused to accept Lincoln’s offer of commanding the U. S. Army.
This decision must be examined in light of Lee’s belief that the Constitution placed the sovereignty of states above federal power. Lincoln’s presidency would set into motion the reversal of that standard to what it has become today.
Further from Encyclopedia Virginia, “After the war, Lee remained adamant that the war had been fought by the Confederates not for slavery but ‘for the Constitution and the union established by our forefathers.’”
Upon surrender of the Confederate army, when others wanted to see the Southern struggle continue via guerrilla warfare, Lee dismissed such thoughts. “Abandon your animosities,” he said, “and make your sons Americans.”
Such an admonition at that point in history is powerfully instructive to understanding the transition that would unify our country at the call of one of the most influential men of his time.
In his New York Times bestseller “April 1865,” respected historian Jay Winik provides additional insight. “All his life, Lee was driven by, forged from, and to an inescapable degree, haunted by a sense of destiny,” Winik wrote. “He is driven by an antique sense of honor nearly unfathomable by the standards of today and even to the cynics of his era.”
Winik chronicles an occasion after the war when people looked for signs of healing. It was in a church service when Holy Communion was about to be administered that a black man, sitting in a designated section of the church, “unexpectedly advanced to the communion table — unexpectedly because this had never happened before.”
The minister and congregation were “clearly uncomfortable and dumbfounded.” Then Lee, “his gait erect, head up and eyes proud, walked quietly up the aisle to the chancel rail. His face was a portrait of exhaustion, and he looked far older than most people had remembered.
“Watching Lee, the other communicants slowly followed in his path, going forward to the altar, and, with a mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation, into the future,” Winik writes.
This is but one of countless lessons from history and all Americans should have the opportunity to learn and be lifted for their interminable value.
The edifices across the land, such as the one Dallas leaders decided to remove and sell, provide just such an opportunity that would otherwise be lost. The rest should not be disturbed.