Charlottesville, Virginia is roiling over the city council’s planned removal from a local park of a bronze statue of Robert E. Lee, seated upon his horse Traveller, with its replacement by a memorial to enslaved people. The controversy reignites contested issues that have played out frequently in recent years regarding the status and continuance of not only Confederate monuments but also Confederate flags and place names. In Charlottesville’s case, Ku Klux Klaners have been noisily defending the Lee monument, claiming, among other things, that removing it amounts to an erasure of history and heritage. Counter-protesters, contrarily, condemn the monument as an implicit endorsement of slavery, the Confederacy, and the South’s record of racial repression.
We seem to be deciding such controversies case-by-case. Some Confederate monuments and place names remain. Many, as we have seen recently in New Orleans, go. Much depends on the politics of a particular locale or the racial composition of its citizenry. Are there commonsense standards we should apply to all such cases? Could such standards also decide similar controversies about tarnished non-Confederates like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson? Should we commemorate the former, who not only owned slaves but whose presidential administration upended Native Americans from their lands and moved them westward? What about Woodrow Wilson, whose presidency brought institutionalized segregation to federal agencies in Washington? I think there is a formula that could apply universally, which has as much to do with us as the historical persons at dispute.
Let me explain, using Lee as an example.
There are many things to admire about Robert E. Lee. Take his record during the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-48. His brilliant reconnoitering of enemy positions and battery emplacements played a pivotal role in the crucial campaign that wound up conquering Mexico City. One can legitimately assail the U.S. war with Mexico — which acquired California and much of the West — as an example of U.S. imperialistic aggression. Abraham Lincoln did. But Lee’s record in the service of his nation was impeccable and merits our remembrance.
Were Lee’s heroism in Mexico, as well as his other national service accomplishments (e.g. tenure as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point) the reasons for statues in his honor, there would be no cause for their dismantling. But, of course, we know too well that no one would have memorialized Lee in 1924 (when Charlottesville’s monument was unveiled) and no one would worship him today had he not commanded the largest and most important Confederate army during the Civil War — the Army of Northern Virginia. During the conflict, Lee and his army virtually embodied the Confederate cause, even though there were other sizable Confederate forces in the field. After Appomattox, people exalted and romanticized his memory as a way of keeping the so-called “Lost Cause” viable. There is no separating Lee’s memory from the Confederacy.
When Lee resigned his U.S. army commission in April 1861 after the Civil War erupted and his state of Virginia left the Union to join the already-formed Confederacy, he made a voluntarily disloyal decision. He did not have to do this. Many southern U.S. army officers in the spring of 1861 acted differently, including Lee’s former commanding general in the U.S.-Mexican War, Winfield Scott, another Virginia native. Certainly Lee did not have to resign to make a decent living. The Lincoln administration, on Scott’s advice, actually offered Lee command of all Union armies just before Lee resigned his commission. Still, Lee joined a movement and military dedicated to destroying the United States as it existed at the time. Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea as dismemberment of Ukraine pales in comparison to the U.S.A.’s loss of eleven states in 1860-61. For good reason, many Confederate leaders went into exile when the Civil War ended, fearing prosecution for treason. Lee, it might be argued, committed treason the minute he bore arms against his former country.
Compounding Lee’s disloyalty, he cast his fate with a state and aspiring nation dedicated to preserving and expanding slavery, which is why so many Americans today, especially African Americans, take strong issue with Confederate monuments. Southern secessionists and Confederate founders repeatedly insisted they would preserve slavery against anticipated northern threats, especially from recently-elected U.S. president Abraham Lincoln and his Republican party.As the new government’s Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was proud to admit, the Confederacy upended the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that all men are created equal. Instead, the Confederacy’s “cornerstone” rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery … is his natural and normal condition.” Although the U.S. Constitution never used the word “slavery,” the Confederate Constitution was loaded with such mentions and carefully designed provisions to insulate their coerced labor system from attack.
Contrary to myth, Lee was implicated in human bondage. Although he apparently disdained slavery in the abstract, famously calling it “a moral & political evil” in a letter to his wife, he held slaves at Arlington into the war and punished slaves for trying to escape. More damning, he affirmed in that same letter it might take 2,000 years to end slavery since African Americans needed long-term tutelage “as a race” to prepare for freedom! Even as the Civil War drew to a close in 1865, Lee confided in a private letter to a Virginia state senator that there was no way society could improve on the “humane” slave-master relationship that enlightened Christians had established in the South.
With Lee in mind, I would suggest the following formula for resolving disputes over Confederate monuments and place names. It measures why we venerate the particular persons in dispute. We need to ask, in all such cases, whether we commemorate men like Lee or, to give a parallel example, Jefferson Davis, for any reason other than for being symbols of a failed state unworthy of our approval? Davis not only was a U.S.-Mexican War hero like Lee, but he served as U.S. Senator and as a skilled U.S. Secretary of War (equivalent to today’s Secretary of Defense). Yet virtually all our statues and place names for Confederate figures, including Lee and Davis, only exist because of their treasonous attempt at a new nationhood to preserve slavery. We should insist, therefore, that they come down. In contrast, we venerate Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson not for their racially oppressive policies. We celebrate Jefferson for his contributions to American independence, his affirmations of religious liberty, his commitment to education, his inventiveness, his presidency’s success in acquiring Louisiana from France, and other matters like his role in originating America’s political party system. Wilson’s presidency is remembered primarily for its “New Freedom” legislative agenda and its responses to the challenges of World War I, not just its racial policies. Different standards apply in their cases than Lee’s.
Instead of using place names and statues to venerate Confederates responsible for the deaths and maiming wounds of astronomical numbers of Union soldiers trying to preserve this country, we should tell their history in books and articles and with historical markers and museum displays. According to one count, Lee’s army alone inflicted nearly 135,000 Union casualties just in its major battles and campaigns. We should not be worshiping him. But rather than removing statues of Jefferson and Wilson or renaming places honoring them, we should remember that virtually every national leader, of whatever country, is flawed in one way or another, while recalling their accomplishments. By ruminating over history’s complexities, we advance collectively as a people.
Robert E. May is the author of four books about the Civil War era. Most recently, his book “Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America” was a finalist for the Gilder-Lehman Lincoln book prize. He was consulting editing for Hawthorne’s new book A Cabinet of Curiosities from the Civil War in Indiana. Click back to order the book.