Dispatches from Wolf Country — What Would Lee Do?

What would Lee want us to do? 

So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained. — Robert E. Lee

Recumbent Statue – Robert E. Lee, Lee Chapel, Washington and Lee University, July 2005. Confederate flags taken down in 2014 following Student Protests.

I have long been a proponent of not forgetting history, and in fact responded to a survey from one of my Senators to the effect that moving Confederate Monuments was a crime against history, somewhat like that done by the Romans who, when a new emperor took the crown, usually with the help of the Praetorian Guard, such as Claudius being annointed after Caligula and then Otho after Nero, would knock off the heads of the defunct head of state off his statues and replace them with their heir’s sculpture.

But, the lunacy surrounding Charlottesville and the Alt Right has made me rethink this, and I’ve come to a new conclusion based on a simple question: What would Lee want us to do? 

Lee’s wife had the money in the family and Arlington was her ancestral home. While Lee was off building bridges, canals, roads, fortresses and so on for years at a time, she ran her family estate. Many career soldiers will relate to that; it’s not uncommon for military men to turn their finances over to their wives because it’s one less thing they have to do and frankly, their wives are better suited for it than a CPO on Frigate or a First Sergeant in the field. I suspect this is the way a lot of Armies that are deployed or out a lot have done it. She owned slaves; the Lee family like many other southern families did not. He was the best product of his time; he also deferred to his wife in all things except duty and honor. . Accusing him of some sort of archetypal slave owner is a stretch.

That said, by marrying his wife, he ended up being the legal head of household which ended up being Arlington and all that it included, including the slaves. Lee was convinced that duty was the highest value; as the householder, he had to approve, often by power of attorney held either by the family lawyer or by his wife Mary, any actions taken. That would include selling slaves, or posting advertisements and offering bounties for runaway slaves. Forced by his wife’s chronic illness in the 1850s to take an extended leave to run Arlington, he hated it since it was frustrating and his wife refused to honor her father’s request that the majority of the slaves be freed on his death. This did nothing for the morale of the plantation; Lee was probably tormented by this conflict between economic reality, his role as his wife’s agent, and his attitude toward keeping promises and honoring his word.

Lee may have ordered the whipping by the local constable of three returned fugitive slaves following the Dred Scott Decision. It would have been totally out of character for him to personally whip any of the slaves, especially the one female; and, that punishment appears to have been uncommon in his family’s community.

Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and, save in defense will draw my sword on none. — Robert E. Lee, Letter to His Son, Custis Lee

Lee was considered by his peers, subordinates and superiors the best officer in the Army. His final assignment with the Army of the United States was as Deputy Commander of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Cooper, Texas. As Second in Command to Colonel Albert Sydney Johnson, another Virginian and ultimately Confederate General, he was a line combat commander, leading detachments against the Mexican raiders, Comanches and Apaches in west Texas.

With the secession of Texas, Lee and Johnson returned with their regiment to US territory and he went back to Arlington. He was called to Washington, and there he was offered a senior command and promotion to Major General by President Lincoln and his mentor, General Winfield Scott under whom he’d served as Engineer in Charge and Chief Reconnaissance Officer in the Mexican War. He was asked to command the Army in Washington, which was large and growing into the force that would lose First Manassas and morph into the Army of the Potomac. Lee went back to Arlington to think, reflect and pray, and responded in writing with his resignation writing the following to the Franklin Blair, the President’s Assistant who had sent him the written offer. Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”

Lee originally accepted command of the Virginia forces, was appointed Jefferson Davis’ Military adviser, and after the commander of Confederate Forces in Virginia, General Joseph Johnson was seriously wounded and forced to go on an extended convalescence, he was appointed Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. He returned to his family, and ultimately accepted the Presidency of Washington University in the summer of 1865. He instituted an honor code similar to West Point’s that is still enforced at the University, and under his leadership the institution became one of the better schools in the south. He avoided politics although he did oppose the penalties proposed by the radical Republicans following his surrender during the Johnson administration.

Lee suffered a stroke in September 1870, and passed away on October 12 1870, from pneumonia. He was buried in the chapel at Washington University, which was renamed later as Washington and Lee University. Oddly, they had trouble due to poor roads and flooding getting a suitable casket from Richmond. When they got one, it was too short, so the general was buried without shoes. I suspect he would have smiled privately at that.

I could write volumes here, but I believe that Lee would be horrified that a young woman was killed by a Neo-Nazi along with 19 other people injured, many seriously, because a mob of thugs and criminals opposed the removal of his statue and the renaming of the park. I think that the Robert E. Lee of history would have a simple response. When asked after Appomattox what should be done with the Confederate Flags people had in their homes, he was clear,

Fold it up and put it away. 

Later, asked for his opinion on the suitable war monuments for the soldiers of the Confederacy, he responded this way.

I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.

In the final volume of his history of the Civil War, Shelby Foote tells a story about church services at the Episcopal Church in Richmond that the Lee family attended the Sunday after Appomattox.  When it came time for Communion, the first person to come to the communion rail was a black man. The congregation was stunned, and no one moved. Until the next man went to the communion rail and stood next to his fellow worshiper. That man was Robert E. Lee.

I have come to the conclusion that except where context makes sense, such as on battlefields and similar relevant places, the local community should make the decision on whether or not the monuments come down. If they stay, the community should decide whether some sort of other display is appropriate. If they decide to take them down, they should be treated with respect, and if an appropriate place wishes to host them, such as a university or a local museum, they can be placed there.

The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope. — Robert E. Lee

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