We have memorials to remember our history and honor the service and legacy of those who impacted history in a significant way.
General Robert E. Lee was respected by both the North and the South, and by leaders around the world.
One writer called General Lee, “The portrait of a soldier.”
Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote of Lee: “His noble presence and gentle, kindly manner were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character.”
President Theodore Roosevelt described General Robert E. Lee as: “the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth.”
Typical of the Southern attitude toward Lee was a description of him recorded in 1863—not by a Southerner, but by a British military observer, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur L. Fremantle. “General Lee is, almost without exception, the handsomest man of his age I ever saw. He is fifty-six years old, tall, broad-shouldered, very well made, well set up—a thorough soldier in appearance; and his manners are most courteous and full of dignity.
He is a perfect gentleman in every respect. I imagine no man has so few enemies, or is so universally esteemed. Throughout the South, all agree in pronouncing him to be as near perfection as a man can be. He has none of the small vices, such as smoking, drinking, chewing, or swearing, and his bitterest enemy never accused him of any of the greater ones.
He generally wears a well-worn, long, gray jacket, a high, black felt hat, and blue trousers tucked into his Wellington boots.
I never saw him carry arms; and the only mark of his military rank are the three stars on his collar. He rides a handsome horse, which is extremely well groomed. He himself is very neat in his dress and person, and in the most arduous marches he always looks smart and clean….”
The facts show Lee to have been esteemed and a complex man, but a man of his time nonetheless.
In his writings, Lee feared statues honoring Civil War generals might “keep open the sores of war.”
In a famous letter to his wife, Lee wrote that “slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.”
Debates about the removal of Confederate statues have been ongoing for many years, and opponents of removing the monuments are concerned that such attempts are an effort to erase history.
An interesting fact: Robert E. Lee was opposed to Confederate monuments. “It’s often forgotten that Lee himself, after the Civil War, opposed monuments, specifically Confederate war monuments,” Jonathan Horn, a Lee biographer, told PBS.
After the Civil War, Lee received a number of letters requesting support for Confederate memorials, according to Horn.
In June 1866, he wrote that he couldn’t support a monument of one of his best generals, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, saying it wasn’t “feasible at this time.”
“As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated,” Lee wrote in December 1866 about another proposed Confederate monument, “my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; [and] of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.”
Not only was Lee opposed to Confederate memorials, “he favored erasing battlefields from the landscape altogether,” Horn wrote.
He even supported getting rid of the Confederate flag after the Civil War ended, and didn’t want them them flying above Washington College, which he was president of after the war.
“Lee did not want such divisive symbols following him to the grave,” Horn wrote. “At his funeral in 1870, flags were notably absent from the procession. Former Confederate soldiers marching did not don their old military uniforms, and neither did the body they buried.”
“His Confederate uniform would have been ‘treason’ perhaps!” Lee’s daughter wrote, according to Horn.
“Lee believed countries that erased visible signs of civil war recovered from conflicts quicker,” Horn told PBS. “He was worried that by keeping these symbols alive, it would keep the divisions alive.”
Lee was invited to a meeting of Union and Confederate officers to mark the placing of a memorial honoring those who took part in the battle of Gettysburg.
“I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered,” he wrote in a letter declining the invitation.
But that didn’t stop civic and heritage groups from erecting numerous monuments to Lee, commander of the Confederate armies during the Civil War, after his death in 1870.
Now, however, most of those memorials are under fire by those who see them as symbols of America’s dark legacy of slavery.
Conflict over Civil War symbols, some 150 years after the war ended, makes Lee look prescient.
“Lee feared that these reminders of the past would preserve fierce passions for the future,” wrote Horn, author of a Lee biography titled “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington” and a former White House presidential speechwriter.
“Such emotions threatened his vision for speedy reconciliation,” Horn added in an opinion piece for CNN. “As he saw it, bridging a divided country justified abridging history in places.”
Lee’s great-great grandson might agree. “We have to be able to have that conversation (about symbols of the Confederacy) without all of the hatred and the violence,” Robert E. Lee V told CNN. “And if they choose to take those statues down, fine. Maybe it’s appropriate to have them in museums or to put them in some sort of historical context in that regard.”
General Lee never felt hatred for his enemies, and exhorted the South to forgive and go on. He said: “Abandon your animosities, and make your sons Americans.”
While I do understand why we have memorials, I do not have a simple answer for the present day conflicts. I find the wisdom and foresight of General Robert E. Lee fascinating. As a nation, should we honor the convictions of our most honored heroes after their deaths? Especially with regards to how we honor their memory? Much to think about.