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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

The Importance of Robert E. Lee Today

Arlington National Cemetery and House (picture by We Three Teachers)

Robert E. Lee has been in the news a lot. His statues have become a battleground for the culture wars between the alt right and the alt left, the Neo-Confederates and the Politically Correct. Lost in the heat of war is the light of understanding. We are at a teachable moment to use a jargon term but there are no teachers.  As a result, we are stuck in limbo shouting at each other, learning nothing, going nowhere. Surely no one is naïve enough to believe that unilateral removal of Confederate statues by force will help heal the nation.

In the event that there are people interested in pursuing a peaceful solution to a troubling issue, I egotistically offer the following for consideration.

1. The choice Robert E. Lee made is relevant to us today

Robert E. Lee famously had a decisions to make. The West-Point graduate who had been stationed in New York and carved out a military reputation for himself had to choose between his state and his country. Today it may be difficult to recognize the magnitude of that decision. Outside of perhaps Texas which once had been an independent country, the issue has been resolved. People generally identify with the country. If a Russian is competing against someone from New York or California in the Olympics, even Confederates will tend to root for the American athlete. The state rivalries continue in college football and basketball but imagine if those state schools were restricted to playing only athletes from their state.

Back in Lee’s day, the choice wasn’t so simple. Thirteen colonies had banded together as united states first in a rebellion, then in a confederation, and finally as a federation. The federal presence was comparatively small beyond tariffs and post offices. On a day-to-day basis, the federal government had limited effect on people. There were some wars, some international diplomacy, and a venue in which states could battle and comprise over contentious issues. One said the United States are a country in the plural form and Europeans still refer to us as the States. So it was quite reasonable back then for a person to identify with one’s state.

What changed? The change agent was Abraham Lincoln. He redefined the country so one now says the United States is a county in the singular form.  It’s a small change with enormous significance. In his speeches, emphasis on the Declaration of independence four-score and seven years earlier, and focus on a [federal] government of we the people, by we the people, and for we the people, Lincoln transformed the identity of the country from a collection of states to a single country. Lee ended up being a student of the assassinated President when he said, “Before and during the War Between the States I was a Virginian. After the war I became an American.” Back then it wasn’t illegal to grow or change as a person. You weren’t locked into a position from age 16 to death to be judged forever. Times are different now.

We fail to appreciate what we have achieved. As we look around the world today at the number of both failed states and countries which never should have existed with current borders in the first place, it is easy to overlook the extraordinary success of our 247 year-old country. We were born amidst ethnically diverse peoples, expanded tremendously, and successfully integrated wave after wave of peoples into a single country. We were founded as an experiment. We have made mistakes. We have changed as Lee did. Our journey to fulfill the vision of our founding continues, to be a people of one birthday, one founding father, one flag, and one Constitution with the motto e pluribus unum.

Now that unity is threatened. Now that journey may cease. Democrats and Republicans have begun to approximate Sunnis and Shiites, Catholics and Protestants, capitalists and communists in tribal conflict. As we live apart, get our news differently, can’t talk to each other or intermarry, we become more and more a house divided that cannot pass legislation unless your team is strong enough to force it through one-sided. While I think we still tend to identify with our country, the people in the news who make all the noise don’t.

What’s your hyphen? How do you identify yourself? We are becoming more and more obligated to define ourselves politically in ways that would be illegal to ask in a job interview although they always are a factor anyway. Lee’s choice to identify with his state rather than his country has been replaced with identifying with your hyphen rather than your country. Instead of being a traitor to your country you can be a traitor to your hyphen. If you chose to be an individual trying to live the American Dream, you are inauthentic.  Abraham Lincoln is dead. Long live the hyphen. Martin Luther King is dead. Long live the hyphen. My hyphen right or wrong, my hyphen.

Lee’s decision, both of them, are not exactly the same ones we face today, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. And if we ever were to have a national conversation on Lee, we would find that it would combine an attempt to understand Lee is his own context and an expression of our own battles today. Do you identify with your country? Do you identify with your country no matter who is elected President? Are you an American by choice?

2. Was Robert E. Lee a Nazi?

The answer to this question is obviously not unless perhaps you are really really politically correct. So why then are Nazis and Confederates linked together in protest movements today?

Where are the Confederate veterans and the descendants from World War II veterans who fought the Nazis to protest the linkage of the Confederacy and the Nazis?

Where are the Confederate history buffs to debunk this evil link being perpetrated on their Lost Cause?

3. What statues and memorials are there in the Confederacy?

How many statues to George Washington, the Virginian father of the country, are there in the Confederacy?

How many statues to Thomas Jefferson, the Virginian key writer of the Declaration of Independence, are there in the Confederacy?

How many statues to Abraham Lincoln who transformed the United States are there in the Confederacy?

How many statues to Georgian Martin Luther King, the only individual American with his own holiday, are there in the Confederacy and why is he the only individual American to have his own holiday?

How many statues to civil rights events which occurred in the Confederacy are there in the Confederacy?

How many statues to the Loyalists who supported King George III during the American Revolution are there in the Confederacy and are their descendants proud of those ancestors who fought bravely in the first Lost Cause? Are they not deserving of tribute for their bravery and heroism as citizens of the colonies that never should have become states in the first place and who suffered and died for their cause? Aren’t they part of the Confederate heritage, too?

How many statues to Confederates who died for their country in wars in the 20th and 21st centuries are there in the Confederacy?

Looking at all of American history, what events do the Confederate states choose to memorialize?

Perhaps instead of isolating the discussion to Confederate statues and memorials, we should take a deep breath and try thinking of what we want to remember in history and how we want to remember it. It is truly tragic that in this desperately needed teachable moment, there are no teachers and we are incapable of learning.

Imperiled History

Here is where the National Park Service has the opportunity to take a leadership position in an area of critical importance for the wellbeing of the country. In a previous series of posts I wrote about the NPS-commissioned study Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service. That study, related articles, and my posts highlighted the issue of creating transformative experiences as a civic responsibility as part of the visit to historic sites.  Obviously one touchy area of communication at NPS historic sites has been the issue of slavery and the Civil War.

Now is the moment for the NPS to rise to the occasion in a way that our political leaders cannot. The Arlington House in Arlington National Cemetery, a short canon shot from the White House, is an NPS site. What better location is there for a serious conversation among Americans on the questions being raised here?

Conclusion

How many Confederates are even descendants of plantation owners? Why do people participate in re-enactments of the Civil War and the American Revolution in both the north and the south? How many people would like to be proud of their ancestors? Are the sins of the fathers and mothers passed on to their children? For how many generations? There is more going on here than race but no one is listening. In my next post, I will try to listen.

46 thoughts on “The Importance of Robert E. Lee Today

  1. Imagine yourself as an African-American who is aware of the history of their people in the United States. And then imagine standing in front of a statue that commemorates the very people who fought to retain the right to enslave your people and treat them like cattle, with no rights as a human being at all, no freedom, no ability to self determination, no future. Everyone knows that the argument of the “states rights” motivation for rebellion is a falsehood – even the confederates themselves. It is an indignity that we should not let our children suffer. To remove a commemorative statue of the confederate states is the only right thing to do – it is not an erasure of history. Many would be surprised to discover a thing called books which continue to hold that history and is actually one of the best ways to understand the past.

    1. You are right to point out that the trauma is not something a person should be forced to observe just as offensive billboards are not permitted. But that trauma and the experiences which generated are part of American history which citizens need to know as well. Exactly how do accomplish these objectives is the issue and that is why I suggested the NPS lead conversation on how to do it.

      Thanks for writing,

      Peter

      1. You are correct in your position that the traumatic events in African American history needs to be remembered. This is why I have decided to declare myself as a Descendant of Africans Enslaved in the United States. However, the crux of the argument is that although R E Lee and the Confederacy should be remembered as it is with Hitler they should NOT be honored. On an endnote, slavery shouldn’t have been established in the first place. A major error on the part of the founding fathers which haunts us to this day!

        1. Thank you for writing. Two points of clarification. The Founding Fathers did not establish slavery, it already had been around for 150 years by the time the colonies declared their independence. The equation of Hitler and Lee diminishes the true evil of Hitler. He sought to exterminate a people, Lee did not. Lee was not to manor born and his father was in debtor’s prison despite his Revolutionary pedigree. Lee was not much involved with slavery until he married into money. Even on a larger scale, slaveowners did not wish to exterminate what they considered to be their property and source of wealth. Indeed they went to great extremes to recover slaves who had escaped and fathered offspring against the will of the slaves. Nazis never acted this way since their goal was genocide not profit.

          1. The founding fathers slavery as a legal entity in a new republic after Africans and other ethnities fought in the American Revolutionary War. Slave owners in many cases worked “their property” to death. Now I am not going to argue with you about who has been treated worse. Africans in America are human beings! Period!!! We do not need Confederacy officers honored as heroes!!!

          2. Having lost the war, why is the south of USA still called the Confederacy? The names of all of the states in the US of A at one time were called something else by the aboriginal people who were here. Essentially these people lost many wars in their battles with European invaders. Do we not use the names for states as proscribed by the winners? To call southern states the Confederacy is to act like they either won the Civil War or it was a thruce.

    1. Thank you. Destruction of statues may be insane because they very fact that people chose to erect them is part of our history. That does not mean people should be forced to view that history whether they want to or not when going about their normal daily activities. It will be interesting to see how North Korea handles its statues in the event it ever becomes free.

      Peter

  2. Peter this is over the top. Sure 1861 is a world apart from 2017, and people, culture, society, and politics have changed fundamentally over that century and a half. But Robert E. Lee did not simply rebel in defense of his state. Virginia did not enter the conflict as a solitary state defending its unique rights but as part of a Confederacy whose founding statements (the various articles of secession) written by the architects of secession were often modeled on the Declaration of Independence with one glaring distinction, that rather than declaring all people equal and endowed with inalienable rights, the articles insisted that one group of people, the Africans sold into slavery and their descendants, were suited only to serve as slaves to their white masters and mistresses and were by nature inferior to whites, an ordained ruling class. Slavery and white supremacy, the founding principles of the Confederacy, were what Robert E. Lee chose to defend not the abstract principle of Virginia’s right to be a state free from federal compulsion. Even after the war, however much Lee may have believed that he was now an American rather than primarily a Virginian, he still believed in white supremacy. And that, too, is a history that we must remember.

    1. I am not sure what you mean by “over the top” since what you wrote does not contradict anything I wrote. Your concluding phrase “a history that we must remember” is the heart of the issue I raised. How do we go about doing it? That is the question We the People need to discuss and resolve and I suggested the NPS because we have no political leadership capable of doing the job.

      Thanks for writing.

      Peter

  3. There is no such thing as the “alt-left”. It was a convenient term that trump made up to make a false equivalency between his Neo-nazi,white supremecist supporters and those protesting his nurturing of them. Your use of his invented figure of speech
    only serves to normalize it. Nothing about this danger to our country should ever be normalized. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

    1. True but I was going for the symmetry rather than say progressives or politically correct. Of course we can’t learn from history if we erase so We the People need to have a conversation about how to go about remembering it and what it is we should be remembering.

  4. I came across the argument that Lincoln made in the 1st Inaugural, to the effect that secession was unconstitutional because the states were created by the national government in the Declaration of Independence. The problem is that several provincial legislatures had passed ordinances of independence in the weeks before 7/4/76, as did numerous county and local assemblies as well as many informal gatherings.

    WJ

    1. I am not aware of any real precedent for colonies which became states then choosing to first confederate and then federate. I get the feeling in the minds of the people their first sense of identity was at the state level. You make me wonder about the immigrants to this country who were primarily in the north and who emigrated to the United States and not to a state. These newbies may have had a great loyalty to the Union since they were not here during the time of colonies or the Revolution. And they did support Lincoln. Something to think about. Thanks Walt, Peter

  5. It should be enough to say the following: that as long as our black brothers and sisters across the nation can still look up and see their oppressors elevated above them, then no American is free, and all of us are shamed. But if it is not, then I’ll add this. The brutal and archaic plantation system defended by the Confederacy was also – though not equally – oppressive to poor southern whites, as people from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Bob Dylan have pointed out. This was a class war as well as a fratricide. There is nothing for the pawns in the game to celebrate in these figures. If they belong anywhere, it’s not in our public parks and squares, but in a museum of terrorism.

    1. If there ever is to be a conversation on slavery and the Civil War you are right to bring up the issue of class. Good insight. However I question whether a museum of terrorism will help heal the country.

      Thanks for writing,

      Peter

  6. Kudos, Peter. This is a very thoughtful and thought provoking discussion of a current issue. You are to be commended for presenting an objective and debatable view. You are absolutely right about the NPS and the opportunity that is available. As a military historian, I have studied Lee, among other leaders, and to destroy the man’s legacy for the stake of political correction is unfortunate and insane. We need to teach students to understand the context of historical times. The “teachable moment” is to understand why he did what he did, but not excuse the cause he fought for–the continuation of slavery. As a general, he made mistakes. If we erase Lee from memory, we will not learn from his mistakes.

    1. Thanks, Bruce. Learning from the past is not possible when the past is erased or when people are turned into two-dimensional cliches. After writing a series about the NPS, the organization was fresh in mind and it was difficult to think of who would be better qualified given the dismal lack of political leadership by both parties and our president.

  7. Thank you for an excellent article. I am an American and an historian. Sad to see such division in our nation over our nation’s history, with all its past ‘blemishes’. We, as a diverse population, have learned from our errors. We are blessed to live in such a free country! Enjoy and celebrate!!

  8. You left out a very significant choice that Lee made. He chose to slaughter Americans in defense of slavery.

    In case you’re not clear on what slavery was, it was a horrific crime against humanity that involved legalized human trafficking, forced labor, rape, child rape, and the physical and psychological torture if innocent men, women, and children.
    This is the repulsive choice that Robert E. Lee made and no, no American should feel good about that. It is a deep national wound that we all need to understand, contemplate, duscuss, and come to terms with.

    1. Slaughter is a deliberately strong and provocative term. Certainly war is hell and Lee definitely is responsible for many deaths but I could use some additional information about when Lee slaughtered, that is, killed defenseless people not in the course of battle.

      I am also not clear on why you think I am not clear what slavery was or when I suggested any American should feel good about it. Your comments raise the exact issues that I recommended be discussed in an NPS conversation with We the People on how we are to remember what happened.

      Thanks for writing.

  9. Good post. Thank you. Relation to the historical site seems especially important. How shallow is the general public’s knowledge of Lee (or Jefferson) and the quandary faced by so many at that time, causing the split in so many families. (Reminds me of the stories I heard from the Vietnamese when I visited – the split within families during the war). Unfortunately, right now symbolism rules.

    As an art historian, their artistic value should be another consideration.

  10. “There is more going on here than race but no one is listening. In my next post, I will try to listen.”

    It’s difficult to listen when everyone’s screaming! If the Confederacy is the same as the NAZIs, then why was the South welcomed back into the fold after the war? NAZIs weren’t. The Dutch introduced slavery in to northeastern America, do we now change the names of Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Staten Island because they may be offensive? And who will make that determination?

    1. The idea of thinks getting out of hand in the drive for purification will be the subject of a future post. I am going to focus more on specific people than foreign words but you are right to point out the danger of who will draw the line and where.

  11. Peter,

    Good article. I would like to point out that the third Monday in February is OFFICIALLY the observance of the birth of George Washington. the federal government recognized February 22 as a federal holiday since 1879. It has become “popular” to call it “Presidents Day” because it falls between Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays – the latter was also a state holiday in many states – before Congress passed the “Monday Holiday Law” in 1968. Anyway, calling it “Presidents day,” I believe, was started by commercial interests in combining the two observances an excuse for sales.

    See:https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/washington

    I am waging a personal battle to correct people who call it “Presidents Day” to call the third Monday in February “Washington’s Birthday.”

    I think I will use, “Make George Washington Great Again” as the slogan of my campaign.

    Best regards,

    Glenn

    1. Thanks for the clarification. When I was going to school I remember two days off for Lincoln and Washington. Then it became one and a three-day weekend that wasn’t either of their birthdays but called “President’s Day” (even though we only “celebrate” two and through advertisements for sales). Good luck with you campaign.

    2. Let’s make George great again before we don’t even know who he is. Thanks for the effort, Glenn. I’ll try to remember to mention your one-man campaign at the Williamsburg conference next March.

  12. These monuments are not about history. They are not even about the Civil War. These monuments were largely constructed decades after the war to celebrate the defeat of Reconstruction and the advent of Redemption, which represented the deliberate subjugation of the black population through judicial and extra-judicial terror. As historians have pointed out, the south lost the war but essentially won the peace as one by one the former Confederate states were returned to former Confederate military and political elites. Those who claim that removing these monuments are erasing history a la Stalin and the Taliban are making fallacious arguments. These monuments are not about history, they are about mythology. Taking them down is not revisionist – erecting them in the first place was revisionist. I never considered any of this until some years ago in Fredericksburg and I wondered what it must be like for an African-American family to live on the Jefferson Davis Highway. Only in America do we have monuments and place names dedicated to insurrectionists who fomented a rebellion solely to establish a slave republic. These monuments imply that they fought for a noble cause, but of course it was absolutely an ignominious cause. Removing these monuments is not an attack on our past — it is rather a tribute to our future, to how we want our children to remember the past. Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As long as there are monuments in the public square to traitors whose most important catalyst to secession was championing human chattel slavery, we will forever be trapped by that ignoble past. This should not even be a debate.

    1. You are right and wrong at the same time. The monuments are about the time in which they were constructed as you point in. People used the Civil War to justify the segregation and white racism they supported in the their present. The memory and legacy represented by the statues is part of American history too. In otherwords, just as one studies the books/play Inherit the Wind and Spartacus to understand the McCarthy era and not the Scopes Trial and Rome, so the statues are part of the history of the 1890s, 1920s, and 1950s, and even today. The removal of them will be studied just as the construction was preferably in a museum. I will be writing a post about “Porn and Confederate Statues” that will address this issue more.

      1. That would be wonderful if at each and every commemorative Confederate statue an interpretive sign were erected to place them into that racist context, but you and I both know that is simply an impossibility.
        The fact that they exist in our modern era is simply put, a celebration of the mistreatment, dehumanization and cruelty of other human beings.

  13. Dear Peter,

    A few people have already mentioned my concerns regarding your post, but you followed up with questions that I’d like to attempt answering:

    While I do understand the perspective that taking these statues down is an attempt at erasing history, perhaps instead of commemorating these former leaders they could be remembered historically, as in a museum, which was mentioned before, although I agree with you that while calling it a “museum of terrorism” may not be helpful, creating museums on the issue of slavery that include the Civil War would be.

    It seems that in your attempt to call out the sin of equivocation by the “alt-left” when it comes to Confederates and Nazi’s, you have unfortunately done the same with Civil War generals with Presidents. And while there are similarities, I can agree with you somewhat on the former but not the latter. Yes, they were both generals; yes, they were both slave-owners. But one defended the systematic enslavement of a particular people group and the other helped found a country on which the freedom and rights of all people could be assured. And when someone is brave enough to comment on your pith in order to keep the conversation informed, responding with, “I was going for the symmetry rather than say progressives or politically correct..” does a disservice to your intelligence.

    Kindly,
    LoriBeth

  14. All of this is our history, including mistakes and uncomfortable events. Attempting to erase that history by removing statues and flags is a falsehood and serves to blur the story, which may make some feel better and others free to use this erased history for their own interpretations. The simple facts of slavery, the formation of the Confederacy, and the Civil War by themselves are barely meaningful without the full story to go with them. Differing opinions of history is evident in the comments previously made by others. The story is the vehicle by which we can make sense of the the facts; hiding the physical symbols or, worse yet, destroying them only serves to cloud the truth. I applaud your suggestion to have NPS lead a common sense discussion about the best ways to maintain our history, warts and all.

  15. 1. It bothers me that popular press bios of Robert E. Lee omit that he was a General in the United States Army, and that he was commander of Fort Hamilton. He was also an Episcopalian, and worshiped at St. John the Evangelist near Fort Hamilton, a church that was actually built for the soldiers who then were mostly Episcopal. When the Catholics (Irish) started coming in and eventually joining the military, St. Patrick’s was built in Bay Ridge, a few blocks away from St. John the Evangelist. St. John’s was known as The Church of the Generals, 22 or 32 generals worshiped there, and General Stonewall Jackson was baptized there. General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy distinguished himself in many ways, basically came close to fighting the US to a standstill, with the US outnumbering his forces about 4:1. He was an honest man, an example of civic virtue, and, after the war, did his best to unite the country. I do not think we believe in civic virtue any more, and decisions were made to divide the country into black and white allegiances back in the 1980s, probably a factor of the then new concept of multiculturalism. Who knew it was really divisive.

    2. Well, I suppose if I had a choice to make, my native land vs. my country, I would choose my adopted native land, Brooklyn. I am a born again Brooklynite, originally from (o, so boring) Queens, which really should have been part of the city of Brooklyn but opted not to be. I think Queens was settled mostly by…Brooklynites!

    3. I doubt any common sense approach, as you are making, will be effective to what I call Facebook Generation Robots. Peace and love, and keep those cards and letters coming…Holly.

    4. When you are in NYC/Bklyn give me a call. Maybe I can drag you to a meeting of the Society of Old Brooklynites. It is a venerable Society that talks Brooklyn to Brooklyn, and has done so officially since 1880. Attached is a spkrlist of our BklynTalks since 2001. I booked the talks from 2001-2017, with much help until a few years ago. The new speakers committee should hopefully be able to continue the tradition of booking talks in advance etc etc.

    5. On August 26, 2017, Saturday, 10am to 11:30, the Society will present its 109th annual tribute to the prison ship martyrs at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park. On Wednesday, Sept 6, the Society’s monthly meeting will highlight Brooklyn FDNY volunteers, Brooklyn Boro Hall, 6:30-8pm. On Wed Oct 4, the Society’s monthly meeting will highlight the Brooklyn Whiskey Wars, Bklyn Boro Hall, 6:30-8pm. On Wed Nov 1 the Society’s monthly meeting will highlight Erasmus Hall (founded by Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, James Madison), Bklyn Boro Hall, 6:30-8pm. Wednesday December 6, 2017, is the society’s 137th annual holiday party. If you can make the party, I will hang around for a while, but I think I will be splitting for an opera themed holiday party elsewhere. :))) TTFN Holly

  16. Peter

    I enjoyed this column from you, and will publish in our weekly newspapers in Westchester, thanks

    Dan Murphy
    Editor
    Rising Media Group

  17. Stunned at one sentence in your note on Robert E Lee,

    This blog post lost all credibility when you equate the neo-confederates and the alt-right with the non-existent alt-left ( a Breitbart Concept), and a tired notion of politically correct.

    I originally could not find the post, but now that I have I wanted to bring it to your attention. You sort of sound like Trump ( “many sides”),

    Andy

    1. You are not the first to point out that line. I was going for literary balance but it backfired. They are not the same. It is unfortunate that one line could destroy the credibility of the post. This shows the difficulty in conducting a national discussion about an urgent topic that needs to be discussed openly. There is no margin for error. For example, I take it the comparison to Trump was meant to be insulting whether you actually meant it to be or not.

      Thanks for reading the blog and responding,

      Peter

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