The Lee Myth That Won’t Die

Good riddance!

Robert E. Lee has been back in the news because his statue was one of those removed recently in New Orleans, and self-described white supremacists have been speaking up on his behalf. As Adam Serwer writes today in the Atlantic, some mainstream conservatives took umbrage at white supremacists’ efforts to claim an all-American hero for their hateful cause:

In the Richmond Times Dispatch, R. David Cox wrote that “For white supremacist protesters to invoke his name violates Lee’s most fundamental convictions.” In the conservative publication Townhall,  Jack Kerwick concluded that Lee was “among the finest human beings that has ever walked the Earth.” John Daniel Davidson, in an essay for The Federalist, opposed the removal of the Lee statute in part on the grounds that Lee “arguably did more than anyone to unite the country after the war and bind up its wounds.” Praise for Lee of this sort has flowed forth from past historians and presidents alike.

Serwer goes on to demolish this ignorant drivel and place Lee in a more appropriate context:

White supremacy does not “violate” Lee’s “most fundamental convictions.” White supremacy was one of Lee’s most fundamental convictions…

In Reading The Man, historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.” …

Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington plantation, Pryor writes, nearly lead to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property, one that lasted until a Virginia court forced him to free them.

When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.” …

During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander A.P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As historian Richard Plotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”

This information is still new to many Americans because of the enduring and successful effort to mythologize Lee as the emblem of a noble white South. It’s past time to discard these romantic stories.

In the debate surrounding Lee and the removal of Confederate statues we repeatedly hear two fallacious arguments. First, that Lee was a man of his time. This obvious truism doesn’t have the absolving power people seem to think it does. All the southern military officers who decided to fight for the Union were also men of their time. So too were the abolitionists who knew slavery was evil. And Lee’s decision to prioritize his material interests and the interests of white people was a decision made in rejection of other possibilities of which Lee was well aware.

Choosing wealth and honor over humanity is quite common! We shouldn’t be so sure that we aren’t making the same choice with our lives right now. But that’s the advantage hindsight gives us: we can learn from the banal evil of people like Lee, and we can perhaps learn to see it in ourselves. But venerating it or excusing it is unacceptable.

The second fallacy is the conflation of remembrance and honor. It’s not hard to understand the difference between learning about the past and celebrating it. A lot of people seem to be deliberately obscuring this difference. The South is littered with public spaces that honor horrendous evil while telling a false story about the past. The irony of those who say removing these statues “erases history” is that the monuments are there precisely for the purpose of erasure. Lost Causers built them as creative acts of historical fiction. They honor a past of their own making.

There are legitimate arguments to be made for new forms of contextualization around the monuments rather than removal. A solution appropriate in one space might not work in another. But wherever you come down on the issue, don’t pretend there isn’t a difference between remembering the past and honoring its worst actors. Serwer concludes with a revealing point about the meaning of these statues:

There are former Confederates who sought redeem themselves—one thinks of James Longstreet, wrongly blamed by Lost Causers for Lee’s disastrous defeat at Gettysburg, who went from fighting the Union army to leading New Orleans’ integrated police force in battle against white supremacist paramilitaries. But there are no statues of Longstreet in New Orleans; there are no statues of Longstreet anywhere in the American South. Lee was devoted to defending the principle of white supremacy; Longstreet was not. This, perhaps, is why Lee was placed atop the largest Confederate monument at Gettysburg in 1917,  but the 6’2” Longstreet had to wait until 1998 to receive a smaller-scale statue hidden in the woods that makes him look like a hobbit riding a donkey. It’s why Lee is remembered as a hero, and Longstreet is remembered as a disgrace.

The white supremacists who have protested on Lee’s behalf are not betraying his legacy. In fact, they have every reason to admire him. Lee, whose devotion to white supremacy outshone his loyalty to his country, is the embodiment of everything they stand for. Tribe and race over country is the core of white nationalism, and racists can embrace Lee in good conscience.

The question is why anyone else would.

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