It’s possible you may have heard about Robert E Lee in the news lately with people trying to topple his statues and monuments and others trying to defend them. You may have also heard people mention his “Lost Cause.” I will try to give a little bit of background about who he is, why he has such a long face(his horse has a pretty long face too), and why people are so upset 150 years after he lived.
Lee was a good ole Virginia native born in 1807 amid a very tumultuous time. He had a very distinguished 32 year military career for the United States and rose to more prominence during the Mexican-American war. He fought against the dissolution of the Union, but when push came to shove, he rejected the Union’s offer of generalship and sided with his home state.
This brings me to the Lost Cause idea. It will be appearing on and off throughout this post, but it starts here. Many argue that Lee, ever the genteel southerner, sided with the south because he believed in states’ rights and wanted to protect the southern farmers fro the more aggressive north. This is partially true. He was very much against dissolving the union, but constitutionally they were allowed to exit the union. Lincoln’s civil war to maintain the union was unconstitutional based on the original text of the constitution(I’m not suggesting Lincoln was wrong in any way, but strictly based off the constitution, he did not follow the appropriate course of action). Lee wanted to fight for his state’s right, BBBUUUUUUUTTTTT….. the state was choosing slavery. The Lost Cause of the Southern states was partially about their rights, but most importantly it was about their right to own other humans. Plain and simple, the Civil War was about slavery.
Lee quickly took control of the southern armies and proved to be a very skilled general(unlike many of those northern generals). However, during the battle of Gettysburg, Lee was ill, his officers were inexperienced, and they suffered irreparable losses. The war was lost not long afterwards. Upon the surrender of the south, Lee insisted there be no lasting rebellion, because he believed the Union needed to heal. After the war, he hoped to fade into obscurity, but was asked to become the president of Washington University where he apparently excelled in that role.
So, what about his statues? Was he a noble southerner devoted to honor, dignity, Christianity, and the Southern way? Or was he a cruel slave holder who fought to destroy the United States in order to preserve slavery? The answer is much more complicated. Lee was against dissolving the Union and even for the first year of the war, there are letters he wrote against the confederacy, claiming it was just a silly revolution. He also opposed slavery… kind of. His wife and her mother are both to be praised for helping liberate slaves and funding their voyages to Liberia as well as creating illegal schools on their plantation to help educate them. Lee was opposed to the institution of slavery, but claimed it was good for the slaves to be civilized and taught how to behave as normal humans. He believed that once the slaves were fully civilized, the institution would disappear. He also inherited slaves himself at the Arlington(yes, like the cemetery) plantation. Lee also supported the state’s right to keep slavery. So it is a very confusing view of slavery. Another praise he often receives is helping to reconcile the north and south. Yes, he did encourage integration and repairing the Union, but he also opposed the freeing of slaves against the states’ wishes and giving them the right to vote.
Back to the statues. Robert E Lee was the embodiment of the southern gentleman, opposed slavery, and tried to reconcile the north and south, but he also owned slaves, fought violently for the right of the south to keep their slaves, believed Africans to be sub-human, and chose his state over the union(which was constitutional, but not moral in the case of slavery). It is very important to remember the past and realize it is possible for a good man to embrace evil and see how easy it is to be swayed down the wrong path. In that sense, it is good to have reminders such as statues; however, many of those statues are used to glorify the south and the Confederacy and are funded by tax-payers who very well could be descendants of those he fought to keep in slavery. Perhaps the best course of action is to elect or petition officials to have them placed in the hands of private collectors, museums, or in such ways as to teach about the good and the bad rather than standing in public squares to be admired(Elected officials, not rioters. Follow the lead of cities like Baltimore). Robert E Lee is a very controversial man in the news and it is important to know more about him rather than following blindly what is said on the news. This post has a bit more of my own opinion in it, but I suppose that is somewhat inevitable with a subject like this and a little intentional. This post is an attempt to show more about the man, the myth, and hopefully the truth. Robert E Lee was a gentleman in ways, a constitutionalist in ways, a great general in ways, but a controversial man in every way and this is his snapshot from history.