Growing up, the general narrative seemed to be that Robert E. Lee was a good guy who got a bad rap. A great general with a genius mind who got caught in a bad spot and wound up fighting for the Confederacy, but only because he was undyingly loyal to his home state of Virginia. So it wasn’t that bad.
This seemed to be the general sentiments pouring from history books and teachers’ mouths. Kids who were lucky enough to delve into Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” miniseries saw a circumspect view of Lee that painted the true anguish of his decision to fight with the south, the brilliance with which he waged war, and the eloquence in which he thought. In general, it seemed as if the story being crafted to be passed on for all time is that Robert E. Lee was a pretty good guy; a great guy even.
But let’s all take a step back. It’s like all of America is seeing Lee with through a starry filter, like when Wayne first saw Cassandra.
But let’s be a little more honest about who Robert E. Lee was. Fair enough, we don’t have to strip him of the title of “genius” which he undoubtedly merited since his days at West Point. But hey, Hitler was probably a genius too. That doesn’t mean he didn’t kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. And you know who else killed hundreds of thousands of Americans? You got it! Robert E. Lee.
That approximated three quarters of a million includes both the Confederates and the Union soldiers that died. So not only was he leading men into battle that are counted as Americans who died, even though they spat at the American flag by trying to violently forge a different country, he killed hundreds of thousands of Americans who wanted to stay loyal to the flag under which Lee himself was born.
He was killing his own countrymen. I can’t think of anything more traitorous than that.
So why don’t we revile this man in the same shadowy light in which we see other world leaders who waged war against our United States? This man literally wanted to bring about the end of America. He wished death to Americans, and worse, brought about their demise through carefully plotted domestic attacks. Does that not sound like some bin Laden shit to you? Does that not sound like the specific wishes of ISIS? Yet this is a man who is still thought of by many as a great American. It’s mind blowing.
Consider that Lee studied at West Point. When cadets graduate from West Point, they take a very specific oath. The commitment that Lee made:
“I, Robert. E Lee, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully execute the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God.”
So help him God indeed. You don’t need to go deep into the oath to see where Lee strayed. Didn’t support the Constitution. Didn’t defend it. And worse, he created a foreign enemy from a domestic one. He scarcely could have tarnished his vow to America any more.
Still, you don’t have to go far to find a dissenting opinion. Ending slavery would have crippled the agrarian economy of South, they argue, so Lee was just fighting to save the south. They say that the north really started the war, and used the cause of race as a rallying cry. They claimed he was honorable, claiming loyalty to his state over his country. And most of all they’ll argue that the man was a great general.
But what does being a great general mean? Again, it’s painfully clear. He was great at killing Americans. He had all kinds of outside-the-box strategies and fancy formations that he strategically used to kill people fighting for America.
Further, to the “he was protecting the cotton-based southern economy” folks, the only way to protect that way of life was to to protect the rights of slaveholders to hold African-American slaves. There is no separation of the Civil War from the issue of race. If the war was because of the economy, and the economy was strong because of cotton, and cotton abounded because of the slaves, then the war was about slavery. It the transitive property, folks; and West Point’s got a pretty good math department, so Lee should have been able to find it out his damn self.
But speaking of West Point, in the 1960s, the Lee Barracks were constructed, named for the famed graduate. You know, the famed graduate who slaughtered thousands of students who graduated from that very school. I don’t seem to remember the University of Texas naming a building after Charles Whitman after he killed 16 students in an on campus rampage in 1966. Nor do I recall Virginia Tech naming a mess hall after Seung-Hui Cho after he killed 32 people on their campus. And their killings were in the mere dozens. But I suppose since Lee was more organized and calculated in his attacks, and more loquacious in his reasonings, that his trespasses are forgiven.
The same can be said for Washington and Lee University, the Virginia school that bears his name. Or the dozens of high schools, middle schools, parks, statues and roads that commemorate the man all around the country. Some of those schools are changing their names, because they are realizing something: no matter how clever a man may be, how he interacts with humans and considers humanity should ultimately be litmus test of his character.
Some will argue that the commemoration of Lee and his fellow southern generals by naming stuff after them was a measured action. That it was a gesture to bind the wounds of war. And yeah, that was a pretty big wound. But there was an even bigger wound that was the cause of all of the tension in the first place; slavery. People were so quick to try to mend the discord between white men that they quickly forgot the genesis of the original problem.
And that is part of why the racial wounds in the country still haven’t healed.