On August 11 and 12, 2017, a far-right movement called “Unite the Right” marched in protest of the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. While the angry and hateful group of “protestors” made their motivations and justifications abundantly clear, it was also clear that none of them had stopped to check what Robert E. Lee’s thoughts on Confederate monuments were. Robert E. Lee after the Civil War was a different person than the one who led the Confederates against the Union, and his opinions would probably shock some far-righters – if they weren’t certain to denounce it as “fake news” rather than listening to its message. Lee opposed erecting Civil War monuments of any kind, and he specifically denounced the raising of Confederate statues.
If the leader of the Confederacy opposed raising Confederate monuments, where does the push to build them come from? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is embedded in America’s long and troubling history of racism, particularly racism in the South. There can be little doubt that the current efforts to fight Confederate monument removal have similar roots.
Robert E. Lee Represents The Best And The Worst Of The Confederacy
Robert E. Lee commanded the Confederate Army in a losing effort in the Civil War, but he’s still viewed with an enormous amount of respect in America, particularly in the South. In many ways, Lee represents an idealized view of the Confederacy to sympathizers – he made a bold stand against a much more powerful opponent, fought bravely, and, in the end, surrendered with honor and dignity. His surrender avoided a long and drawn out Southern insurgency.
Lee boosters often go as far as to say that Lee opposed slavery, but that isn’t quite true. Lee held a fairly high opinion of slavery, having only been exposed to the least abusive forms of it, and he thought the whole issue was up to God to solve, anyway. Moreover, Lee was complicit in slave-promoting actions. His Civil War troops raided settlements and captured free blacks for the purposes of enslavement.
Lee Spoke For Reconstruction And Reconciliation After The Civil War
Many who support the legacy of Robert E. Lee mention how Lee spoke out in favor of reconstruction and reconciliation after the Civil War. While it’s true that Lee spoke out about the need to unite the country once again, including in a hearing before Congress in 1866, his motivations for doing so were probably less than altruistic. Lee knew that reconstruction and reconciliation were in the best interests of the South, as harsh sanctions and punishments were a likely alternative. Lee was still primarily interested in protecting the interests of white Southerners.
But Lee Fought For Racist Practices After The War, Too, Which His Cult Of Worshippers Conveniently Likes To Forget
Although Robert E. Lee spoke out for reconciliation and seemed to publicly welcome the end of slavery, he also continued to espouse some extremely racist beliefs. During the same hearing with Congress in 1866 in which he called for unity, Lee let it be known that blacks were not equal. Said Lee, “I do not think [a black man] is as capable of acquiring knowledge as the white man is.” He also described them as only willing to work as much as was needed for sustenance, saying “[they] like their ease and comfort.”
The point Lee was trying to make was that blacks should not be allowed to vote; he sated plainly: “My own opinion is that, at this time, they cannot vote intelligently, and that giving them the right of suffrage would open the door to a great deal of demagogism.” He also advocated evicting all blacks from Virginia, opining ““I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them.”
Given these sentiments, as well as his leadership of the half of the country that wanted to protects its right to own human beings, it's little wonder that many present-day Americans believe statues dedicated to Lee would make for better museum attractions of a troubling historical moment than modern-day shrines of worship.
However, He Opposed Putting Up Civil War Monuments Of Any Kind
Despite Robert E. Lee’s bigoted views on race, even he opposed putting up Civil War monuments. When asked to help out in a project that sought to mark troop positions at the site of the the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee politely declined with a letter. In it, he wrote “I think it wiser, moreover, 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.” In Lee’s opinion, any monument to the Civil War was just keeping old wounds fresh, and it was best to move on.