Should we or shouldn’t we?
That’s the big question now facing communities throughout the South – and beyond – in the wake of the turbulent and tragic events in Charlottesville. Some areas have already removed and/or relocated Confederate statues, and others are beginning the difficult conversation about what to do with their monuments.
Interestingly enough, Robert E. Lee, whose statue was at the center of the “alt-right” protest in Charlottesville, was very clear on his position. According to Lee biographer Jonathan Horn, “So sensitive was Lee during his final years with extinguishing the fiery passions of the Civil War that he opposed erecting monuments on the battlefields where the Southern soldiers under his command had fought against the Union.”
“I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
So strong were Lee’s feelings that he refused to have Confederate flags at his funeral and was not buried in his Confederate uniforms; his soldiers also didn’t don their uniforms at the funeral. Lee’s daughter said that having those symbols present would almost be “treasonous,” as her father had take an oath to support the U.S. Constitution the day he took office as president of Washington College (now knows as Washington and Lee University). Lee urged his fellow Confederates to do the same.
In December 1866, Lee wrote this about a proposed Confederate monument:
“As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated, my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; [and] of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.”
So, here we are, 150 years later, still having the same conversation. It’s doubtful that true white supremacists will be pacified by Lee’s words, but perhaps they will be a north star for communities struggling with how to proceed.