A historic human habit of which most are occasionally guilty is that of getting tied in knots over philosophical questions as hard to understand in origin as to disentangle in practice. Assuming they ever get successfully disentangled.
The growing brawl over the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park comes to mind.
Hardly a passer-by had complained or even taken much notice of the Lee statue or its fitness to go on commanding, as it has since 1936, a verdant slope leading down to Turtle Creek Boulevard. Now in recent days, everybody has an opinion of the statue: monument to heroism and bravery, or hideous moral pollutant.
History, in Whittaker Chambers' phrase, hit many of us like a freight train. It was vital, we suddenly learned, to pronounce sentence on the late commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Confederate States of America. Should we cart away the statue of a traitor and pro-slavery agitator? Or could we leave the dead to bury the dead? No strategy of an in-between nature would do, apparently. The mayor of Dallas said a civic task force would address the issue. Cities elsewhere in the South wrestled with related questions. In Charlottesville, Va., as we know to our sorrow, the quarrel has cost three lives.
The nub of the question, as I say, is the role we as a community assign Robert Edward Lee, 140 years after his death — not on the battlefield but as occupant of the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Va. — today's Washington and Lee University (for shorthand, W&L). Lee's primary fame rests, obviously, upon his leadership — much praised by military strategists — of the Army of Northern Virginia, in which role he either, depending on your perspective, helped thwart the extinction of slavery or with personal dignity and humanity defended the rights of his native state, Virginia.
I am not in a mood to argue here for or against either of those positions. I am in a mood, rather, to suggest something novel about Gen. Lee. To wit, he was a model, in life and action, for resolution of the anxieties that presently beset both sides in a brouhaha Marse Robert (as his soldiers called him) would have loathed with all his gentlemanly, and intensely Christian, being. He would have wished us, I think, to train our gaze on matters higher than revenge or vindication. He would have asked — I infer — what is all this about? Have we nothing better to do? What about our identity as Americans? Would that not be a more fruitful matter for consideration?
He was an American. That is a point today's disputants tend to neglect. He loved America. He served her in uniform — long before the secession crisis, our great national tragedy, unsurpassed for the suffering it caused, brought about the parting of friends and the sundering of ideals. At war's end he wished nothing more and nothing less than to bind up the terrible wounds caused by four years of bloody conflict. He knew what had gone wrong. He wished that things might be right again for a united American people.
"Lee the warrior," writes his preeminent biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, "became Lee the conciliator. With less than five months from the time he had said he would rather die a thousand deaths than go to General Grant [at Appomattox Court House, to surrender] he was telling Southern men to abandon all opposition, to regard the United States as their country, and to labor for peace and harmony and better understanding. Seldom had a famous man so completely reversed himself in so brief a time, and never more sincerely."
Said Lee himself: The disputed questions of past years "having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor to recognize the fact." To a veteran of Mosby's Rangers, one Channing Smith, he said: Channing, go home, all you boys who fought with me and help build up the shattered fortunes of our state."
None of which has the choking odor of bitter-end opposition to reality. Lee had lost; the South had lost. The moral and philosophical considerations that had precipitated his resignation from the U.S. Army, so as to follow Virginia into exile, had lost. There was nothing to be done about it, save to rebuild.
The question hangs over discussions of Lee's merits like a funeral pall. Why, as a colonel in the U.S. Army, and former commandant of West Point, did he elect for service in the army of a country newly come into existence? Why, indeed? A century and a half later, the habit of regarding the Confederacy as an essentially stupid, and possibly hateful, enterprise feeds our perceptions of Lee's decision. The America of our early decades was not a business corporation, run from the top downward, but a coalition of supposedly sovereign states that had entered the union under their own steam and, save in the largest matters, stood out from each other.
Lee had opposed secession, but Virginia, his native state, had decided against him. The slogans and shibboleths of the 20th and 21st centuries are of no application in exegesis of his non-21st century motives. "He held that in her secession," Freeman writes, "Virginia carried him with her."
Yet once back inside the Union he busied himself at the urgent business of healing. Offered the presidency of tiny, war-ravaged Washington College, he devised and carried out a program aimed at the intellectual and moral revival of Southern youth, the class hit hardest and laid lowest by the war.
He deemed it "the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony." Here was his chance, tellingly, to put theory into practice. And so he did.
The temper of the times, our times, elevates the slavery/civil rights issue to supremacy as a public consideration, hence as an impeachment of Robert E. Lee — notwithstanding that the government of the Union moved against slavery only after two years of horrifying combat. I think moral one-upmanship — in this case, we got there before you did! — a questionable mode of argument, not least concerning events of a century and a half ago.
Lee himself, Virginia aristocrat as he was, was no slave taskmaster; he was a soldier of the United States. Just before the war, he received in trust from his late father-in-law's estate 196 slaves designated, under terms of the will, for emancipation. Which objective, despite the distractions of command, Lee faithfully achieved at the end of 1862. A New York newspaper report from the same time period accusing Lee of stripping and personally beating a woman runaway slave deserves the same credence as might a tale of Barack Obama's endowing the Richard B. Spencer Chair of Confederate History at Yale. Fake news.
Concerning the sin of slavery we have Lee's own words. "So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery," he wrote in 1869, "I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South."
Four years prior to Fort Sumter he had called slavery "a moral and political evil in any country," according to Charles Bracelen Flood's book Lee: The Last Years.
Anti-Lee bloggers delight in denying Lee the moral credit a white Southerner in his time and place might be owed for such forceful sentiments.
They would prefer, perhaps, he had made his home a stop on the Underground Railroad. But then he would have been someone other than Robert E. Lee. The gift of applying contemporary moral insights to long-ago problems and vexations seems to be widely, painfully distributed in our time.
So, to the Lee Park statue and its prospects, in a day very different from the one that saw the bronze statue rise over Lee Park, more different still from the day Robert E. Lee sought with every fiber of personal force and intellect to advance the reconciliation of South and North.
He was never one for theory alone. The general himself said he never "saw the day" when he failed to pray for "the people of the North." In 1865, amid the strange new silence of the guns, he knelt at church near a black man who presented himself for Communion.
Douglas Southall Freeman tells the story of how, "When neighborhood youths set upon a juvenile 'Yankee' whom they caught alone in the street in front of Lee's home, the general told off the assailants and whisked the frightened lad into his own home. On another level of witness, a mob in Lexington attempting to lynch an accused horse thief suddenly recognized in its midst the figure of Gen. Robert E. Lee, going from one knot of men to the next, urging the law be allowed to take its course. Off, in the end, went the thief for an 18-year prison term.
How deeply does the American community of 2017 desire reconciliation? As much as the bloodied veterans of the war themselves did — back when, in Shelby Foote's words, "the victors acknowledged that the Confederates fought bravely for a cause they thought was just and the losers agreed it was probably best for all concerned that the Union had been preserved." That much? That deep the instinct for renewed peace and affection?
Present signs afford scant comfort. Marches, banners, threats. And those deaths. To what end? That we might be again as we were in the moral destitution of 1865 — divided, self-alienated, angry at shadows?
The bronze man who rides at Lee Park —- for now at least — knew the horror of fraternal war, and still he reached out his hand to the former enemy. Why remove an image of reconciliation in our unreconciled time?