General Robert E. Lee is nothing but a traitorous, slaveholding racist! Pull down that statue! Wait! Not so fast. Set aside the ropes and baseball bats. You’ve got the wrong guy. Here are three indisputable, historical facts statue-trashers overlook.
How can the high-ranking graduate of West Point (the US Army’s elite academy) decorated war hero, and former superintendent of West Point resign his Union commission to command the Confederate Army? Traitor!
Whoa! That’s the wrong conclusion to which the protesters have jumped. The formation of the thirteen colonies didn’t function as a single unit as the United States does today.
Each of the thirteen states expected their leaders to put the needs and defense of each state above all else. Though it brought great distress to General Lee to resign from the Union Army, he had no real choice. His obligation stood with the defense of his homeland, the Southern state of Virginia.
The simple truth is that General Robert E. Lee didn’t fight to retain slavery but to defend the people and land of Virginia—including the 60,000 free blacks in his state. History shows Virginia had the greatest population of free black people among the thirteen states.
In the final months of his life, General Lee said he’d been a Virginian before and during the War between the States, but after the War, he considered himself an American.
How can any American believe Robert E. Lee to be a traitor?
Wrong again! According to Dr. Edward C. Smith, a third-generation African-American and co-director of the Civil War Institute at American University in Washington, D.C., “Lee never owned a single slave, because he felt that slavery was morally reprehensible. He even opposed secession. (His slaveholding was confined to the period when he managed the estate of his late father-in-law, who had willed eventual freedom for all of his slaves.)”
In addition, General Lee is on record as insisting that President Abraham Lincoln extend automatic freedom to any slave who fought on either side of the War, regardless of the outcome.
Delving into historical records unearthed an interesting find: Slavery is an issue of wealth, not skin color. Only a few wealthy white landowners had slaves. The vast majority of white people worked their land with family alone. History records that both the free blacks and Native Americans bought slaves.
If the above fail to set the record straight, perhaps the opinion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will open the minds who believe Robert E. Lee was a racist.
Dr. King believed the civil rights issues of the 1960s could be better understood by studying those of the previous century. As Martin Luther King Jr. researched the times and the leaders of the 1860s, a deep admiration and respect for Robert E. Lee developed in his heart and mind.
The legacy of that respect can be measured in the acceptance of King’s family related to the national holiday that celebrates King’s birthday. They show no objection to the day of honor being shared with Robert E. Lee. While the rest of the nation celebrates “Martin Luther King Day”, those in Virginia celebrate “Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson-Martin Luther King Day.”
If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t see Robert E. Lee as a racist, can those less-versed in the details of the civil rights history take an opposing stand?
Not just monuments?
Will the outcry against America’s early leaders extend to more than statues and monuments?
If those protesting General Lee’s statues and monuments succeed in having them removed, what will become of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia?
In the final five years of Lee’s life, he served as a professor and the President of then-Washington College. The small school struggled with enormous debts at that time. Today, Washington and Lee University is a well-endowed, highly-respected facility of higher education.
Will today’s protesters take another look at history and back off or demand the unjust removal of Lee’s name?
There remains no better conclusion to this sad moment in America’s history than the words of Dr. Edward C. Smith:
“I have been teaching college students for 30 years and learned early in my career that the twin maladies of ignorance and misinformation are not incurable diseases. The antidote for them is simply to make a lifelong commitment to reading widely and deeply. I recommend it for anyone who would make judgment on figures from the past, including Robert E. Lee.”
Dr. Smith’s words first appeared in The Washington Post on August 21, 1999. Not much has changed in the past eighteen years.
May we all work a bit harder to defeat the diseases of ignorance and misinformation. The internet makes it possible to check the facts before accepting and reacting to negative information. Let’s practice due diligence before joining the protest line.