General Lee and Our Wonderful Talent for Forgetting

For the last several months Charlottesville, Virginia has been embroiled in a controversy over whether or not to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from one of the city’s parks.  Those in favor of removing the statue feel that it is inappropriate to keep a monument to a man who led an army in defense of slavery in a public park maintained, in part, by the tax dollars of descendants of those slaves.  Those who oppose moving the monument feel that their heritage is being threatened by a campaign to wash all traces of the Confederacy from our public life.  It is inappropriate (and horrifying and disgusting) but in a weird way, I’m not sure I’m totally with the idea of removing monuments to Confederate generals either.  My reasons, however, are very very different.

Don’t get me wrong –  Robert E. Lee fought a war that absolutely was in defense of slavery.  Moreover he was a slaveowner himself.  The myth that surrounds him as a gentile defender of Virginia heritage, conflicted about his state’s support for the institution of slavery is – in a word – bullshit.  In his history of freedmen in the reconstruction period Wars of Reconstruction, Douglas Egerton notes Lee’s contributions to the cause of slavery.  In addition to leading one of the Confederacy’s largest armies in a war declared for slavery, as a military commander Lee conscripted slave labor on numerous occasions.  Egerton also details some of his personal interactions with his own slaves as follows:

“When Mary [Custis Lee’s] father, George Washington Parke Custis died in 1857, he stipulated in his will that his slaves were all to be freed within five years, a promise to which he alerted his slaves.  But Mary’s husband and her father’s executor, then-colonel Robert E. Lee, believed that unfree labor was crucial to improving [her estate’s] financial status.  He rented eleven of them away to nearby whites and sent others to the family’s Pamunkey River estates.  When bondman Wesley Norris and his cousin Mary tried to escape in 1859, Lee instructed his overseer to give them fifty and twenty lashes, respectively; on leave from the military, Lee watched to ensure that the stripes were laid ‘on well.’  In accordance with his father-in-law’s instructions, Lee officially freed Mary’s slaves on December 29, 1862, but by that date her plantation had been seized by federal troops and her slaves had found freedom across the river in Washington.”

Building a monument to this man is ludicrous, but we did.  It sits only minutes from the University of Virginia, colloquially known as ‘TJU’ for Thomas Jefferson’s University, where its slaveholding founder is practically deified.  It sits a short drive from Monument Avenue where a monument to Arhur Ashe sits nestled alongside the likes of slaveholders like J.E.B. Stuart and Jefferson Davis.  It sits in a state where Martin Luther King was celebrated as a part of Lee-Jackson-King day (the ridiculous nature of which should be obvious) until the twenty-first century.

To be clear, I don’t give a rat’s ass about preserving Southern heritage.  But a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, our schools have scrubbed slavery from the list of Confederate grievances and replaced it with “states’ rights.”  We have developed an elaborate web of gauzy comforting myths that obscure the slave-holding brutality of the Confederacy’s leaders.  We have forgotten the radical progress of reconstruction and the campaign of racialized terrorism and assassination that brought it to an end.  And we have relegated a horrific and brutal institution that formed the backbone of our economy for two centuries to the status of mere social aberration.  A mistake that we fixed in total.

I don’t have any interest in preserving white southerners’ illusions about their heritage, but I do think that it’s important to see our country for what it is and we have a real talent in our ability to forget.  But we live in a country where we don’t see the problem with flying a Confederate battle flag over a formerly slave-holding state house.  We live in a place that has spent countless hours and taxpayer dollars erecting monuments to men who owned other men, women, and children, separated families, and beat them mercilessly.  We live in a place where the descendants of slaves have to send their children to schools named for Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and pay property taxes that fund them.  

A hundred years from now, I don’t want us to have forgotten that, far from being embarrassed and repentant for the bloodlust and greed of our past, we have spent countless years and untold money glorifying it.  That we yell and kick and scream when someone points that hypocrisy out and holds us to account.  We revel in the most abhorrent parts of our history and take offense when people call that practice into question.  That is our country.

Last night dozens of protesters, apparently including a prominent white-nationalist or two, encircled the statue of Lee, lit torches, and chanted about heritage and ‘blood and soil’ until they were dispersed by the police.  If they want the statue so badly maybe we should leave it.  Maybe next to it we should erect a larger monument to the slaves that were held just a short drive away at Monticello.  That way we’ll not only remember the man that those torch-bearing protesters were defending, but the institution they were defending and the people they were dehumanizing while they were at it.