Robert E. Lee: Setting the Historical Record Straight
Josh Marshall, who earned a PhD in history before becoming a journalist, tells the real story on Robert E. Lee’s place in American history on Talking Points Memo.
What is Robert E. Lee known for? This is what I mean by the margins of the debate. Lee is known for one thing: being the key military leader in a violent rebellion against the United States and leading that rebellion to protect slavery. That’s it. Absent his decision to participate in the rebellion he’d be all but unknown to history. He outlived the war by only five years. There’s simply no positive side of the ledger to make it a tough call. The only logic to honoring Lee is to honor treason and treason in the worst possible cause.
Even this though leaves the full squalidness of Lee’s legacy not quite told. There is the Lee of the Civil War and then the mythic Lee of later decades. Today the battle over Lee’s legacy is mainly played out over the various statues depicting Lee which still stand across the South. The notional focus of this weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville was a protest over plans to remove a Lee statue. But those statues don’t date to the Civil War or the years just after the Civil War. In most cases, they date to decades later.
The historical chronology is important to understand. Reconstruction is generally dated from 1865 to 1877 when the federal government withdrew federal troops and allowed the restoration of so-called ‘home rule’ in the South. But black political power and biracial political coalitions didn’t disappear overnight. Though the sheet anchor protecting black citizenship was withdrawn, it took the better part of a generation for what we now recognize as the Jim Crow system to become firmly entrenched throughout the South. To note but one example, the judicial cornerstone of Jim Crow, ‘separate but equal’, only became the law of the land with Plessy v Ferguson in 1896.
The statuary which is only beginning to come down in our day dates largely from this era and constituted a celebration and affirmation of this victory. Not the victory of the Civil War, which was of course a defeat, but the sectional victory to define the post-war settlement.
Consider some dates: Lee Circle in New Orleans, 1884; Lee Statue on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, 1890; Robert E. Lee Monument (Marianna, Arkansas), 1910; the Robert Edward Lee sculpture in Emancipation Park, Charlottesville, Virginia, commissioned 1917, erected 1924. All of these statues date not from the Civil War Era but from the decades of the establishment of Jim Crow, to celebrate the South’s success establishing an apartheid system on the ruins of the Antebellum slave South. A statue of Lee in uniform, mounted on a horse in a southern town square has only ever had one meaning: white supremacy. These statues didn’t come to be associated with racism and Jim Crow only after the Civil War had receded into memory. They were created, from the start, to mark and celebrate the foundations of Jim Crow, uncontested white rule. More mythically, but to the same end, they were built to glorify a vision of the South in which her black citizens had no place.
It has always been a canard to claim that anyone is banishing history with these changes. But public memory isn’t simply history. It is a public recitation, often written onto the landscape, about what we revere and what we regret about who we are and what we come from. None of this is to say that Lee’s battles aren’t of interest. Nor is it to say what Lee was like as a private person. But neither is why he is celebrated in cast metal statuary across the South. There’s one reason. And by any measure for us today it is a bad reason. It is not even close.
Cross-posted from The Sensible Center