There’s been much controversy in Charlottesville and beyond about preserving monuments to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But if you had a chance to ask the guy, he’d most likely say, no thanks.
Based on his writings, Lee was not a fan of statues honoring Civil War generals, fearing they might “keep open the sores of war.”
According to historian Jonathan Horn, Lee was often consulted in his lifetime about proposals to erect monuments to Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson and others.
In a 1866 letter to fellow Confederate Gen. Thomas L. Rosser, Lee wrote, “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 … would have the effect of … continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.”
Three years later, Lee was invited to a meeting of Union and Confederate officers to mark the placing of a memorial honoring those who took part in the battle of Gettysburg.
“I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered,” he wrote in a letterdeclining the invitation.
But that didn’t stop civic and heritage groups from erecting numerous monuments to Lee, commander of the Confederate armies during the Civil War, after his death in 1870.
Now, however, most of those memorials are under fire by those who see them as symbols of America’s dark legacy of slavery.
Lee himself was a complex and polarizing figure. In an 1856 letter to his wife, he called slavery “a moral & political evil.” But Lee also was a slaveholder, and in the same letter he wrote, “The painful discipline they (blacks) are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race.”
In May, amid controversy, a statue of Lee was removed from its pedestal in a New Orleans square. And officials in Charlottesville, Virginia, voted earlier this year to remove a bronze statue of Lee from a city park, prompting protests by white nationalist groups that turned deadly last weekend.
A similar debate is underway in Richmond, Virginia, where monuments to Lee and other Civil War figures tower over a prominent avenue.
Such conflict over Civil War symbols, some 150 years after the war ended, makes Lee look prescient.
“Lee feared that these reminders of the past would preserve fierce passions for the future,” wrote Horn, author of a Lee biography titled “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington” and a former White House presidential speechwriter.
“Such emotions threatened his vision for speedy reconciliation,” Horn added last year in an opinion piece for CNN. “As he saw it, bridging a divided country justified abridging history in places.”
Lee’s great-great grandson might agree.
“We have to be able to have that conversation (about symbols of the Confederacy) without all of the hatred and the violence,” Robert E. Lee V told CNN this week. “And if they choose to take those statues down, fine. Maybe it’s appropriate to have them in museums or to put them in some sort of historical context in that regard.”