A cultural battle over what history is worth honoring is brewing in the United States. In the last two years, people have fought for and against the removal of Confederate flags and statues in southern states. Last weekend American white nationalists seeking to keep a 1924 Confederate statue erect in Charlottesville, Virginia clashed with counter-protestors, killing one woman.
The monuments in question range from relatively unknown, like the one toppled last night in Durham, North Carolina, to high-profile statues like the one of Robert E. Lee taken down earlier this year in New Orleans, Louisiana. Today Lee, the leader of the Confederate army, is a symbol to many of the slavery he fought to preserve, and his name has already been scrubbed from the local Charlottesville park now known as Emancipation Park. But a little known fact is that Lee himself probably didn’t want the statues put up anyway.
After the end of the American Civil War, a defeated Lee went to Virginia to serve as the head of what’s now Washington and Lee University. While he was trying to move past the war, he would receive letters requesting his presence at battle memorials and to help fund monuments to the Confederacy. But Lee showed no interest in dredging up the past. He even expressed disapproval at the task.
In 1869 Lee was invited to a commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the most important battles of the war, and one that he had lost. He declined to attend, saying he was busy, and added in his response:
I believe if there, I could not add anything material to the information existing on the subject. I think it wiser, moreover, 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.
“Rather than building memorials at Gettysburg, he favored building over the entire battlefield, basically erasing it,” says Jonathan Horn, author of a 2015 Lee biography, The Man Who Would Not Be Washington. That was true whether he had won or not, says Horn; he wasn’t only trying to save face because Gettysburg was such an obvious loss. Lee also disapproved of a statue of his famous lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson.
Not surprisingly, Lee’s stance on the monuments had nothing to do with their foundations in a racist Confederate project; he was, after all, the one who led a war to protect the institution of slavery in the south. But the pragmatist worried that erecting statues would inflame northerners who still occupied the region.
“His specific concerns were that building monuments would keep alive the very feelings that had caused the war in the first place,” says Horn, “and which had gotten worse during the fighting.” Lee advised southerners to be conciliatory toward the northern half it had just reunited with.
“It’s an open question of whether that’s a good thing, to move on past something without understanding what had happened or what it means for our country,” says Horn. “You could also say [Lee] wanted to revise history.”
We can’t of course know what Lee would say about the statues, many of them put up long after he died, today. Much has changed in the United States; today the monuments represent heritage and history to those who protect them, and it’s this same history their opponents fear will repeat itself.