The cavalier removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans is a slap in the face to the millions of Americans who hold the Confederate general in highest esteem.
Following the Civil War, respect for Lee spread nationwide in large part because he refused calls for continued southern resistance and instead urged reconciliation. As northern historian Bruce Catton wrote, “Thousands of tired, underfed, poorly clothed Confederate soldiers considered Lee the symbol of everything for which they had been willing to die.”
Neither Lee nor his generals were arrested or charged with treason.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu says the Lee statue erected in 1884 from private donations was to “whitewash history and to tell a sanitized version of the Confederacy.” On the contrary, as then mayor William Behan proclaimed to the crowd of 15,000, it was to be “an enduring tribute to valor, worth and military genius….honoring the greatness and virtue of one of the purest and noblest of men.”
The dedication was attended by Union veterans in blue joined with those who served with Lee. American flags flew, the Star-Spangled banner was played. The theme was reconciliation and national unity. Lee should not be relegated to the dung heap of a discredited racist past.
The campaign to cleanse the south of Confederate monuments is itself a whitewashing of history. The sad reality is that both north and south were racist in the latter 19th century. Few people in the north favored full equality for blacks.
William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general who marched through Georgia, refused to allow black soldiers to bear arms in his army. Sherman wrote to one of his generals in 1864, “I would prefer 300 negroes armed with spades and axes than 1,000 as soldiers.”
Today’s misguided attempt to erase a painful past is what historian Douglas Brinkley calls presentism, judging the past by today’s standards. Rather than excision, says Christy Coleman, the black chief executive of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, it is better to expand the narrative and erect new monuments to tell the story of blacks and women who were left out or misrepresented.
Much of today’s controversy over Confederate symbols is the result of a psychopath’s horrific murder in 2015 of nine worshippers in a black church in Charleston, SC. A photo of the young killer in front of a rebel flag fueled a righteous revulsion. Ever since media are prone to label voices favoring a traditional view of the Civil War era as white supremacist or racist.
Mitch Landrieu, a patrician leading a black majority city, is himself guilty of sanitizing history. While correctly calling for New Orleans to craft an inclusive future and create new symbols, he is wrong to describe the removal of the Lee statue as “a march to reconciliation.” By pulling down the Lee monument Landrieu alienates as well as reconciles.
If any good is to come from this sad affair, it may be that people will look deeper into this country’s complicated history. If that happens, perhaps zealots who have successfully banned the playing of Dixie at the University of Mississippi will take note of one of the last actions of President Lincoln.
After Lee’s surrender, on April 10, 1865, a large crowd gathered at the White House wanting the president to speak about the great victory. Lincoln demurred but as a consolation requested the military band to play Dixie.
“I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” he said. “Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it.” As the crowd cheered, Lincoln added, “It is good to show the rebels that with us they will be free to hear it again.”
Wood is a Washington writer and broadcaster whose great grandfather served the Union.