Lee’s bronze equestrian likeness, removed from its lofty pedestal Wednesday, was the most imposing of the “lost cause” memorials that once lined leafy Monument Avenue in Richmond. And it represented the biggest lie.
Southern propagandists concocted and embellished the Lee myth toward the end of the 19th century, as part of a larger justification for erasing the gains made by African Americans during Reconstruction and reimposing a system of state-approved white supremacy. The statue, erected in 1890, was part of that project. One of the true good things it’s possible to say about Lee, who had died 20 years earlier, is that he would have been among the first to object.
“I think it wiser … not to keep open the sores of war,” he wrote in 1869, declining to help choose the locations for memorials at Gettysburg, “but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
Letting go and moving on were not on the agenda of the architects of Jim Crow repression, however. They chose Lee as the dignified, slightly tragic hero of their fanciful retelling of what they called “The War Between the States.” They painted Lee as an honorable man, personally opposed to slavery, who reluctantly chose loyalty to his state of Virginia over allegiance to the Union — and who, albeit in a losing cause, was the most brilliant general in U.S. history.
Lie after lie after lie.
Lee was, first and foremost, a traitor. A graduate of West Point, he decided to take up arms against the nation he had sworn an oath to serve. The choice he made cost hundreds of thousands of Americans their lives. Treason was, and remains, a capital crime. Abraham Lincoln was determined to seek reconciliation at any cost, “with malice toward none with charity for all.” But following the surrender at Appomattox Court House, the president would have had every legal and moral right to have Lee promptly court-martialed and hanged.
Not only did Lee and his wife, Mary Custis, own slaves inherited from his mother and her father, but Lee actually petitioned Virginia courts to allow him to keep some of those people enslaved for longer than the five years specified in his father-in-law’s will. The debts their labor helped him pay off were apparently more important than their freedom. Lee did refer to slavery in a prewar 1856 letter as “a moral & political evil,” but argued that the institution was “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race” and asserted that the “painful discipline” enslaved Black people were suffering was “necessary for their instruction as a race.”
When an enslaved man and woman escaped the plantation and were recaptured, Lee had them whipped, summoning a county constable to “lay it on well.” According to one of the escapees, Wesley Norris, Lee then ordered that their lacerated backs be doused with brine. And Lee was particularly ruthless in separating families, hiring out husbands, wives and children to different distant plantations.
When Lee’s renowned Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania, its soldiers abducted free African Americans and sent them south into slavery. At the Battle of the Crater in 1864, as in many Civil War encounters, Black Union soldiers who tried to surrender were not taken as prisoner. Instead, they were massacred on the spot — by troops under Lee’s command.
And as for Lee’s alleged military genius? One stubborn fact interferes with the myth: He lost the war.
Lee is indeed credited as a gifted hit-and-run tactician. But his strategic decision to engage the Union in a conventional battle of massed armies at Gettysburg was a monumental blunder. Throughout the war, Lee had the advantage of fighting on friendly terrain with overwhelming civilian support. Still, he got pummeled into unconditional surrender.
There was remarkably little fanfare Wednesday about the removal of the Lee statue — except from a Florida senior citizen who apparently believes there is still political hay to be made from the “lost cause” myth.
“Just watched as a massive crane took down the magnificent and very famous statue of ‘Robert E. Lee On His Horse,’ ” former president Donald Trump wrote in a statement. “If only we had Robert E. Lee to command our troops in Afghanistan, that disaster would have ended in a complete and total victory many years ago.”
Let’s see, mounted cavalry vs. rocket-propelled grenades? Maybe Trump thinks the Taliban would have died laughing.