Felix Haynes weighs in on the national debate about Confederate monuments and what to do with them.
That issue has been faced by our Hillsborough County Commission, and by many other units of local government, including Charlottesville, Virginia. Unfortunately, in some places the issue has erupted into violence, as at Charlottesville.
For some, the issue is a simple one: the Confederacy was founded upon slavery, therefore anything about that insurrection is racist and should be eliminated. This includes statues of Confederate leaders.
For others, including this writer, the issue is not so simple. While condemning slavery and racism, we take pride in how well our ancestors in the Confederate army fought and how many battles they won. For years, that pride was all our ancestors had to live on.
But I believe one Confederate leader whose statue is ubiquitous in the South, Robert E. Lee, would see the issue differently.
Lee graduated second in his West Point class and embarked on a 25-year career in the Army. Winning three brevet promotions on the battlefields of the Mexican War and solving engineering challenges posed by rivers and harbors in cities like St. Louis, he was marked to be a general in America’s next war.
Offered Brigadier General, which President Lincoln recruited at the beginning of the Civil War, Lee turned it down after agonizing over the decision and resigned from the Army because he could not draw his sword against Virginia, his native state. Such sentiments were common in 1861, with loyalty to one’s native state coming before that of the United States.
He freed all his family’s slaves in December 1862.
After leading the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to victory in many battles, Lee recognized the North’s manpower advantage, swallowed his pride and sorrow and surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Promising never to take up arms against the United States again, he gave his parole to Grant.
In return, when Grant became President he protected Lee from the efforts of some American leaders to put him on trial for treason.
But Lee did more than accept defeat. Preferring that the men of his army receive the credit, he never asked for the adulation he received after the war as the Confederacy’s brilliant military leader. He committed the rest of his life to develop Southern youth, to help rebuild the United States and to be the best American he could. Carrying out this goal, he turned down lucrative offers from many American companies to lead them. He carried out a letter-writing campaign for the rest of his life to prevent other Southerners, not as accepting of defeat on the battlefield, from continuing their insurrection against the United States through guerrilla warfare.
Instead, he accepted an offer from a near-bankrupt Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, to become their President. Through the esteem with which Lee was held nationally, Lee rebuilt Washington College’s endowment, curriculum and enrollment for the half-decade he led it. In his honor, it was renamed Washington and Lee College after his death in 1871.
So now we come to the issue of Lee’s statues, and those of many other Confederates, throughout the states of the old Confederacy. I believe he would say it is not only time, but high time, to remove them to a place of history, such as a in a museum or cemetery or on private property. He would say, 152 years after he surrendered, to keep your pride in the battlefield exploits of the Army of Northern Virginia but remove the statues from public property and put your efforts on building America.