Remember, Lee Betrayed His CountryRoundup
tags: Confederacy, Robert E. Lee
Walter D. Kamphoefner teaches history at Texas A&M University and was awarded three yearlong guest professorships in Germany.
There is more to the full story of Robert E. Lee than the column by Blanche Henderson Brick (Eagle, Sept. 14) implies.
None other than Lee himself probably would have been happy to see his monument in Richmond, Virginia, come down. He reacted to a proposed Gettysburg monument in 1869: “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.”
The full story of Lee would not only tell you he foresaw “no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union . . .” It would also tell you that in 1860 Lee voted for Southern extremist John Breckenridge, not for Southern moderate John Bell who carried Virginia.
The full story of Robert E. Lee not only would tell you he wrote “that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil ... .”
It also would include the punch line: “I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race ... .”
Lee was certainly right about that. It led some white men to sadism and many more to sedition, among them Lee himself. When he inherited some 200 slaves from his father-in-law with the stipulation that they be freed within five years, he twice petitioned the courts to have this deadline extended.
When some of this human property attempted self-emancipation and was recaptured, he ordered his overseer to lay 50 lashes on the bare backs of the men involved, and ever the cavalier, a mere 20 on the back of the only female runaway. When his overseer refused, he hired the local constable instead, admonishing him to “lay it on well,” and then had the wounds washed with brine.
But perhaps we should judge Lee by the standards of his time rather than ours. Fair enough.
Virginia offers enough profiles in courage, among them Lee’s cousin, Navy commander Samuel Lee. Confronted with the secession issue, he answered, “When I find the word Virginia in my commission I will join the Confederacy.”
Another loyal Virginian, George Thomas, became the Yankees’ “Rock of Chickamauga” and was never spoken to by his family for the rest of his life.
The removal of Lee’s statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, this summer rated a front-page photo in the influential Munich paper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Our examples, for good or ill, go around the world.
Finally, the American Vergangenheitsbewältigung (facing up to the ills of our past history as the Germans have done) is moving forward.