The events in Charlottesville, VA have sent shockwaves throughout the nation. On Saturday, August 12, a group of white nationalist, which included neo-nazis and members of the KKK, descended onto this mid-size town in an effort to display their ideology through hate-filled rhetoric. As this group filled with overtly racist individuals clashed with counter protesters, things became violent; the Virginia State Police (VSP) had to intervene in an effort to re-establish the order.
During the chaos, a 20-year-old driver attending the white nationalist rally plowed his car into counter protesters, killing one woman and injuring 34 more individuals. Additionally, a VSP helicopter boarded by two officers, who were monitoring the situation from above, suffered a systems failure and left both officers dead.
What caused all this tragedy? Why was there a protest in the first place? It was all about a statue. Not just any old statue, but a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The city council, after a year of fierce deliberations, voted three against two in favor of having the statue removed. What transpired in Charlottesville that weekend was these hate groups’ way to take a stand in the face of a politically and culturally changing America. The protest was sanctioned by local officials — after all, the first amendment defends the right of people to express their views, even if said views are racist and bigoted.
However, in order to truly understand what the statue represents, we must examine the man behind the statue in his full historical context.
General Lee was a Southerner growing up in the Commonwealth of Virginia during what have been dubbed the Era of Good Feelings (post-1812). He was a brilliant student who eventually would finish Westpoint at the top of his class — with Ulysses S. Grant coming in at the bottom of the class, but that’s a story for another day. He proved his military expertise on the battlefield during the Mexican American War (1846-48) where he earned multiple awards and was elevated to the rank of colonel.
Without a doubt, he was a force to be reckoned with, and may even have been the very best commander in the U.S. Army when the Civil War broke out in 1861, exemplified by the fact that he was the first person Lincoln asked to lead the Union against the South. Lee refused, staying loyal to his home state of Virginia which had announced that they were going to join the Confederacy. Accordingly, he assumed the cause of the red flag with the blue cross and accepted a general post within the rebel army.
This is the typical story most people get when they learn of Lee. As so often happens in history, this story is absolutely true, but leaves out critical information. Today, let us focus on that critical information, namely slavery. Howard Zinn, a social historian and political activist, said all historians are forced to choose between an infinite number of facts, what to present and what to omit, creating a natural bias.
This is the case we have before us. If this is the story most people get of Lee, then why should we be surprised when someone looks up to him or defends him? Defenders of Lee to this day are still trying strip away the aspect of slavery, as it regards to the Civil War, and replace it with the old “states rights” line — but then the natural question is, “a state’s right to what?”
Apologists also like to point to a single line in a letter where Lee says that slavery is a “moral and political evil.” They claim this line absolves Lee from any further questions regarding his views on slavery.
The truth is Robert E. Lee owned slaves, and he was even handed down a great deal of them through his father-in-law's will (a very wealthy man whose family's roots can be traced to the Washington's) in 1857. The will stipulated that the slaves be freed upon their master's death or in 5 years if the estate was in financial trouble. He, of course, kept the slaves on the estate, even hiring out individuals to other estates; and in doing so, he broke apart African American families ,a practice that had never been performed under the previous owners, that the Freedmen's Bureau would eventually have to reunify once the war had ended.
When it comes to Lee calling slavery a "moral and political evil," which he did, in fact say, context is desperately needed. In the same letter that those words were written, Lee goes on to say that, “the painful discipline [slaves] are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence."
While he deemed slavery to be an evil, it is a necessary evil, as he believed it was a “civilizing” force for blacks, and one that can only be undone by divine intervention (when God allows it), not by emancipation. It's true that he eventually freed the inherited slaves in December 1862, but this was of course only after a lengthy legal battle where a Virginia court eventually forced him to free them, as the will had originally stated.
Even after the war had been concluded, Lee still defended the institution of slavery and the reasons behind it. In an interview with the New York Herald, Lee is quoted saying, “that unless some humane course is adopted, based on wisdom and Christian principles you do a gross wrong and injustice to the whole negro race in setting them free. And it is only this consideration that has led the wisdom, intelligence and Christianity of the South to support and defend the institution up to this time.”
Lee, like many others in his day, including northerners, simply believed whites were biologically superior to blacks and, as a result, believed that the South’s peculiar institution was needed to civilize African Americans. He died a member of the Democratic Party, and campaigned against the 15th amendment (the enfranchisement of African American men) because he truly believed African Americans were simply too inferior to vote. He told Congress that, “[African Americans] could not vote intelligently.”
Lee was a general, an American, but also a white supremacist. This, as well as the other hard truth of American history, need to come to light because it is only then that we can start to untangle this complicated business of our past. Understanding the holistic perspective allows us to realize the complex history of our diverse country.