In his excellent article on the fate of General Robert E Lee ‘
s statue in Richmond Virginia, Benedikt Koehler quoted William Faulkner:
“The past is not dead. It didn’t even happen. This is especially true of the American Civil War (the name of the Union), or the war among states (the Confederate version) or “the late rebellion,” as General Grant put it laconically.
This particular living fragment of the past came into my life in early 1961, when the centenary of the outbreak of war was marked by a marketing blitz of blue Yankee hats and gray rebel hats across America. In our suburban Washington DC neighborhood, all the kids fought relentlessly after school. I preferred the gray-clad underdogs who, I decided in my childish wisdom, were the best soldiers, natural snipers, led by peerless generals like Lee, Jackson and Stuart.
My parents were friends with Sam and Mickey Pendleton, a lovely and hospitable couple from Virginia who lived in Forest Lodge, a real pre-war mansion set on 4000 rolling acres near Charlottesville. For the next nine years, our family stayed there regularly. For me it was paradise. The house had somehow escaped the blaze of the Union cavalry in the later stages of the conflict, and there was a library full of books on the war, many of which dated back to the decades that immediately followed. There were personal memoirs with close campaign accounts, and even regimental diaries that poignantly recount Lee’s attrition ‘s Confederate units as the war progressed.
His distant ancestor built the house around 1800, but his father was forced to sell it, having lost most of his money in the crash of 1929. Enough was left to move Sam to Princeton, after which he made his fortune on Wall Street and bought Forest Lodge. He and Mickey, a girl from another great Virginia family, were liberal Democrats and supporters of John F Kennedy and desegregation. However, as Sam told us, he could not integrate his (white) farm labor force as they would refuse to accept black people.
Part of the joy of staying at Forest Lodge was that each time Sam, my dad and I spent a day visiting a battlefield in Virginia. One year we wanted to see Appomattox Court House, where Lee had visited Grant in April 1865. Sam politely refused to accompany us: “This is a place I don’t intend to visit. As it turned out, his ancestor, Brigadier General William Pendleton, carried the white flag to Union lines to begin surrender negotiations. Pendleton had been in Lee’s class at West Point, before becoming an Episcopal priest; he had an indiscriminate war record, and at the time of Appomattox was an administrator on Lee ‘s staff.
As a 13 year old romantic, I understood this instinctively. The key factors were family and Virginia. When it came to the Civil War, Sam’s loyalty was not to the country but to the state. In this he followed Robert E Lee himself. In 1861, Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union armies defending Washington, but Lee refused because Virginia had seceded, and his greatest loyalty was to his state. He was not in favor of secession but wrote to Lincoln ‘
s Councilor Francis Blair:
“I consider secession to be anarchy. If I had the four million slaves in the South, I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword at Virginia, my native state?
Views of slavery were complicated, if not confusing. He felt that the institution was a moral evil for whites, but an acceptable condition for blacks, who were the inferior race. He expected that slavery would eventually end as part of God’s purpose, but was not susceptible to a political solution. However, he provided in his will for the release of all his
Lee was a great general, although he made mistakes, especially during the crucial Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. He was loved by his soldiers, who called him “”
Marse (Master) Robert
”, And still tried to chase him away if he got dangerously close to the action. After Gettysburg, his leadership kept the South going for almost two more years, but he and the Army of Northern Virginia were crushed by his nemesis, Ulysses S Grant. At Appomattox, Grant offered Lee generous terms, allowing his men to return home on parole, with their own horses and mules. Grant’s generosity embodied Abraham Lincoln’s noble words in his second inaugural address a month earlier:
“With malice towards no one, with charity for all, with firmness in the law as God gives us to see the law, let us strive to complete the work in which we are, to heal the wounds of the nation, to take care of the one who must have endured the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all that can achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace between us and with all nations.
Words foretold, Appomattox was seen as a profound moment of national reconciliation, and it was so – between white Americans, north and south. Lee lived for five years in honorable retirement, and the legend of his brilliance, courage, and courtesy grew more and more powerful.
However, for four million newly released black Americans, the end of the war was a moment of opportunity that blossomed briefly during the Reconstruction period, before being crushed by Jim Crow’s oppressive laws imposed in the south. at the end of the 19th century and beyond. To quote again from Lincoln’s second inaugural address:
“We sincerely hope, fervently pray, that this mighty scourge of war can be quickly passed. Yet if God wills this to continue until all the riches accumulated by the serf’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited labor are poured out, and until every drop of blood drawn with the whip is paid for by a another drawn with the sword, as was the case. said three thousand years ago, so it is still necessary to say ‘the judgments of the Lord are quite true and just.’
The glaring racial inequalities and injustices that persist in the United States show that the 250 years of serf labor and the drops of blood drawn by the whip go unrequited.
My childhood friend Jeff Steele was a master sergeant in the US Marines and a lieutenant in the San Diego Police Department. He is descended from a West African who was brought to Virginia as a slave in the 1720s, who bought his freedom after four years. As Jeff puts it, the Steeles haven’t bowed to any man since then. But they have not been immune from racial humiliation. Her mother, heavily pregnant with her first child, was caught in a snowstorm in Richmond just before Christmas 1944 and was denied accommodation in a restaurant. The place was full of German prisoners of war enjoying a fit Christmas dinner, courtesy of the US War Department.
For black Americans, the Confederate statues that soared in the south, the flight of stars and bars above the courthouse and senate, and the complacent celebrations of southern courtesy and courage, have infinitely delayed the justice they deserve and Lincoln wanted.
So while I’m an old sentimental Civil War buff, I agree with the Virginia Supreme Court that it’s time for Robert E Lee to step down. There is a moving scene in the 2012 film Lincoln, where Lee walks out of the Appomattox courthouse and rides his trusty horse Traveler. Grant walks over and takes off his hat, followed by all his staff officers on the porch: Lee gravely tilts his hat and slowly walks away. So be it.
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