On June 4, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam publicly stated that the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, found on Monument Avenue in Richmond, would be taken down in response to the protests against the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “It’s time,” he said. ““In Virginia, we no longer practice a false version of history.”
It is time, Governor Northam. It is time.
This false version of history to which Northam refers includes the belief by Southern sympathizers and white supremacists that Lee was actually an abolitionist and good soul that didn’t want war between the states but had his hand forced by powers greater than his own, but let’s take a look at who Lee really was.
Reason #1: Lee was a bigot. Just read his own words.
In 1934, author Douglas Southall Freeman published a Pulitzer Prize-winning, four-volume biography on Robert Edward Lee, the 1829, West Point graduate who became the military commander of the Confederacy.
On page 372, Freeman quotes a letter written by Lee on December 27, 1856 to his wife, which the author found in archives at the Library of Congress. It reads:
“The views of the Pres[ident]: of the Systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South, are truthfully & faithfully expressed. The Consequences of their plans & purposes are also clearly set forth, & they must also be aware, that their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign to them & their duty; for which they are irresponsible & unaccountable; & Can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a Civil & Servile war.”
In modern language, Lee is suggesting that the northern states desire to abolish slavery in the south (the domestic institutions) is clear and that the north intended to accomplish this by waging an unlawful war. Lee continues:
In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.
And there it is: Lee writes that enslaved black people are “better off” in the United States than in Africa and that their enslavement was necessary for “their instruction as a race.” The only thing that can undo slavery, Lee writes, is divine intervention. In the next ten or so lines, Lee writes that slavery would be abolished through the divine and that “we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end.”
Reason #2: Lee was responsible for hundreds of thousands of American deaths.
Instead of accepting Abraham Lincoln’s offer to lead Union forces, Lee declined and several days later resigned from the US Army and took command of Confederate forces. His first battle against the northern states was at Cheat Lake in modern day West Virginia in September 1861. Following that battle, Lee was involved in the the following battles, many of which were some of the largest and most deadly of the war.
The combined total casualties (dead and wounded) of these battles is 286,634 Americans.
|Battle||Date||Confederate troop strength||Union troop strength||Confederate casualties||Union casualties|
|Cheat Mountain||September 11–13, 1861||5,000||3,000||~90||88|
|Seven Days||June 25 – July 1, 1862||95,000||91,000||20,614||15,849|
|Second Manassas||August 28–30, 1862||49,000||76,000||9,197||16,054|
|South Mountain||September 14, 1862||18,000||28,000||2,685||1,813|
|Antietam||September 16–18, 1862||52,000||75,000||13,724||12,410|
|Fredericksburg||December 11, 1862||72,000||114,000||5,309||12,653|
|Chancellorsville||May 1, 1863||57,000||105,000||12,764||16,792|
|Gettysburg||July 1, 1863||75,000||83,000||23,231|
|Wilderness||May 5, 1864||61,000||102,000||11,400||18,400|
|Spotsylvania||May 12, 1864||52,000||100,000||12,000||18,000|
|North Anna||May 23–26, 1864||50,000–53,000||67,000–100,000||1,552||3,986|
|Totopotomoy Creek||May 28–30, 1864||1,593||731|
|Cold Harbor||June 1, 1864||62,000||108,000||5,287||12,000|
|Fussell’s Mill||August 14, 1864||20,000||28,000||1,700||2,901|
|Appomattox Campaign||March 29, 1865||50,000||113,000||no record available||10,780|
Reason #3: You don’t see statues of Nazis in Germany, and you shouldn’t see one of Lee.
As I have written previously, slavery is the greatest atrocity ever committed by the United States: a 150+ year, government-sanctioned system of buying and selling human beings from Africa. Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy existed and fought a war to preserve that system. Since the end of that system, former Confederate soldiers, along with Daughters and Sons of the Confederacy groups, erected statues to their fallen comrades, military commanders, and political leaders, idolizing their status as a remembrance of what they stood for. These statues exist all over the southern states, and you can read about them on the more than 30,000-word Wikipedia page.
The greatest atrocity ever committed in the world is the Holocaust by Nazi Germany, yet, when you visit Germany, you don’t see statues of Hitler, Goebbels, Goring, Himmler, Rommel, Guderian, Eichmann, Keitel, von Rundstedt, Paulus, and others. In fact, you don’t see any statues of Nazis (the Nazi party and any Nazi-related symbolism was banned in Germany after the war).
Just as you don’t see statues idolizing the commanders and leaders of the Nazi party in Germany, you shouldn’t see any statues idolizing the commanders and leaders of the Confederacy.
Slavery, and the inequality it created, was an abhorrent travesty that continues to deeply plague our nation today. The leaders of the fight to keep slavery going belong in history books, not monuments and statues.