The pell-mell rush to remove any public reference to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is as thoughtless as it is short-sighted. There were reasons other than romanticizing slavery that led to honoring Lee. The post-war Lee is a figure that all Americans should appreciate. He demonstrated nobility in defeat and was willing to face treason charges. He was horrified by the assassination of President Lincoln and strongly discouraged the notion of a Southern “comeback.” In fact, he urged Southerners to reconcile and not resist Reconstruction. Lee spent his post-war years reviving what would become Washington and Lee University. He did not settle the score by writing his own memoirs, and he showed a notable lack of bitterness about his loss of property and citizenship.
His strong Christian faith, while unevenly applied to be sure, gave him a serenity and dignity that drove virtually everyone he met to come away in awe of him. His humility led him to answer reams of correspondence and many requests for help.
Lee was an instrumental figure in the U.S. military before the Civil War, in the Mexican-American War and in putting down the John Brown uprising. Unquestionably, he had terrible judgment in choosing the wrong side of the Civil War, and his military acumen prolonged that horrible conflict. But, while he certainly would have been embarrassed by the monuments erected in his honor decades later, these statues can at least partly be viewed as a tribute to the dead.
Gen. Lee may not have been a “saint,” as understood today, but he was no demon.
GREGORY C. MCCARTHY