What's the Big Deal About Robert E. Lee?

In Summer of 1998, ironically 20 years ago exactly now, my father and I took a historic tour of the east coast. Our trip also included part of the South.

And I was surprised how fixated the South is on Civil War general Robert E. Lee. Almost obsessed, I would say.

Monuments, statues, place names. You name it. In one state legislature, possibly Virginia, Lee merely walked into the room, stood somewhere for a couple of minutes, and then left. They erected a statue in the very spot he stood, to commemorate the event!

I mean, there was more than one person involved in the Civil War, wasn’t there? What about Confederate President Jefferson Davis? You almost never hear of him anymore.

Side note: of course it is now no longer PC to commemorate people who supported slavery. So ironically the trend is abruptly ending now. So take my question in the past tense, then.

Thank you to all who reply:)

It’s certainly a big deal down here in Lee County, FL. The NAACP is trying to get his bust removed from a median in Fort Myers and to have his portrait removed from the County Commission chambers. Although they have expressed some acceptance of simply changing the portrait to one of him in civilian clothing instead of the Confederate uniform he is shown in now. As much as I hate slavery, I think it’s a mistake to try to simply erase the Confederacy from history.

It’s not about erasing the Confederacy from history - I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want it taught in school (though I do have some complaints on how it’s taught some places) or not to have displays in museums. It’s about not continuing to honor and glorify those who fought to preserve slavery. To name schools and streets after them, and have statues of them built with public funds and displayed on public land.

So it’s a good thing that no one is trying to do that.

Please excuse the tangent, but I am sick to death of this facetious argument. Nobody is erasing any history books. We are simply making reasoned decisions about which parts of history should be celebrated and glorified.

As the descendant of a slave living in Virginia, I can say that I have never particularly appreciated having to go past these reminders day after day just to get to work and shops. And I especially dislike the idea that my tax dollars have gone to providing land and plinths and maintenance for many of them.

The monuments were raised by white supremacists in an effort to create a false narrative, in the same way that every imaginable building and piece of infrastructure has been named for Ronald Reagan in an effort to raise the gravitas of the GOP.

This is probably headed for GD.

A big civil war was fought over slavery, followed soon by claims in the south that the conflict was about state rights. Whites from both sides of the conflict shook hands and buried the hatchet. Amendments to the constitution were passed to extend citizenship to blacks. It didn’t work out: northern whites acquiesced to southern squashing of free and fair elections and due process after a spell of reconstruction.

At any rate, the South needed an honorable representative of the conflict. Robert E Lee was the stand-in for this ideology. If he didn’t exist, he would have needed to have been invented. Since his post-conflict remarks were largely conciliatory, his military leadership able, and his politics less than fire-breathing, he fit the bill.

Robert E Lee was good at what he did. Jefferson Davis- not so much.

That is exactly what is being attempted. Every attempt I have seen to remove or relocate confederate memorials has been done to excise some US history. To erase it from public knowledge. No attempt to spread historical knowledge, just to remove it.

And** Tzigone**, you’re most certainly correct that no one should honor glorify the awful parts of southern history. But it’s just as much a mistake to act like it never happened. Personally, I’d rather see a new memorial to the horror of slavery installed right next to each of those confederate memorials, just to make things more even and provide a more complete story. If the KKK doesn’t like it, then maybe it’s a little justice for them to have to look at something THEY don’t like. I think a whole series of monuments to Union victories would look good spread throughout the south. Again, just to remind people about the rest of the story.

A big part of t he problem is that both sides are absolutist in their approach. A bit of compromise on both parts would be best.

If you’re going to object to things named after President Reagan, what do you make of the airport named after the Groper in Chief and his enabling wife?

Do you believe that if public memorials to Confederate leaders were removed, the public would forget that the Civil War happened? Sorry, I don’t buy it. Removing a memorial doesn’t mean excising US history. Your objection is noted, but weak.

He was a key figure in the Lost Cause ideology of the post-War south. The basis for the Lost Cause ideology actually begins with his farewell orders to the Army of Northern Virginia. In order to deal with the fact that they had been beaten in the war and essentially were in a place of subservience to the north, the south developed an idea that even though the north was the victor, the south was the more moral place - a wonderful place of charm and manners where slaves were slaves in name only and really just cherished members of the household. Where religion and good-breeding ruled the day and even the poorest were better off than living in the squalor and dehumanized factory cities of the north. The South lost only because of an overwhelming numerical and monetary superiority of the north and as individuals they were braver and wiser than the hordes of Northern brutes. The North largely encouraged this narrative in an effort to promote reconciliation. It basically said, ‘You may have lost, but you embody the finest virtues.’ Lee was painted as the archetype of this southern ‘white-washing’ if we will. He was perfect for all groups. He had no strong political ambition, he was well-respected by both sides, encouraged reconciliation and acknowledged the defeat of the Confederacy and everyone agreed (at least publicly - Grant never liked him) that he was an excellent general and a fine person who even nominally held abolitionist views (I think the evidence is fairly strong that his actions did not live up to his words.) It helped that he died in 1870 and death always brings about a boost in reputation.

In short, he was picked as the standard bearer for the ideology that largely led to reconciliation and is still dominant throughout much of the south. Both the North and the South found it useful to place him on a pedestal both literal and metaphorical to essentially soothe southern resentments at having lost the war. If the man who inflicted the most loss on the North could be honored and honorable, then the common foot soldiers and supporters of the Confederacy could also keep their dignity, or so the thinking went. The interesting thing about Lee is that he really wasn’t considered much of a hero during the war. Not that he was hated, but he was the Eisenhower to Stonewall Jackson’s Patton if we want to use a more recent analogy.

***It needs to be noted before we put ourselves in danger of lionizing the Lost Cause that the Lost Cause is also heavily rooted in white superiority and led to the Jim Crow era which still reverberates to this day. It certainly led to the reunification and reconciliation of the country, but did so at the expense of black lives and freedoms, but I digress.

You know who else was good at what he did?

Lots of people. So that doesn’t really answer the thread title’s question.

Well, let’s compare.

How many Americans were killed by Benedict Arnold’s treason?
Commanding British troops, there was his capture of Richmond and the rampage against countryside & small towns in Virginia, and then up North, capturing New London, Conn and burning the whole city. I’m not sure if there is a tally of the Americans killed, but the total population of Virginia was only about 750,000 (1/3 slaves) and about 150 American soldiers in the fort were mostly massacred after surrendering. Casualties of the civilian population are unknown.

Now look at how many Americans died because of Robert E Lee’s treason, in the 5 years he commanded Confederate armies. Just the battle of Gettysburg alone there were casualties of about 25,000 on each side.

By any actual measure, Robert E. Lee was a far worse traitor to the USA than Benedict Arnold ever was. Of course, pointing that out in the South would probably get you lynched.

But to address the OP, ** Measure for Measure** has it right. Lee was the winningest General in the CSA and fit their idea of the honorable soldier. So they have praised him on high and literally put him on a pedestal.

I like senoy’s answer.

Me too.

No, people do not want to remove knowledge of history - they want to remove monuments that celebrate the people who fought for the preservation of slavery - particularly those paid for by public funds and displayed in public places. As I said previously, no one (that I know of) is recommending removing study of the Civil War or Lee from history books or museums. They are taking about removing plaques and statues that grant those figures honor and respect.

Not, by the way, that all of these monuments teach history. Some teach nothing at all and some have information that is blatantly misleading of the causes of succession and glorify the antebellum south.

How about we erase the idea that the Confederacy was the only four years in history that mattered? If you were to judge things by the number of memorials they invoked, you’d think the Civil War was ninety-nine percent of the history that ever happened in the southern United States.

Donald Trump has an airport named after him?

You can have knowledge of history without monuments celebrating it. Most people know who Hitler was, yet there are no monuments to him that I know of.

If you want monuments to teach people about the Civil War, why not have memorials where slaves were sold? Or other memorials about slavery, analogous to Holocaust memorials in Europe?

But how many other Confederates were as well-known or as good at what they did? These people want to find a Confederate hero.

The fact that he wasn’t publicly gung-ho for slavery helps, too, if you’re trying to make the argument that the Confederacy wasn’t about slavery, therefore Confederates were not evil.