Robert E. Lee is worth remembering. Just don't honor him.
Touch not that statue of Robert E. Lee in lovely Charlottesville, Virginia. Let it stand, keep it handsome and dignified, but around it place plaques telling the curious that the man memorialized there was a traitor to his country who went to war so that white people could continue to own black people -- to take their women and sell their children, rip apart families and, if need be, take the lives of the recalcitrant or the rebellious. Lee is not a man to be honored. He is, though, worthy of remembering.
Lee should be recalled as a slave owner who would not give them up. He should be remembered as one who felt so keenly about slavery that he renounced his commission in the U.S. Army and enlisted in the Confederate one, whose purpose was to keep emancipation at bay. I have the late Elizabeth Brown Pryor, author of "Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters," to thank for setting the record straight. As I wrote in 2011, Pryor's essay for The New York Times gave us "a Lee who is at odds with the one of gauzy myth. He was not, as I once thought, the creature of crushing social and political pressure who had little choice but to pick his state over his country. In fact, various members of his own family stuck with the Union."
"When Lee consulted his brothers, sister and local clergymen, he found that most leaned toward the Union," Pryor wrote. "At a grim dinner with two close cousins, Lee was told that they also intended to uphold their military oaths. ... Sister Anne Lee Marshall unhesitatingly chose the northern side, and her son outfitted himself in blue uniform." Pryor noted that some 40 percent of Virginia officers "would remain with the Union forces."
So what is so honorable about Lee? What is so honorable about leading your men into a war that cost more than 600,000 lives and whose purpose was to retain slavery? What's a black person gazing upon a Lee statue to think? Here is a man who, had he won, would have kept that black person's ancestors in chains -- grandparents going back not all that far, maybe only five generations, as these things are reckoned. This is like me having to gaze on a statue of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, an outstanding military leader in World War II, whose brilliance enabled the Germans to murder even more civilians. In the end, he turned against Hitler and was made to commit suicide. He didn't manage to kill Hitler. He did manage to kill countless others.
But it is the Germans, in the end, who know how to memorialize the unpardonable. Berlin today is replete with monuments and memorials to the Holocaust, even cobblestones bearing the names of murdered Jews and sunk into the streets where the Jews once lived. The basement of the building that housed the Gestapo and the SS has been retained and converted into a museum called the Topography of Terror. It was once used for torture and executions. It is now used to educate. Millions have visited it. Few have forgotten it.
Elsewhere in Germany, former concentration camps are open to be viewed. I have seen most of them, each time wondering and marveling at the German families who tour the place, thinking ... thinking what?
I make no comparison between the Holocaust and American slavery. Both are blights on the two nations. Both say something about Germans and Americans that needs to be confronted. Germany has done so. We are only very slowly beginning to. Keep the Lee statue. The old general still has work to do.
Richard Cohen's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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