Guest editorial: Charlottesville violence could have been averted
Charlottesville City Council is at fault
August 15, 2017
Who is to blame for the violence Charlottesville? As uninspired as this may sound, I blame the Charlottesville City Council. They lacked basic knowledge of U.S. history and common-sense foresight. Last February the city council voted to tear down the city's statues commemorating Civil War personages, most notably the statue of Robert E. Lee.
Had anybody on the Charlottesville City Council bothered to study Robert E. Lee's biography, they would have learned that General Lee embodied all that was honorable and decent about the South. He was a West Point grad, a 32-year veteran of the U.S. Army, fought in the Mexican-American War and was Superintendent of West Point. He is on record stating secession was unconstitutional and advised Virginia not to secede. His views regarding slavery reflect the ambiguity of a career Army officer detached from socio-political issues. In a letter to his wife, Mary Lee (formerly Custis) in 1856 he wrote, "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." All too often we mistakenly judge centuries old cultures through a 21st Century lens. Lee's slaves were part of his wife's inheritance. It should be noted that Lee's wife Mary was instrumental in freeing slaves and aided their transfer to Liberia. Mary Lee and her daughter supported an illegal school for slaves on the Custis-Lee plantation. In 1862, she freed all her inherited slaves. Immediately following Lee's surrender to General Grant at Appomattox, Lee stated, “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South.”
After the war, General Lee strongly supported President Andrew Johnson's plans for Reconstruction. In 1869–70 he helped establish state-funded schools for blacks. More than anything General Lee wanted to reunify the nation. Following the Civil War General Lee served as President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia until his death in 1870. Lee encouraged students North of the Mason-Dixon Line to attend Washington College. As college president, he introduced an honor system like West Point's honor code. However, his principal academic expectation reflected his Virginia heritage, “We have but one rule here, and it is that every student be a gentleman.” Today, Washington College bears Lee's name. Ironically, Washington and Lee University is noted for its excellent law school. General Lee is interred in the university's chapel.
Why the brief history lesson? The obvious question is why defame Robert E. Lee when he should be revered? The man was honor bound to defend his home state of Virginia. Given the circumstances of the day, he chose the only morally acceptable path for which he paid dearly. Arlington National Cemetery resides on the former Custis-Lee plantation. The Union Army confiscated his plantation for burial of its soldiers to intentionally deny Lee's return to the plantation. Charlottesville's City Council applied today's 21st Century cultural prism and morphed 1860's dedication into a disgraceful act.
Charlottesville's ill-conceived plan to tear down Lee's statue defies understanding. Not only was the resolution illogical from a historical point of view, why was the council so short-sighted regarding the possibility of future conflict. Anyone with an ounce of common sense had to know tearing down Robert E. Lee's statue would be a Alt-Right rally point?
Lastly, where does it end? General Lee's seventy-foot-tall image is carved into the side of Stone Mountain along with Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. Should the state of Georgia blast those images to smithereens in another attempt to rewrite history? Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves. Based on Charlottesville's concept of political correctness, should we tear down the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial?
Bottom line: is it wise to use today's mores to critique the men who played vital roles in U.S. history?