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Local News in Virginia

Robert E. Lee: Revisiting Myths and Facts

Civil strife in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday, August 12 around the pending removal of General Robert E. Lee’s statue, has added to the debate about Lee.

The warm, soothing myth about Lee goes something like this, Adam Serwer wrote in a June 4 article in The Atlantic. “ He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.”

But, the hard, cold facts are quite different. Some historians say Lee’s sentiments and arguments helped to launch the Jim Crow system. For example, notice how Lee’s viewpoint comes sharply into focus in a letter Lee wrote in 1856.

“Blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically,” said Lee, a slave owner. “The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influence of Christianity, than the storms and tempests of fiery Controversy.”

Here, the soothing myths and cold facts are fairly obvious. Serwer said of Lee’s letter, “The argument here is that slavery is bad for white people, good for Black people, and most importantly, it is better than abolitionism; emancipation must wait for divine intervention.”

The point is Lee played a key role in the 150-year-old propaganda campaign that aimed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. That ideology is known as the Lost Cause, and as historian David Blight noted, it provided a “foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system.”

Here’s another ice-cold fact that jumps out of historical records. Slaves considered Lee as one of the meanest slave owners. He routinely tore up slave families, Elizabeth Brown Pryor wrote in Reading the Man. Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

Here’s another fact. During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved freedmen and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of freedmen, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

Lee was defeated in the Civil War. Still, his views did not seem to change. The war was not about slavery, Lee insisted later, but if it was about slavery, it was only out of Christian devotion that white southerners fought to keep Blacks enslaved.

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In correspondence collected by his own family, Lee counseled others to hire white labor instead of the freedmen, observing “that wherever you find the negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find a white man, you see everything around him improving.”

In any event, Lee’s was the last of four Confederate-era monuments that was recently removed in New Orleans because of a 2015 City Council vote. It ended a nearly two-year-long process that was criticized by some who argued the monuments are a part of Southern heritage and honor the dead.

But removal of these monuments has drawn praise from those who see them as brutal reminders of slavery and symbols of the historic oppression of people of color.

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor

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