What Robert E. Lee can teach us about Confederate memorials


Story highlights

Gen. Lee opposed creating war memorials, but given that they're here, is it a good idea to remove them?

New Orleans council voted to remove Lee statue. National Cathedral is removing Confederate symbols from windows

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Horn is the author of “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington” and a former White House presidential speechwriter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN —  

A year after New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed removing a famous 132-year-old statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee—and a half year after the city council voted to do so—the battle over what should happen to longstanding Confederate memorials remains as divisive as ever.

Jonathan Horn
Caroline Horn
Jonathan Horn

Just last week the leaders at the National Cathedral in Washington voted to remove Confederate symbols from stained glass windows that depict Lee.

The unending controversy would not have surprised Lee himself. It is why he opposed building Confederate memorials in the first place.

In April 1865, after four years of civil war, Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and soon afterward accepted the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. Letters seeking support for memorial projects received reluctant responses from the general-turned-educator, according to documents at the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress. Lee worried that building memorials so soon after the war would anger the victorious Federals.

“As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated, my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the country would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment, and of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour,” he wrote.

In June 1866, Lee criticized a plan to build a monument to Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, whose fatal wounding at Chancellorsville three years prior had deprived the Army of Northern Virginia of its best corps commander. How could Lee ask war-ravaged families to contribute money for memorials when they lacked funds for food? “I do not think it feasible at this time,” he wrote.

As to when the right time would come, later letters suggest Lee thought never. When a Gettysburg memorial association invited Lee to attend a meeting “for the purpose of marking upon the ground by enduring memorials of granite the positions and movements of the armies,” Lee declined.

Perhaps expecting the general who lost the Battle of Gettysburg to want his army’s movements marked in stone was asking too much, but Lee’s refusal went further. Rather than raising battlefield memorials, he favored erasing battlefields from the landscape altogether.