Editor’s Note: James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also is an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesAGagliano. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
I was seated across from a senior cadet at West Point, marveling at her energy, idealism and desire to serve after she reached out to me for career advice. While I’m an older white male, the young, mixed-race woman reminded me so much of myself some three decades ago.
As she shared her goals and aspirations with me in the library, my eyes drifted up past her right shoulder and settled upon a familiar figure. It was a portrait of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army and famous West Point graduate from the Class of 1829. Lee also was West Point’s superintendent from 1852 to 1855, and I remember living in barracks bearing his name while I attended the academy.
As my gaze settled upon the portrait, the irony washed over me in waves. The juxtaposition was astounding. Here was the image of a man who fought to defend slavery, hovering over the shoulder of an excited cadet whose African-American father was a noncommissioned officer assigned in Europe when he met and married her mother, a Caucasian German national.
Lee led a rebellion that ripped our nation asunder in 1861. If Benedict Arnold – the reviled turncoat who tried to hand West Point over to the British during the Revolutionary War – is synonymous with treason, how should we characterize Lee, who led the armed insurgency designed to disassemble the Union nearly eight decades later?
Having grown up in the Deep South, it’s long past due that I reconsider Lee’s legacy and acknowledge something that had seemed wrong to me for so long.
Lee has become quite the flashpoint in recent years as the country grapples with the prevalence of Confederate monuments and ongoing racism. Who can forget the hatred and bigotry on full display at the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017? It left a counterprotester dead and a nation ripped apart at its seams. At the center of that firestorm was the statue of Lee. The monument had been shrouded after the rally until a circuit court judge ruled last year that it be uncovered.
Just this week, Rep. Drew Ferguson of Georgia came under fire after members of a federal labor union visited his office and found a biography of Lee, filled with racist statements, on display. The book, which was published in 1897, was opened to a page with quotes from Lee that read, “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and, I hope, will prepare and lead them to better things.” In a statement provided to CNN Wednesday by his spokesman, Ferguson said he was unaware the book was even in his office and that it has since been removed.
We need to reconsider how Lee is portrayed, and question whether his image should grace libraries, streets and offices across our country. Retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a fellow graduate of West Point, wrote in The Atlantic that he, like many others, was misguided about Lee and taught to venerate him as an American patriot. Instead of holding Lee up as the mythological, principled American military hero, McChrystal argues we should remember him as a defender of the heinous institution of slavery.
“More than anyone, it was Lee the patrician hero, Lee the principled Southern patriot, and Lee the stoic warrior (rather than Lee the slaveholder, Lee the rebel, or Lee who had lost the Civil War). … Long after his death, he became the icon of the movement. As decades passed, Lee’s name and likeness spread, and took on whatever messages and meanings were desired by the observer,” McChrystal wrote.
I acknowledge that Lee was a reluctant champion of secession, and historians still disagree about Lee’s thoughts on slavery. But there’s far more to consider here – such as the feelings of the bright-eyed cadet seated across from me.
And regardless of his stance on slavery, ultimately Lee fought for its preservation. For that, there can be no equivocation. We have come a long way since those bloody four years of the Civil War, but we still have a long way to go. Removing homages to slavery’s defenders sets us on the right path.
But progress can be stubbornly slow at times. Henry Ossian Flipper overcame great obstacles to become West Point’s first African-American graduate in 1877 – just 12 years after the Civil War ended. And yet, in my father’s West Point Class of 1960, Ira Dorsey was the only African-American cadet to graduate. So little had changed in 83 years. And while West Point graduates are far more diverse today, that portrait of Lee still hangs in the library.
Given the weight of history, I had a difficult task before me when I met with the young cadet. So just what did I have to offer in terms of advice about her future?
“I’m proud of you,” I said, as she leaped up and announced she had to head to class formation. “Do your duty,” I advised, “Nothing more. Nothing less. America is counting on you. You give me hope that America’s best days are ahead of us.”
She responded, “Thank you, sir. I’m going to do my best to serve and make America proud.”
I smiled and nodded as she abruptly turned and hurried out. I gazed back at Lee’s portrait and recalled Lincoln’s famous line about the “better angels of our nature.” The young cadet had inspired me, and I tried my best to do that for her. West Point’s storied Long Gray Line marches on, and she will succeed in spite of the imposing, mythological and antiquated figure who hovered over us in the library.
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There’s a place for Lee’s portrait, and it’s not the cadet library – it’s the West Point Museum. You see, museums are the appropriate spaces for recording complicated histories and making that context more clear. They are places to reflect, educate and learn from history.
It’s where Lee belongs.