By Joe Darby
Not long ago I was in New Orleans to accompany a family member who was undergoing a medical procedure. I had occasion to drive around Lee Circle and, for the first time since Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue was removed from that place, I saw the empty pedestal that had supported the monument for 133 years.
It looked strange. It looked, well, just wrong, like the empty base for some valuable object in a jewelry store or museum, after the object had been stolen. Something was obviously missing that belonged there.
A dignified statue of the Confederate general was dedicated on the tall pedestal before a large crowd on Feb. 22, 1884. I know the date because some years back I purchased from an antiques document dealer an original program from the ceremony. I have since passed on the document to my daughter Becky Goldman, for her own growing collection of historic objects.
Lee’s image was in place, through two world wars and all the other tumultuous events of the 20th century and 17 years into our current century, when it was taken down at the behest of then New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on May 14, 2017.
I didn’t agree with that action but what upsets me the most are some of the things that columnists, pundits and folks in general who don’t like Confederate monuments said about Lee in order to justify the removal.
They called Lee a traitor, a man who tried to destroy the United States, a man who supported the despicable regime of slavery. None of these claims are true. Slavery was indeed despicable, but Lee was no proponent of the system, having called it a moral evil. And a word to those who claim slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War. It was indeed. All one has to do is to read the ordinances of secession of the various Confederate states and the Southern newspaper editorials of the time. It was all about slavery, not states’ rights, the tariff or anything else. Southerners feared the new Republican President Abraham Lincoln would ultimately try to do away with the practice of human bondage.
Having said that, let me get back to the accusations against Lee. First, he was not trying to destroy the United States, no more than George Washington was trying to destroy the British Empire when he led the armies of the American Revolution. As many of you know, Lee was so respected as a man and an Army officer that he was asked to command the forces of the United States in the Civil War.
He refused the request, because he said he could not draw his sword against his “country,” that is, his native state of Virginia, where his immediate family and many cousins lived, after their ancestors settled there in the 1600s. As Professor Allen Guelzo makes clear in his new biography, “Robert E. Lee: A Life,” Lee sincerely hoped that secession would not lead to war. He prayed that the separation would be a peaceful one.
But he felt he had to make an immediate decision because, as a man of honor, he would not want to disobey an order to attack the South if he were still a member of the Union army. That shows a certain amount of integrity right there.
And after Southern forces fired on Fort Sumpter in Charleston, S.C., in April, 1861, and Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion, Virginia joined the deep South in secession. So, because of his physical and emotional ties to Virginia, Lee’s motivation was to be instrumental in the defense and creation of a new nation, not the destruction of an old. I see an important difference there.
Many military historians believe that if Lee had taken command of Northern forces, his military skills would have resulted in a fairly short war, with the Confederacy being overrun long before its demise in April, 1865, after four years of slaughter and destruction. But because he chose to fight for the Confederacy, the South was able to hang on until it was utterly exhausted by overwhelming forces.
Everyone who ever met the man commented on his dignity, honor and integrity. He was of a reserved personality, although a very strong one. He was definitely not the kind of man whom you would slap on the back and say, “Well, how’s it going, general?”
So, as a man faithful to his own values and sense of right and wrong, Lee is the one person most identified with the Confederacy. The cause of the Confederacy was wrong. But Lee himself fought for what he saw as right, as his God gave him the light to see it. He was, though flawed human, like all of us, a good man.