What the Left and the Alt-Right Get Wrong about Robert E. Lee

Let’s begin with what we should agree on.

First, the views of the neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, spewing racist and anti-Semitic vitriol, are anathema to our American ideals of equal protection under the law and equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our journey to the present has been a bumpy one, as we have gradually extended those rights without limitations based on race, color, gender, national origin, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation.

Second, statues of Confederates in the public square (e.g., outside courthouses and schoolhouses) offend many of us, especially African-Americans who see them as symbols of white oppression. As such, the statues should be removed, with some of them being moved to Civil War battlefields or museums if they offer historical context to a place or event.

That said, many on the Left and the Alt-right have it wrong about Robert E. Lee, whose statue in Charlottesville was used as a pretext for the White Supremacists’ torch-lit, hate speech parade on the grounds of the University of Virginia on August 11 and their violence of August 12 on the streets of Charlottesville.

Whatever our political views, we should not judge historical figures by the standards of our time. In 1861, many citizens’ loyalties were to their States, not to their nation. That was Lee’s dilemma in April 1861 when, on President Lincoln’s authority, Francis Blair offered Lee command of the Union armies. “Mr. Blair,” said Lee, “I look upon succession as anarchy. If I owned the four million … slaves [in] the South, I would sacrifice them all to the Union, but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”

That decision may have been the greatest mistake of Lee’s storied military career, but it should be viewed in the context of his time, not ours. And four years later at Appomattox, Lee surrendered his army rather than heeding Jefferson Davis’s orders to continue the war as a guerilla conflict, with Confederate soldiers melting back into the population and striking federal troops whenever the opportunity arose. Lee knew the war was over and was more interested in seeing the nation heal.

Remove the statue, but don’t malign the man.

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