Lee’s Memory

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In the wake of growing hostility toward the Confederacy a New Orleans Robert E. Lee statue is scheduled for destruction and debate is underway in Charlottesville, Virginia to remove another one. Even though Washington & Lee is a private university, it has already yielded to pressures to remove the Confederate flag from the Lee Chapel. The school may ultimately feel compelled to drop the Lee name unless at least a few venerable historians publicly object to the escalating tyranny toward Confederate symbols. To date none have done so, presumably for one of two reasons.

First, they believe the odium is justified. Given such an opinion there is no reason why they should object to degrading Lee’s memory and may even wish to promote it.

Second, others who think the disdain is excessive lack the will to speak out due to the prevailing opposite sentiment among their peers and the public. It takes courage for historians who have spent years earning the favor of others to express a contrary viewpoint because it may adversely affect their popularity, reputations and book sales. Nonetheless, Mississippian Shelby Foote set a good example of such pluck fifty years ago in the afterword of the second volume of his three-volume Civil War Narrative:

I am indebted also to the governors of my native state and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing, in their actions during the several years that went into the writing of this volume, much that was least admirable in the position my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln. I…fervently hope it is true that history never repeats itself, but I know in watching these three gentlemen, it can be terrifying in its approximations, even when the reproduction is in miniature.

Washington & Lee would not be the admired school it is today without Lee’s legacy. After he became president of Washington College in 1865 he attracted financial donations from all over the country. His reputation was a magnet that drew some to the best students in the South and increasingly from other parts of the country as well. The school’s present status owes more to his memory than to Washington’s, or anyone else’s. To remove his name would be to deny the credit he deserves.  Nonetheless, it could become a consequence of the present trend toward Southern cultural genocide that is “terrifying in its approximations.”

About Philip Leigh

Philip Leigh contributed twenty-four articles to The New York Times Disunion blog, which commemorated the Civil War Sesquicentennial. He is the author of U.S. Grant's Failed Presidency, Southern Reconstruction (2017), Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies (2015), and Trading With the Enemy (2014). Phil has lectured a various Civil War forums, including the 23rd Annual Sarasota Conference of the Civil War Education Association and various Civil War Roundtables. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Florida Institute of Technology and an MBA from Northwestern University. More from Philip Leigh

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