“It’s often forgotten that Lee himself, after the Civil War, opposed monuments, specifically Confederate war monuments,” said Jonathan Horn, the author of the Lee biography, “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington.”
In his writings, Lee cited multiple reasons for opposing such monuments, questioning the cost of a potential Stonewall Jackson monument, for example. But underlying it all was one rationale: That the war had ended, and the South needed to move on and avoid more upheaval.
“As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated,” Lee wrote of an 1866 proposal, “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.”
The retired Confederate leader, a West Point graduate, was influenced by his knowledge of history.
“Lee believed countries that erased visible signs of civil war recovered from conflicts quicker,” Horn said. “He was worried that by keeping these symbols alive, it would keep the divisions alive.”
In that same letter, Lee also wrote (my emphasis added):
All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen, & wait for better times.
That, I reckon, is key.
I sympathize with the objections to keeping statues of the leading Confederate figures on public land, not least when they are in a prominent place. It’s not difficult to see why those who want to get rid of them are so determined to do so, most importantly, of course, due to the real nature of the Lost Cause, but also because of the war’s long, long afterlife after the end of Reconstruction, an afterlife that has barely drawn to a close.
It’s equally easy to understand—although in my view they have the weaker argument— why many locals have rallied to the defense of what they see as their heritage—even if that heritage is often represented by statues erected decades after war they supposedly commemorate (that they had another message is difficult to deny).
As for those who have come from outside the South to exploit this situation, that these particular carpetbaggers chose to signal their presence by flying the Nazi flag—the flag of a genocidal regime that so many Americans of both North and South gave their lives to destroy—is revolting. These are not allies that anyone wishing to defend these statues should want.
So what to do?
The first thing to say is that, wherever possible, this is a decision for locals to take: If the monument is on state property, the state should decide, if it’s on city property, the city should decide, and so on. It is not for a largely leftist mob, elected by no one, like the group that tore down the Confederate monument in Durham, N.C., to decide what stands and what falls.
Many of the monuments are modest, statues of individual, unknown soldiers, a device used to symbolize military sacrifice, for good causes and bad, on both sides of the Atlantic for over a century. In many cases, the best place for them would be with their fallen comrades in those areas of a cemetery dedicated to the Confederate dead. To take an example from Eastern Europe, where a battle of monuments has been fought since the Soviet collapse, there is the case of the bronze soldier of Tallinn.
The first time I visited the Estonian capital, Tallinn, almost exactly two years after Estonia won back its independence from the Soviets, I noticed a monument near the city center featuring a little more than life sized bronze statue of a Red Army soldier with gently bowed head. Originally known as the “Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn”, it was an insult to the many Estonians who regarded the Red Army’s return to their country in 1944 not as a liberation but as the resumption of the USSR’s earlier occupation of their homeland – a murderous interlude that had been a product of the squalid deal Stalin cut with Hitler in 1939. No liberation, the early years of the country’s reoccupation were marked by savage repression which over time eased into a slower strangling of any idea of revived Estonian independence.
But if the bronze soldier was an affront to numerous ethnic Estonians, to Tallinn’s large ethnic Russian population (occupation-era settlers or their descendants) it was a symbol of the enormous sacrifices made by the Soviet people in the war against Hitler.
The statue continued to stand even after the Soviet Union collapsed. Finally, in 2007, the Estonian government, amid protests that quickly turned violent, moved the bronze soldier to Tallinn’s military cemetery (Soviet soldiers are amongst the dead buried there). If ethnic Russians want to pay their respects they can (and do), but the affront that the statue represented to many Estonians has largely been defused: Out of sight, out (more or less) of mind.
Not a solution for purists, but it seems to work.
As for the larger Confederate statues, some may belong on the civil war battlefields.
To quote Rich’s article from the New York Post:
The Baltimore commission has called for moving a striking dual statue of Lee and Stonewall Jackson to the Chancellorsville, Va., battlefield where the two last met before Jackson’s death. This would be appropriate, and take a page from the Gettysburg battlefield. A statue of Lee commemorates Virginia’s losses and overlooks the field where Gen. George Pickett undertook his doomed charge. If you can’t honor Robert E. Lee there, you can’t honor him anywhere.For some on the left, that’s the right answer, but this unsparing attitude rejects the generosity of spirit of the two great heroes of the war, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. Notably, Grant vehemently opposed trying Lee for treason.
Of the other larger monuments, some may belong where they now stand, but perhaps displayed in a way that gives better context. Others should go to museums or storehouses. And some—those without any artistic merit or historic interest— should be scrapped or sold. But it must be for the locals to make the final decision.