President Donald Trump may see the statues commemorating the Confederacy and Robert E. Lee as things of “beauty” that will be “greatly missed.”
But Lee himself was under no such illusion. To him, they would only “keep open the sores of war” and the ill will war engendered, which he thought should be consigned to “oblivion.”
He said so on several occasions in the years after he surrendered his army to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox, Va., some 70 miles southwest of Charlottesville, which erupted in violence last weekend after white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in the name of saving a statue of Lee from dismantling.
He expressed his views in two famous letters that are now recirculating widely in the wake of Charlottesville.
The first was to Thomas Rosser, a former confederate general who in 1866 queried Lee about a proposed commemorative monument.
“My conviction is,” Lee wrote, “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; & of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.”
Lee thought it better to tend to the graves of the fallen. “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.”
The second came in 1869, when Lee declined an invitation from the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association to go to Gettysburg to help mark the positions of the troops in that great 1863 battle with granite memorials.
He responded that his “engagements will not permit me to be present.” But even if he were able to attend, he added, he thought it “wiser . . . not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
“I don’t think that means he would have felt good about the people who fought for the Confederacy being completely forgotten,” University of Georgia historian James Cobb told PBS correspondent Lisa Desjardins. “But he didn’t want a cult of personality for the South.”
Lee, Horn said, “believed countries that erased visible signs of civil war recovered from conflicts quicker. He was worried that by keeping these symbols alive, it would keep the divisions alive.”
Most of the Confederate statues and monuments, as University of North Carolina Charlotte historian Karen L. Cox wrote in The Post, were built between 1895 and World War I at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
“They were part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution,” she wrote, “and their installation came against a backdrop of Jim Crow violence and oppression of African Americans. The monuments were put up as explicit symbols of white supremacy.”