Remembering Lee

Friday, January 16, 2009
Clint E. Lacy

"Georgia’s famous Stone Mountain carving of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee was dedicated on May 9, 1970. William Holmes Borders, a noted African-American theologian and pastor of the Wheat Avenue Baptist Church, was asked to give the invocation. The many dignitaries attending this historic event included United States Vice President Spiro Agnew. Thousands of people bring their families each year to see this memorial to these three great Americans."-Calvin Johnson (Photo by: Clint E. Lacy)

Monday January 19th, 2009 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. No doubt there will be many people attending ceremonies that honor Dr. King’s legacy and the media will be there to cover all of these gatherings, reminisce about King’s life and garner opinions of those attending these events. What will largely go unnoticed however; is the fact that Monday marks the 202 birthday of another great American, General Robert E. Lee.

Those who do notice the significance of Lee’s birthday on Monday are divided into two groups.

One group admires Lee’s values, leadership, humility and love of the Constitution. The other group denounces Lee as a General that fought a war to protect slavery.

The January 14, 2007 Richmond {Va} Indy Media reported that:

"At 10:00 a.m., the NAACP and the Virginia Anti-War Network held a press conference at the site of the monument to publicly register opposition to taxpayers’ dollars being used to show support for the SCV’s glorification of the general. Protesters began gathering before the press conference, and more filtered in as the 12 o’clock celebration neared.

By noon, there were roughly 40 Lee admirers at the monument, about a quarter of which came decked out in their finest reenactor apparel, and 20 protesters with fluorescent orange signs denouncing Lee and his admirers as racists"

While Lee’s detractors had a right to protest the event, at the very least it was a sign of disrespect, and historically inaccurate.

Jen Veldhuyzen suggested in a January 15, 2008 publication of Fredricksburg , Va.’s Free Lance Star that Dr. King would be honored to share a holiday with Lee stating:

"Like King, Lee believed in achieving civil rights through peace, and felt that war was a violent misinterpretation of states’ rights. Upon the emancipation of slaves, Lee said, "I am so fully satisfied of this that I would have cheerfully suffered all that I have suffered to have this object attained."

He fought for the South because he believed in loyalty to the state before the nation and in his state’s right to run its own resources as its people chose. His fears for his state were not paranoid, either–events such as Union Gen. Sherman’s "march to the sea," and the civil rights losses and retaliation between whites and blacks during Reconstruction support Lee’s initial fears regarding the conflict that was thrust on him in the Civil War.

Quoting Lee’s beliefs will convince no one, however, of his character–many a modern racist politician can cover up his tracks with pretty platitudes about equality.

Lee did not merely speak against racism, though–he released all his slaves 10 years before the war. Most of them stayed on at his plantation, and one even became his cook during the war.

Lee taught his family to appreciate people of other colors–like King’s activists years later, Lee’s daughter was arrested for violating Jim Crow laws in the South. According to the 1902 Cleveland Gazette, she reportedly "persisted in occupying a car set apart for Afro-Americans," and the mayor found her guilty of violating the law."

As Calvin Johnson writes in an article published in the January 15th, 2009 Dawson {Ga.} Times, Lee was revered by world dignitaries and former foes, and yes many noted African-Americans as well, some quotes from Johnson’s article include the following…

"Sir Winston Churchill called General Robert E. Lee ‘one of the noblest Americans who ever lived.’"

"During Robert E. Lee’s 100th birthday in 1907, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., a former Union Commander and grandson of US President John Quincy Adams, spoke in tribute to Robert E. Lee at Washington and Lee College’s Lee Chapel in Lexington, Virginia . His speech was printed in both Northern and Southern newspapers and is said to had lifted Lee to a renewed respect among the American people."

"Dr. Edward C. Smith, respected African-American Professor of History at American University in Washington, D.C., told the audience in Atlanta, during a 1995 Robert E. Lee birthday event, ‘Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee were individuals worthy of emulation because they understood history."

"Booker T. Washington, America’s great African-American Educator, wrote in 1910, ‘The first white people in America, certainly the first in the South to exhibit their interest in the reaching of the Negro and saving his soul through the medium of the Sunday-school, were Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson."

Even many of America’s former Presidents greatly admired Lee, as Johnson notes:

"American Presidents who have paid tribute to Lee include: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who spoke during the 1930s at a Lee statue dedication in Dallas, Texas; Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who proudly displayed a portrait of Lee in his presidential office.

During a tour through the South in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt told the aged Confederate Veterans in Richmond, Virginia, ‘Here I greet you in the shadow of the statue of your Commander, General Robert E. Lee. You and he left us memories which are part of the memories bequeathed to the entire nation by all the Americans who fought in the War Between the States."

Lee was a brilliant tactician but as syndicated columnist Charley Reese writes in an article posted January 15, 2005 on the Lew website:

"It is Lee’s character, not his war exploits, that marks him as a man worth emulating.

One of his generals said of Lee, "As a soldier the men respected him; as a man they loved him." Though old for his time (he died at age 63 in 1870), he shared the hardships of the men, often sleeping on the ground. Any presents sent to him were passed along to his men. He wore a plain uniform. He never spoke ill of anyone, even his enemies. He never took credit for victories, but he always accepted personal responsibility for defeats. He was a devout Christian.

His son tells a story that illustrates how revered he was. After the war, Lee’s sons answered a knock on the door to find a big Irish sergeant wearing a Yankee uniform and carrying a large basket of food. He had heard that Lee was hungry, and having served with him on the frontier before the war, could not stand that thought.

Lee’s sons were assuring him that no one was hungry when Gen. Lee came to the door. He convinced the sergeant that he would accept the gift only if he could pass it along to the wounded in the hospital. The sergeant grabbed Lee in a bearhug and said, with tears streaming down his face, "Goodbye, Colonel. God bless ye. If I could have got over in time, I would have been with ye." I doubt any sergeant has hugged a general since then."

Happy 202nd Birthday "Marse" Robert.

© 2009 Southeast Missourian

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