Robert E. Lee, Reconciliation, and Race. And Grandmothers

I just finished reading the fourth and final volume of Douglas Southall Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize winning (1935) biography R. E. Lee. Very well written, and extremely well researched, I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in General Lee’s life or in a biography well-told. The four volumes encompass over 2,400 pages, but the read was smooth and never tedious, although it certainly will help if you are already somewhat familiar with the history of the War Between the States.

Robert E. Lee, photographed by Mathew Brady, taken shortly after the surrender at Appomattox.

Of course, “the General,” as Freeman often referred to him, is a controversial figure now, and many in the latest generation just do not understand how someone who fought for a cause that enslaved people could possibly be revered. An even greater question is how did someone who was indicted for treason by a Norfolk, VA grand jury in 1865 become, in five short years (Lee died in 1870) someone who was regarded as a prime example of American genius and gentility, and by Northerners as well as Southerners? I think the answer to both questions lies in the little considered history of just how the country reunited. After all, the North had just sent over 360,000 of its young men to their death in order to keep the Southern states as their neighbors. So, how DO you reunite with your neighbors, 258,000 of whom you just killed in order to maintain a filial relationship? It’s a question that resembles a Buddhist Koan. Certainly, there was no blueprint as to how this reunification was to be accomplished.

It was the soldiers themselves who blazed the path toward reconciliation. Jonathan Noyalas, Director of the Civil War Institute, right here in Winchester wrote an excellent account of the Union soldiers who had fought in the Shenandoah Valley, coming back to the scene of their battles some twenty years later. Eventually, their Confederate opponents began to participate in these reunions. Noyalas’ book, Civil War Legacy in the Shenandoah: Remembrance, Reunion and Reconciliation gives an excellent account of how this reconciliation unfolded through the years in the Shenandoah. It is representative of the reconciliation that was occurring all over the country.

Another work that demands consideration is Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History & Memory, which as the title implies details the history of the history of Pickett’s Charge. (You read that right.) Indeed, the veterans of George Pickett’s division came to Gettysburg in 1887 for a reunion with the Philadelphia Brigade. Not all Northern veterans were pleased by the idea, annoyed as they were because they felt that the only thing anyone remembered about the great battle was the “valorous” charge by Pickett’s Division. That was a mere 24 years after the battle; by the 75th, and last reunion of veterans, the country was moved by photos of 90-something year old former enemies shaking hands over the stone wall along Cemetery Ridge. To put this in context, my dad served in the United States Navy from 1943-1945 and saw time in the Pacific, but his son has driven Toyotas for 35 years.

There was also a great deal of contention over whether the Confederate battle flags should be displayed at that 1887 reunion. As the years went by, there were arguments over whether captured Confederate flags should be returned to the states from whose regiments they were captured. (Ultimately, they were.) In time, the United Daughters of the Confederacy issued very stringent guidelines on the flag’s display as they regarded it as sacred symbol that represented the sacrifice of Southern sons. The last thing they wanted to see happen was for the flag to be slapped on every beach towel and shot glass at souvenir stands throughout the South and the rest of the country, for that matter. I won’t get any further into the flag controversy, but I would urge you to read this article on, “Embattled Banner: The true history of the Confederate flag,” and make sure you read the two accompanying essays that appear following the article’s conclusion.

In other words—and this is my own amateur historian’s judgment—the understanding that evolved in order to make permanent the bonds of reconciliation was that the North would accept the mythology of Lee as the chivalrous knight and Pickett’s Charge as the premier example of Southern valor and sacrifice, and Southerners would accept, not only the fact that they lost (an acceptance that Lee strongly urged), but that it was good that they lost.

This understanding completely omitted what the former slaves and their descendants understood about the whole matter. That took 100 years to begin to address, although Jackie Robinson and Harry Truman laid the groundwork in 1947 and 1948 respectively.

Unfortunately, we have currently deviated from what was admittedly a winding path towards including the black perspective. We have entered into a wilderness of extremism in which nuanced thinking is not permitted. “Lee fought for slavery; he was 100% bad,” is an example of that simplistic thinking.

Make no mistake: There is no going back. We cannot undue slavery or the delay in granting civil rights. To feel guilty about these things is also to go back. As Robert E. Lee told his fellow Southerners after the war, we must move forward. I can’t undo those things, but I can think critically, I can converse respectfully, I can judge my neighbors on the content of their characters.

So, what to do about all those statues honoring General Robert E. Lee?  My suggestion would be a Museum of Reconciliation. Appomattox Court House would be a good place for that. Maybe have statues of Lee, Grant, and Booker T. Washington all facing one another with their words on reconciliation ringing the base of those statues. Include information on the reunions of the soldiers and the Civil Rights Movement. I know this much: The one group of people who are bound to propose the worst possible solution area a gaggle of politicians.

Rather than politicians deciding this question, I would like to see three grandmothers from the NAACP and three grandmothers from the United Daughters of the Confederacy brought together to decide about the statues. First item on the agenda would be passing around grand-baby photos, then, it’s down to business. I bet it wouldn’t take them long to figure out a solution, and whatever it might be, I’d be willing to abide by it.

About Austin Gisriel

You know the guy that records a baseball game from the West Coast in July and doesn't watch it until January just to see baseball in the winter? That's me. I'm a writer always in search of a good story, baseball or otherwise.
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2 Responses to Robert E. Lee, Reconciliation, and Race. And Grandmothers

  1. Hunter Hollar says:

    Wow, Austin. You have captured a collection of thoughts that I’ve had and put them in a coherent essay. (That’s what writers do!). Thank you! Your perspective on this is badly needed in the marketplace of ideas.


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