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The vanishing Robert E. Lee

By D. Paul Thomas
web posted January 11, 2021

With the removal (12/21/20) of the Robert E. Lee statue from the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond, VA., the memory of General Lee’s stained legacy will continue to fade from public consciousness, inspiring the removal of dozens of statues still standing that pay homage to the fallen military leader of the Confederacy. “And why not?”—the revisionists of history will resoundingly ask! After all, monuments of Hitler are not permitted in Germany, and even Russia has removed numerous statues of Lenin and Stalin. If it’s good enough for the communists it should be good enough for the USA!    

Not satisfied with the removal of controversial monuments located on its campus, the faculty of Virginia’s Washington and Lee University have voted (188 to 51) to remove Lee’s offensive name from the its illustrious name, leaving it Washington University, that is until the radical revisionists among them demand Washington’s name be excised as well, contemptuous slaveholder that Washington was. I can easily imagine a “Radically Inclusive Renaming Committee” appointed by W&L’s board of trustees suggesting that the school be renamed George Floyd University, capturing the heightened passions of our zeitgeist. And why not, we should ask ourselves—why shouldn’t we revise, remove, expunge, abolish, and tear down all vestiges of racism wherever they may be found?

Whether penned by philosopher George Santayana or another, the adage “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has withstood the test of time. America’s Robert E. Lee is not Germany’s Hitler or Russia’s Stalin. Slavery, in all of its horror, has been a fact of life for millennia, including for many of our forebears. And though revisionist history now explains earlier slavery as a tribal issue vs. a racial issue (which, conveniently, makes racism distinctly American, circa1619), Robert E. Lee was not an aberration of history, but every bit a man of racism’s provenance and his turbulent times. A graduate of West Point (second in his class), he served his nation with honor alongside Ulysses S. Grant in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Subsequently, Lee was appointed Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), and following the attack on Fort Sumter, he was asked by President Lincoln (through intermediary, Francis P. Blair) to serve as a commander of the Federal forces (April 18, 1861). He declined and eventually was a commander of the Confederate States Army. If a “tragic flaw” is inherent in greatness, Lee’s declination to serve the Union glaringly exposed his fault lines. Four year later (April 9, 1865) when surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, General Grant, in a gesture of reconciliation, allowed Lee and his officers to retain their horses and personal luggage, and soon “paroles” were issued en masse to the rank-and-file soldier. As Lee rode away from the McLean house where the two Generals had agreed to the terms of surrender, Grant asked his men to take off their hats as a sign of respect for their vanquished enemy. Later that same year, Lee was made President of Washington University (renamed Washington & Lee shortly after his death in 1870) and publicly supported the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery. Ironically, in 1869, Lee vocally opposed plans to build Confederate monuments at Gettysburg, the aging general exemplifying those words of Lincoln “to bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace….”

But since that time, those highly-contested Confederate statues and monuments have been built around the country by the hundreds. Of the 1,328 monuments, memorials, markers and plaques at the Gettysburg National Memorial Park, approximately a quarter commemorate those southern states whose soldiers fought in the Confederate Army. In Stone Mountain, Georgia—the Confederate Memorial and Carving—the largest (76 by 158 ft.) bas-relief sculpture in the world, depicts Lee on his trusty horse, Traveller, riding with Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, and General “Stonewall” Jackson—the triumvirate clasping their hats over their hearts. Richard Rose, former President of the NAACP, called the bas-relief, “The largest shrine to white supremacy in the history of the world.” Joining the outcry, the armed “Not F**king Around Coalition” militia is demanding the demolition of the monument. Other groups, equally expressive in rhetoric, are demanding all Confederate representations at Gettysburg be taken down. And on and on it goes, including the 2017 deconsecration and removal of the stained-glass windows in Washington’s National Cathedral depicting Generals Lee and Jackson.

As Robert E. Lee vanishes into the historical dustbin, it will be an inevitable progression for many of our slave-holding founders to be condemned in absentia, potentially resulting in the removal of Jefferson and Washington and other luminaries from our cultural landscape. Conspicuously absent from this historical purge will be any measure of forgiveness and reconciliation, ignoring, as it does, Lincoln’s admonition to treat one’s enemies “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Curiously, there is room in our cathedral windows for the thief on the cross and for Judas Iscariot who betrayed our Lord, but no room for the Judas Robert E. Lee who betrayed his country. It is not enough that some 300,000 Union soldiers shed their blood that this nation might experience “a new birth of freedom,” the sin of slavery must be paid for over and over till the last drop of racism has been drained. One would hope that some sense of decency would protect the Confederate dead still buried on Union battlefields, but persuasive groups want all potential Confederate remains removed, unheeding those ominous words on Shakespeare’s tomb, “Blessed be the man that spares these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones.”

Not since the Civil War have our nation’s wounds been so pregnable. One need not be a Lee apologist to know that there is a spirit of malice at work in the heart of today’s anti-racist movement. Their goal transcends the fading memory of Robert E. Lee. There will be no endpoint till every plaque, painting, naming, statue, memorial and representation of white supremacy are brought down—culminating in that eternally offensive symbol of forgiveness—the cross. Until America’s checkered history is obliterated, the revengeful antiracist will never be satiated. There is no room for forgiveness—it’s payback time—with retribution and reparations the ultimate goal.  

Tragically, this racist, anti-racist movement has laid the groundwork for a new civil war, with communities, families, and generations pitted against each other once again. The cultural revolution of the 60’s was nothing more than a harbinger of the destruction to come: our inner cities will be abandoned, our urban schools shuttered, neighborhoods blighted, white-flight accelerated; homelessness will explode, drug use soar, gangs will flourish, and lawlessness prevail.

Unless …

Recently, in The Church of St. Nicholas, in the tiny village of Moreton, England, a controversial stained-glass window was installed. The church’s windows were blown out by an errant German bomb in World War II, and years after makeshift windows had been installed, the eminent glass artist, Laurence Whistler, was engaged to redo all the panels. Brilliantly, he designed windows “depicting butterflies, birds, rabbits, wild flowers, candles, stars and planets and local scenes,” garnering national attention. After completing 12 windows, he offered to create and donate a final 13th panel. The window was dark and shadowy in appearance, slowly revealing to the eye a man dangling from a tree with pieces of silver falling from his hand. Yes, it was Judas, the 13th apostle and betrayer of Christ. For over thirty years the congregation resisted its installation, finding its subject matter “appalling.” Whistler, dubbing his window, “the forgiveness window,” loaned it to the county museum with the caveat that if the church ever wanted it, it should go to them. Finally, in 2014, fourteen years after Whistler’s death, the congregation grasped the window’s emblematic message of forgiveness, and it was formally dedicated and blessed by the Bishop of Salisbury and installed at the parish church in Moreton. This window of an “unholy figure,” as Whistler compared it to, has become a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation for the local parish and greater community at large.

That “forgiveness window” should serve as our inspiration. Can America find the space and cultural context for its Judases? Can the totality of our complicated and nuanced history be a teaching tool rather than a divisive one? Can the spirit of condemnation, which now prevails, be replaced with a spirit of understanding and cooperation?  Unless this spirit of forgiveness sweeps through our nation, we are condemned to repeat the past. We need not. We dare not. We can learn from the past. We can learn to forgive one another. We can learn, with God’s help, to love one another, help one another, and strive to live with one another in peace, working together to build, in the words of Lincoln, “a more perfect union.” ESR

D. Paul Thomas is an actor, playwright and essayist. Currently, he is Creative Director of TGA Productions - tgaproductions.org. Reach him at: dpaul@tgaproductions.org.

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