Never say that the media doesn't take the easy way out. In the old days, newspaper folks used to keep headlines in type to speed things up. ("Attack in Middle East" or "Guv signs bill") Just this fall, CBS Sports ran some B-roll footage during a Saints game in New Orleans--but fans of the team and the city noticed something oddly out of place. The footage, featuring the city's landmarks as the network came back from commercial break, showed a streetcar going through Lee Circle. And passing a statue of Robert E. Lee.
The statue had been taken down months before. It was old stock footage.
No word if the network's sports producers were drawn and quartered. For these days, showing, mentioning or maybe even thinking about Robert E. Lee is impolitic at best.
Even in Lee Circle in New Orleans--Lee Circle!--the statue of the man no longer stands.
Since last Jan. 19, it's been a difficult year for statues honoring the old general. Not only did they remove the Lee statue from Lee Park in Dallas, but renamed the park. Duke University removed a Lee statue from a chapel, and two weeks later, after the statue was safely cased away, the president of Duke formed a Commission on Memory and History. Better if it had been called a Commission on Irony.
The whitewashing of American history continues posthaste. From New Orleans to Vermont, not just monuments and school names but mascots are all being erased from the books. How Soviet. We can remember how those who fell out of favor with The Party were not only scrubbed from photographs but, through amateurish camera tricks, taken out of movies as well. It became an art of sorts, watching the Soviets flush things down the memory hole. The West could tell who was in favor, and who was most decidedly doubleplusungood, by watching films out of Moscow.
Monuments to Lee and others who served in the old, unlamented Confederacy remind us all that America has had a difficult and complicated past. On this, Gen. Lee's birthday, is it any less complicated? But there are some who prefer a more safe, simple, and simplistic historical record. And would not only get rid of the memories of the cads from the old Confederacy--Nathan Bedford Forrest is the worst but not only example--but also the honorable ones. And few people who knew him thought Robert E. Lee's honor was anything but marrow deep.
The old story goes that General Robert E. Lee was having difficulty finding food enough to feed the prisoners of war in his charge. As his officers discussed how to overcome the problem, one of them bitterly suggested that the Union Army had plenty of food, and perhaps they could send a letter over the lines to General Grant, asking him to send rations to feed his own soldiers. To which General Lee quietly replied: "These aren't General Grant's prisoners."
Today marks the birthday of one of the true gentlemen--and one of the superior generals--of this country's short history. Even the governments of several states still recognize his birthday, even if they'd recognize it deep into the summer, which was certainly not his birthday. Better that Lee, and our history, are hidden away. With all the respect due to those with a closed view of history, which is very little, allow us to remind them that the people who made history at the time had no idea what the right side of history would be. They could only be responsible for their honor. Or to quote a president named Lincoln in a letter he wrote to a group of clergy in Chicago:
"I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in the belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal His will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed He would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right. The subject is difficult, and good men do not agree."
When Robert E. Lee's nation came calling, his nation was Virginia. And he studied the plain physical facts of the case and put on the Confederate uniform. It's messy history, but aren't we repeating ourselves?
Whatever a body on Jan. 19, 2018, may think about the glorious, victorious, idiotic decision to fire on Fort Sumter, a nation can't erase its history, pliable though history may be. A nation without a history would be no more a nation than a human would be without a memory.
The uses of Lee's name and symbol and character have been varied. To the old folks at home, he might still be an icon to be remembered fondly, the centerpiece of all those Confederate Memorial Day observances, the storybook knight beyond approach, the marble man of the Southern mythology--less man than monument.
The cynics and scornful can't resist using Lee, either. As a foil. As the personification of all Southern sins and hypocrisies. The hero as an antihero. Call this history one of the plastic arts. We go to the past not as students but as scavengers, on the lookout for what we can find and finding just what we always expected. Even if we have to plant it there ourselves.
THE AMERICAN Civil War is often hailed as the first modern war. It saw the introduction of not only new technologies--automatic weapons, ironclad ships, submarines--but of new strategies that did away with old qualms. William Tecumseh Sherman's total war, an innovation in 1864, became the standard for the next century.
But if the American Civil War was the first modern war, it also ushered out the old formal wars fought by a certain code. Robert E. Lee's campaigns of mobility and surprise against forces superior to his own in every material respect may have been the last in a long line.
The most celebrated and analyzed battle of the war still remains Gettysburg, a loss for Robert E. Lee and his army. Not just two armies met there, but the past and future of war. Pickett's charge meets massed artillery. And there was never any doubt who'd win in that match-up.
But even before the battle was begun, before his army would limp back to defeat, before the Lost Cause was lost, Robert E. Lee--already a man of the past--issued an order on entering enemy territory. His troops would act like his troops:
"The commanding general considers that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it our whole people, than the perpetration of the barbarous outrages upon the unarmed, and defenceless and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country . . . It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain."
Some ask why not forget R.E. Lee, and make our history easier to read, digest and/or manage. Our answer: Robert Lee's victories might have been the stuff of legend, but his honor was even more legendary. It'd be a shame if this country, in its haste to whitewash its history, let itself forget that.
Editorial on 01/19/2018
Print Headline: Again, Lee's birthday