Robert E. Lee is usually set upon a pedestal, both literally and figuratively, as an example of what one might call southern honor and manhood. His supporters typically whitewash his relationship with slavery in this portrayal of all things south opting to depict him as not a racist, just someone subjected to the time and practices which he was born into. The reality is far different but facts never seem to get in the way of these views of Lee. That includes his post-war years where he is held up us a figure of humility and reconciliation.
It is true that Lee promoted the concept of reconciliation, a peaceful re-union of two sides formerly at war. A more analytical view is that Lee’s thoughts and wishes in regards to Reconstruction were still based on the interests of White Southerners. Lee wanted peaceful reconciliation as an alternative to the harsh punishments of Reconstruction. History.net has a terrific peace on Lee’s 1866 testimony to Congress. It points unbelievable testimony of Lee who “heard no expression of sentiment toward any particular portion of the country.” It is a bit skeptical…I mean, people today still complain about Sherman in Georgia. Additionally Lee shares his insight into the intelligence of black men and their capacity to vote. He states:
“…I do not think [Black Men are] as capable of acquiring knowledge as the white man is,” and that “…at this time, [Black Men] cannot vote intelligently…giving them the right of suffrage would open the door to a great deal of demagogism.”
I think it’s safe to presume many of Lee stances rested on the notion of White Supremacy and legitimate concern with a free black race in the South post-Civil War. But one thing Lee did get right in this entire post-war debacle, was his view on commemorating the events he helped precipitate. These letters have been circulating in various locations as of late but here is a couple of the highlights.
In a letter about memorials at the Gettysburg Battlefield, Lee stated:
I think it wiser, moreover, 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.
In a letter to Thomas Rosser, Lee stated
As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated; my conviction is, 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. 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.
It appears the only commemoration Lee thought appropriate was the protection of headstones. It makes you wonder where Lee would come down on the issue of today.