Robert E. Lee and Choice: A Lesson for Memorials and Monuments - by Greer Clem

It says a lot about the current state of our nation that I feel obligated to profile Robert E. Lee, but, alas, here we are. Despite being praised and assaulted by both political parties, Robert E. Lee was a conflicted and complicated character, not so easily divided. In order to better understand the divisiveness of monuments to this man, first we should understand him. But before we delve into our nation's history, we need to establish the difference between memorials and monuments. 

To some, it may seem as though the difference is inconsequential, but to me, it is everything. In my mind, a monument is something that honors a human or event; it is a symbol to be looked upon with pride and reverence. A memorial serves to commemorate a person, persons, or an event and is often a reminder of sacrifice and the resilience of humanity. Thus, there is surely a difference between a memorial to fallen confederate soldiers and a monument to a confederate general. So, Robert E. Lee serving as the modern day symbol of the confederacy, let's learn about who he was. 

Robert E. Lee was born and raised in Virginia, the son of a heroic Revolutionary War General, though he had little to no relationship with his father. He graduated second in his class at West Point and went on to serve in the Mexican War. After returning to West Point as superintendent, he was sent to Texas to protect settlers from Native American tribes trying to regain their land. When he returned to Virginia, he inherited slaves from his father-in-law who had recently passed away. Lee was tasked with executing his father-in-law's will, which had indicated that his slaves were to be freed after his death. When Lee returned to the plantation to oversee it himself and did not free the slaves, they were, understandably, furious. The plantation continued to run tumultuously under Lee's guidance, though he could not fully understand their anger towards him.

Lee was known to have been critical at times of the institution of slavery. However, his views towards Africans and African Americans did not make this stance too sympathetic. Though Lee had at times shared his belief that slavery was an evil institution, he also believed that slaves were far better off in America than in Africa and that their race was naturally inferior and thus needed conditioning before they could advance to a state of emancipation. 

As divisions between the north and south intensified, Lee remained fairly impartial. However, he was tasked with disbanding the rebellion at Harper's Ferry, which he did swiftly and readily because he believed, above all else, in protecting his native state, Virginia. Shortly after Harper's Ferry, Texas seceded from the Union. Privately, Lee thought the confederacy's mission for secession was a doomed one. He understood the south's grievances but knew that, if push came to shove, the south would lose. 

Lee, as a member of the Union army, which was at that time still a national defense, was offered a top position within the Union and asked if he would fight against the confederacy. Lee responded that he would not draw arms against the Union, but that he would defend Virginia if he had to. Lee then resigned from the Union army and began commanding the Virginia state forces.

Slowly, as the years went on, Lee rose higher and higher within the Confederacy. Though initially a reluctant member, by 1865 he had been promoted to General in Chief. On April 9, 1865, succumbing to the fate he once saw as inevitable, General Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. After the south's surrender, Lee advocated for reconciliation between the north and south and was entirely cooperative with the Union's reconstruction movements. But what must be discussed here is not that Lee knew the outcome before the war began, it is that he made a choice to participate despite knowing that the rhetoric of the south would fall. 

We all make choices, from the inconsequential to the monumental. Ultimately, it's not the reasons why you made the choice that you have to live with; it is the choice itself. Lee may have reasoned himself into leading the Confederacy, justifying it through the baby steps he took climbing his way to the top, but he was offered a choice. No one forced him to fight for the confederacy, for a cause he did not truly believe in and knew would fail. He shrouded his decision with his love for Virginia and his devotion to state sovereignty, but such decision making would be akin to looking at a photo of a flower and trying to see the whole garden; you have to look at the bigger picture. 

Should there be statues to Robert E. Lee? No, there should not - not so much because of who he was but the choices he made. Lee has been immortalized as a symbol of the confederacy and slavery, which is, realistically, an inaccurate representation. But he could have chosen to be a symbol of equality and unity, and he did not. He could have freed the slaves he inherited, but he did not. We need to examine his choices and the consequences they had, not so that we can hide from our nation's divisive history, but instead so that we may learn from it. 

Lives lost during the civil war should be memorialized- we should never forget, especially now, that there was a time when we, as a nation, felt we had so little in common with one another that we wished to separate. Monuments, however, should be to those people who made brave choices, not for themselves, but for the greater good. Martin Luther King Jr., who risked his life every day for the advancement of equality; Bobby Kennedy, who put pride aside to remove us from the Cuban Missile Crisis; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who subjected herself to persecution every day, choosing to speak out for all women, even those who disagreed with her. 

At the end of the day, all we have to reflect on is our choices. It is my hope that our monuments will reflect those people we admire, our memorials will reflect those sacrifices that have been made, and we will all be brave enough to stand up for more than just ourselves. 

Greer Clem