The Only Memorial Robert E. Lee Should Ever Get

I don’t think Robert E. Lee is the personification of evil. He was a complicated man who had many admirable qualities. But he made the wrong decision when he decided to commit treason in the defense of slavery, and we need to always keep some key statistics in mind. Approximately 620,000 Americans lost their lives in the Civil War. On the Union side, 360,222 people died preserving the integrity and unity of our nation. You can’t celebrate Gen. Lee’s military genius without taking into consideration his contribution to those numbers.

As you can imagine, it takes a lot of space to bury 360,222 people. The available burial plots in and around northern Virginia filled up quickly.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, most military personnel who died in battle near Washington, D.C., were buried at the United States Soldiers’ Cemetery in Washington, D.C., or Alexandria Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, but by late 1863 both were nearly full. On July 16, 1862, Congress passed legislation authorizing the U.S. federal government to purchase land for national cemeteries for military dead, and put the U.S. Army Quartermaster General in charge of this program. In May 1864, Union forces suffered large numbers of dead in the Battle of the Wilderness. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs ordered that an examination of eligible sites be made for the establishment for a large new national military cemetery. Within weeks, his staff reported that Arlington Estate was the most suitable property in the area. The property was high and free from floods (which might unearth graves), it had a view of the District of Columbia, and it was aesthetically pleasing. It was also the home of the leader of the armed forces of the Confederate States of America, and denying Robert E. Lee use of his home after the war was a valuable political consideration.

It’s nice to pretend that the Arlington Estate’s high ground was a major consideration, but we all know that burying the dead in Robert E. Lee’s yard was a way of punishing him for his treachery and the butchery we was causing to the Union forces. Arlington National Cemetery is the nation’s monument to Robert E. Lee. It is a fully appropriate “fuck you” to a man who was invited to lead the Union’s forces but chose to fight for secession and slavery.

On April 18 [1861], Lee met separately with Francis Preston Blair Sr. and General Winfield Scott. Empowered by Lincoln to “ascertain Lee’s intentions and feelings,” Blair asked Lee to assume command of the army being raised to put down the rebellion. Lee declined the offer and proceeded immediately to Scott’s office, where he recounted his conversation with Blair and reiterated that he would not accept the proffered command. Tradition has it that Scott, a fellow Virginian, replied, “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life; but I feared it would be so.”

That should have been the end to monuments to Robert E. Lee. I don’t often agree with Jay Nordlinger, but I think we’re on the same page here:

Some monuments are meant to record history, it’s true. I think of memorials to the dead. They are very important. Other monuments — probably most of them — are meant to honor the person depicted. He is literally on a pedestal…

…After the collapse of the Soviet Union, people all over the former empire took down statues of Lenin and Stalin. In doing so, they were not eradicating history. They know this history all too well; they want it recorded, faithfully. They did not want Lenin and Stalin honored. They did not believe that these men ought to be on pedestals. So they took them down.

A reader made a point to me: There are no monuments to Hitler. Oddly enough, we manage to remember World War II and the Holocaust.

So, by all means, let’s have our arguments over the Confederate monuments. And let’s not shirk our duty to think. To exercise our powers of discrimination. To try to determine who is worthy of honor and who is not. Let’s not become, or pretend to be, zombies.

We ought to memorialize the dead who fought and defeated Robert E. Lee’s Confederacy, and I think it was pure genius to do so in the yard of the general’s estate. They were worthy of our honor and Gen. Lee was not. When we honor those we’ve lost in war, we do so in a way that is a perpetual rebuke of the treason that Lee committed. For all time, he is held to account for filling the spot with the corpses of American boys who should never have had to go fight his armies. That history cannot and will not be eradicated.

And it was an offense against our nation the second the first statue of Lee was put on pedestal and people were taught to honor his memory. It’s a testament to the tolerance of the victors and our nation’s commitment to free speech that these confederate statues were tolerated for even a moment. To think that people would expect us to keep them up forever out of some kind of faithfulness to history is to confuse an accommodating desire to patch up our nation’s wounds with some kind of consensus that we should let bygones be bygones.

Robert E. Lee made war against his own people of his own free choice. He wasn’t some Georgia farm kid conscripted into a cause he didn’t fully understand. He was asked to put down the rebellion and he chose to lead it instead. That’s why we still bury our fallen soldiers in his yard.

And that’s all the honor he should ever get.

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