Like many who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up admiring Robert E. Lee. In an era when our history books stressed a consensus view of America’s past, Lee was seen as a noble figure: a respected leader, a skillful tactician, and an honorable man. President Lincoln offered him a major command in the Union Army, over which he agonized before resigning his commission and taking command of the forces of his beloved Virginia. In doing so, he chose to wage war against his country, a war that would claim more lives than all our future wars combined.
Lee’s whitewashed legacy reinforced the image of the Lost Cause – an antebellum South now Gone With the Wind, yet still struggling nobly to preserve its agrarian way of life. It’s an image that haunts us still. As the courtly symbol of that idyllic South, Lee has allowed us to gloss over its brutality.
Taking down his statue will not, as critics claim, erase history. On the contrary, it will enrich it by acknowledging historical truths we need to confront: four million slaves and over 4,000 lynchings, a century of Jim Crow and racism still strong enough to elect a president who will not condemn it. Robert E. Lee was a complex man, but there is nothing complicated about the symbol he has become. How can we fulfill Lincoln’s promise “to bind up the nation’s wounds” if we insist on venerating icons that rub salt in them?