Almost three years ago, a history buff and biographer of Robert E. Lee, Jonathan Horn, wrote a book that provided a different perspective of the Confederate general. The book, titled The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, recalled a history of Lee that many casual readers don’t know, and one that many fans like to whitewash. With all of Donald Trump’s ridiculous comparisons between Lee and the father of our country, it’s easy to overlook that the southern leader was the son of a man who’d served Washington in the Revolutionary War like nearly no other.
In fact, Lee’s father, “Light Horse Harry,” gave the eulogy at George Washington’s funeral:
First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.
In death, only the best things are remembered. There was no urban legend about Washington’s “wooden teeth” while he was alive. He provided for the liberation of his own slaves in his will. His last words, after the valiant efforts of doctors to save him, were “Tis well.” Washington was a complex man, and his legacy would only unpack years after his passing.
The same can be said of the eulogist’s son. When the most famous Confederate looked at secession before the Civil War, he was disdainful:
The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom and forbearance in its formation … if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will.
Lee eventually resigned his commission in the Union Army. He joined his home state of Virginia in taking up arms in rebellion, and like many of the conservatives of today, he fudged on his history, insisting that he’d always favored leaving the United States. But his complexity, unpacked after his death, is most compelling in looking at his view of remembrance.
Robert E. Lee never wanted monuments or memorials to the Civil War.
Some of the history of Lee’s re-change of heart is well-known: Upon his surrender, he vowed to support the U.S. Constitution “henceforth,” and commanded his followers to do the same. But many wanted to honor Lee’s service to the South with statues and memorials. Lee rebuffed them:
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, and of continuing if not adding to the difficulties under which the Southern people labor.
Robert E. Lee understood then what many still do not get today: That the flags of wars past serve nothing but to fight those wars over again in our minds. He was adamant:
I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.
Now, I personally am not a historian. But early America has always been a passion of mine — My great-great-great-great-great grandfather is buried in Calais, Vermont, his service in the Revolutionary War inscribed on his headstone. It should likewise at least serve as instruction for those who would fawn over its legends. Many symbols exist today commemorating the Confederacy, especially in Virginia, Lee’s own state.
But if you want to honor Robert E. Lee, honor the fact that he never wanted to see you waving a Confederate flag.
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