I hope we all agree upfront that slavery was an abomination—America’s “birth defect,” as Condoleezza Rice has put it. But that doesn’t mean the current campaign to remove the Robert E. Lee Memorial statue in Dallas’ Lee Park has any justification. It doesn’t. The Confederate general was hailed universally as an honorable if flawed gentleman for at least 150 years, and his memorial—and his memory—don’t deserve these hysterical, short-sighted attacks. Because, in my opinion, demeaning Lee also demeans the memory of the souls he served with during the tragedy that was the Civil War. Like many North Texans, my forebears were among them.
The woman in the photo above, my father’s mother, grew up dirt-poor in southwestern Arkansas. She and her husband were sharecroppers, the “lowest” of the white people. After my grandfather died at age 42, she married another man who, according to court records in Columbia County, “cursed and abused her” and her three young children and “unmercifully” whipped the children, including my dad. A petition she brought against this man said she had “worked in the field and helped to raise” six bales of cotton, and therefore was entitled to one-half of the proceeds from the cotton sale as part of her settlement.
My grandmother’s father, “D.C.R.,” or Cobe, was 17 in 1861, when, for whatever reason, he joined the Confederate army. His father, Lewis, who was 52, also joined the army that year. They both served in Company C of the 20th Arkansas Infantry until the war ended in 1865. Later, the family received some kind of assistance from the Freedman’s Bureau, which was set up to help freed slaves as well as poor whites. In the 1930s, the U.S. War Department authorized Confederate headstones bearing the inscription of the Confederate Cross of Honor in a small circle on the stone’s front face. So, my grandmother’s brother applied for two headstones to be sent to the Mount Moriah Cemetary in Nevada County, Arkansas. There, they were placed atop the unmarked graves of Cobe and his father.
Proponents of removing historical monuments like the Lee Park statue don’t like to call such acts revising or rewriting history. But, that’s what they are—political correctness, basically, run amok. And, giving in to their “demands” would set a really bad precedent. I’m sure some Mexican-Americans don’t much like what the Alamo stands for, so why let it stand unmolested? Washington and Jefferson were slave owners, so why should the Washington Monument and Monticello escape? Many consider Vietnam to have been an immoral war—young Vietnamese were napalmed, remember—so why not get after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial next. If you think these examples are too outrageous to be considered, think again.
As for the Lee statue, which was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt here in 1936, maybe the current detractors could learn from the sober, measured words of another president, who advocated in the late 1890s for federal recognition of Confederate and Union soldiers alike. “Every soldier’s grave made during our unfortunate Civil War is a tribute to American valor,” William McKinley said. “And while, when those graves were made, we differed widely about the future of this government, those differences were long ago settled by the arbitrament of arms … What a glorious future awaits us if united, wisely, and bravely we face the new problems now pressing upon us, determined to solve them for right and humanity.”