What is it about Lee anyway?

August 10, 2018 12:05 pm

Red paint covers the base of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Aug. 4, 2018)

One of the more entertaining exchanges I ever heard concerning Robert E. Lee went like this.

It was after a public hearing attended largely by African-Americans and largely ignored by white people.

‘”The white folks didn’t come down because they knew the fix was in, and they didn’t have to come down,” said Official A.

That got Official B’s dander up.

“He knows damn well the fix wasn’t in,” he said.

“If you don’t like it, that’s tough,” Official A countered.

“I don’t like it,” answered Official B.

“That’s tough,” said Official A.

Now that’s what I call debate.

That exchange, reported by me and a co-author in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, occurred in July 1999, fully 19 years ago, at a Richmond City Council meeting.

Official A was Councilman Sa’ad El-Amin, a very smart, very fiery Ivy League-educated lawyer. Official B was Councilman John Conrad, a very smart, very even-tempered Ivy League-educated lawyer.

What occasioned this burst of rhetorical splendor was a recently installed portrait of Lee, wearing his Confederate uniform, on a portrait gallery on the floodwall that keeps the James River from flooding downtown Richmond.

The portrait went up in early June and came down the next day after El-Amin went ballistic. You would have thought someone snatched the Buddha from under his Bodhi tree.

Things really started rolling right after that.

There was a concert on Brown’s Island right after the portrait came down, attended by a very large crowd, all of whom were handed bumper stickers reading “Where is General Lee” as they entered the concert grounds.

A committee was formed. It recommended an expanded historical gallery along the floodwall that included a picture of Lee, but wearing civilian clothes while he lived briefly in Richmond after the Civil War.

A documentary film crew came to town and toured the dusty and largely vacant land and parking lots along the north side of the floodwall, where Lee’s portrait had been hung. The filmmakers were from places like New York and Los Angeles and were a little bemused.

David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, also came to Richmond with his posse and toured the same area. He gave speeches about his white heritage and held rallies attended by descendants of Confederate soldiers and wannabes.

Sound vaguely familiar?

The story had legs. It went on for weeks. But eventually, the kerfuffle faded away. Lee is long gone from the floodwall, but then again, Lee is never really gone.

What is it about Robert E. Lee, anyway? I would hazard a guess that there are more statues of Lee, and his horse, in this country than there are of genuine American heroes.

Lee, after all, was a man who took up arms against the government of the United States. We have a word for that, which you don’t hear often enough about Lee and his fellow generals. He was a slaveholder, reputed to be a harsh one.

As is also widely noted, even Lee himself was not keen on the idea of monuments to the bitter and brutal struggle.

“I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered,” he wrote in an 1869 letter declining an invitation to a meeting of Union and Confederate officers who fought at Gettysburg “for the purpose of marking upon the ground by enduring memorials of granite the positions and movements of the armies on the field.”

Once again we’re debating Lee. Some want to take down Lee statues in places like Richmond and Charlottesville and a number of other cities across the South. Others say leave them, but change the message.

To what? “Here stands a monument to a true American traitor. He led an army of thousands of men to certain defeat and death, in defense of a horrible mistake.”

People also say, “You can’t change history.” I agree. The Lee monument was put up on what was then the outskirts of Richmond by white supremacists in 1890, 25 years after the end of the Civil War, to remind themselves and others of their supremacy. That’s its history. Taking it down would add to that history, by saying white supremacy is done.

Lee has the only monument he should ever have – that big cemetery in his yard.

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Gordon Hickey
Gordon Hickey

Gordon Hickey is a lifelong reporter and editor who worked for more than 20 years at The Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times-Dispatch covering law enforcement, courts, and politics. He also served as Gov. Tim Kaine's press secretary and most recently was director of communications at the Virginia State Bar.