In the wake of growing hostility toward the Confederacy a New Orleans Robert E. Lee statue is scheduled for destruction and debate is underway in Charlottesville, Virginia to remove another. Even though Washington & Lee is a private university, it has already yielded to pressures to remove the Confederate flag from the Lee Chapel. The school may ultimately feel compelled to drop the Lee name unless at least a few venerable historians publicly object to the escalating hatred toward Confederate symbols. To date none have done so, presumably for one of two reasons.
First, they believe the odium is justified. Given such an opinion there is no reason why they should object to degrading Lee’s memory and may even wish to promote it.
Second, those who think the disdain is excessive lack the will to speak out due to the prevailing opposite sentiment among their peers and the public. It takes courage for historians who have spent years earning favor to express a contrary viewpoint since it may adversely affect their popularity, reputations and book sales. Nonetheless, Mississippian Shelby Foote set a good example of such pluck fifty years ago in the afterword of the second volume of his three-volume Civil War Narrative:
I am indebted also to the governors of my native state and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing, in their actions during the several years that went into the writing of this volume, much that was least admirable in the position my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln. I…fervently hope it is true that history never repeats itself, but I know in watching these three gentlemen, it can be terrifying in its approximations, even when the reproduction is in miniature.
Washington & Lee would not be the admired school it is today without Lee’s legacy. After he became president of Washington College in 1865 he attracted financial donations from all over the country. His reputation was a magnet that drew some to the best students in the South and increasingly from other parts of the country as well. The school’s present status owes more to his memory than to Washington’s, or anyone else’s. To remove his name would be to deny the credit he deserves. Nonetheless, it could become a consequence of the present trend toward Southern cultural genocide that is “terrifying in its approximations.”
My Civil War Books
To be released in May and available for pre-order: The Confederacy at Flood Tide