In lovely Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, white supremacists carrying Confederate battle flags and sporting Nazi helmets turned a controversy over the planned removal of the town’s Gen. Robert E. Lee statue into a pitched street battle.
Their fight with counter-demonstrators left three people dead, dozens injured and a normally quiet university community in chaos.
Afterward, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray announced that he’s taking steps to move Confederate statues from the old Fayette County courthouse on Lexington’s Main Street. Here’s hoping those relocations don’t spark a similar disturbance.
Among their many sins, the supremacists in Charlottesville displayed a stunning ignorance of history — including how old Bobby Lee himself would have reacted to their spectacle.
Yes, it’s tricky to try to put yourself in the mind of any historical icon long since dead.
But on this subject, we need not worry. We know with near certainty how Lee would have reacted. He would have told the supremacists to shut up and go home, although he would have phrased it more politely. He would have told Charlottesville officials to remove his statue.
After his surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, at the close of our nation’s bloody Civil War, Lee defied the illogic and passions of many of his fellow Southerners.
He publicly, repeatedly advised them to move past the war, embrace peace and become stellar citizens of the United States.
This directly contradicted the intentions of other leading Confederates, who urged Southern soldiers to hoard their weapons, melt into the hills and wage a never-ending guerrilla war.
Fortunately for all concerned, Lee was so beloved that his voice carried the day.
The late Kentuckian Charles Bracelen Flood, in his book “Lee: The Last Years,” writes that “conciliation was his creed. Lee knew that the war was over and that everything depended on a new attitude for a new day.”
When a man in Richmond, Va., solicited donations for a monument to honor Lee’s legendary comrade Stonewall Jackson, Lee declined to contribute.
In Flood’s words, “Lee believed that the erection of Confederate monuments would keep alive the wartime passions that he was trying to eradicate.”
Lee happened to visit a Virginia lady eager to show him a ragged tree in her front yard, Flood says. Its limbs had been blown off by Union artillery, its trunk battered. The woman looked at Lee, expecting him to sympathize over this sacred memento of the war.
“Cut it down, my dear madam, and forget it,” Lee said.
A former general, Jubal Early, wrote to Lee from a self-imposed Mexican exile to discuss how much he hated the Yankees, even though the battles were done.
Lee responded that “all controversy, I think, will only serve to prolong angry and bitter feelings, and postpone the period when reason and charity may resume their sway.”
To a bitter Confederate widow, Lee said, “Madam, do not train up your children in hostility to the government of the United States. Remember, we are all one country now. … Bring them up to be Americans.”
Clearly, it’s ironic (some might say hypocritical) that the general most responsible for nearly destroying the nation would advise others to forget their ill will and heal that same country.
But it’s also ironic (some might say hypocritical) that white supremacists would use a monument to Lee as their excuse for committing violence. For Lee, when the war was over, it was over. The issues had been decided. The time had come to forgive, reconcile, heal and move forward.
As I watched news clips of the street brawling in Charlottesville, that’s the history lesson I wished someone had taught those yahoos waving Confederate flags and sporting Nazi helmets.
The Civil War ended 152 years ago. It’s long since over, guys.
The Confederates lost.
World War II ended 72 years ago, when your grandfathers were still sucking on baby bottles. That one’s over, too.
The Nazis lost.
You’re on the wrong side of history. Move on.
I’m not one of the Lost Cause’s wistful faithful who ennoble Robert E. Lee. Far from it. I believe he was tragically flawed to help lead the South in the Civil War.
That said, there’s little question of what he’d say about that statue in Charlottesville — or the ones here in Lexington, for that matter.
He’d say, “Cut them down, and forget them.”
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.