Proponents of Confederate monument preservation often regurgitate the same three points to defend their position: the memorials represent Southern history, removing them therefore risks a repetition of history, and that some of the memorials depict people who weren’t actually racist. Confederate General Robert. E. Lee is the penultimate example of the “actually not a racist” defense. All three defenses serve to whitewash the Confederacy and rebrand it as a nice, white, and polite southern gentleman’s club.
Following the terror in Charlottesville, VA, Lee’s great-great granddaughter and grandson released a well-intentioned statement claiming that the Confederate general would have denounced white nationalism. Pause. While I acknowledge why Lee’s great-great grandchildren might want to denounce white supremacy for their ancestor, they can’t. And I’m entirely unconvinced that Lee “would have never tolerated” white supremacy.
“General Lee’s life was about duty, honor and country,” the statement read. “At the end of the Civil War, he implored the nation to come together to heal our wounds and to move forward to become a more unified nation. He never would have tolerated the hateful words and violent actions of white supremacists, the KKK, or Neo Nazis.”
We have no idea what a man who died more than a century ago would think because he’s dead. People who knew him personally are dead. We’ve passed the point of submitting possible character references. What we do have is Lee’s own words through his letters and they certainly indicate a man who would sympathize with the white nationalist cause.
As Adam Serwer noted in the Atlantic, Lee was a viciously cruel slave owner who habitually broke up slave families. One of Lee’s biographers, Elizabeth Brown Proyor recounted that his slaves described him as “the worst man I ever see.”
When Lee’s army invaded Pennsylvania, they captured free black people and brought them back to the South as slaves. During reconstruction Lee “raged against Republican efforts to enforce racial equality on the South,” according to Serwer.
Speaking of southern gentlemen clubs, a group of six former Confederate soldiers started one after they lost the war. It was called the Ku Klux Klan — as if the relationship between the Klan and the Confederacy weren’t already clear.
I’m sure Lee’s great-great grand children admire the general. A fairytale like the myth of Lee’s patriotism for Virginia is much nicer to believe. Suggesting that Lee would have denounced white supremacy, the very foundation of the Confederacy, is the epitome of “erasing history” and the definition of whitewashing.