Every year about this time I expect to hear about the Lee-Jackson Day events in Virginia and normally I roll my eyes, take a deep breath, and forget about it—hoping that the Lost Cause will soon draw its last breath. It appears that will not be happening any time soon.
The recent controversy surrounding the Confederate flag in South Carolina has reinvigorated the Lost Causers to new heights of indignation. Of course, that other parts of the country are now talking about removing statues, plaques, and all manner of tributes does not help. People in the South feel like their heritage is under attack, and they are right—to a certain extent.
Let me explain.
In an article published in The Washington Times, December 2013, there was discussion at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, as to whether portraits of Lee and Jackson should continue to hang in the hallways there. Spokeswoman for the college, Carol Kerr, wondered about the future of the depictions because “Lee was certainly not good for the nation.” Kerr stated, “This is the guy we faced on the battlefield whose entire purpose in life was to destroy the nation as it was then conceived.”
I do not know where Kerr is from or anything about her, except that she worked in an official capacity at the War College. And, I do not know if those portraits are still hanging on the walls. But, here is my point: we can take political correctness too far by removing all traces of unpleasant history.
I don’t like the Lost Cause romance. I don’t like people overly venerating (dare I say worshiping) historical figures like Lee (think of the recumbent statue of Lee in the chapel at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA). I think it is unhealthy. But, I understand people admiring Lee. He had some noble qualities. He also chose to fight AGAINST the U.S. government. So, if the War College had a portrait of Capt. Robert E. Lee, for instance, who served the country well prior to the Civil War, should we take that down because of his later choice? Should we erase Robert E. Lee entirely? I don’t think so. Lee made valuable contributions to the United States as Superintendent of West Point, as an engineer during the Mexican War, and he made valuable contributions to the United States once the Civil War was over by promoting peace. To my mind, he made the wrong choice by fighting for the Confederacy (he would say fighting for Virginia). But at other times in his life, he acted honorably and served with distinction.
It is a slippery slope when we start removing portraits and statues to avoid someone from being offended. If we take down all statues and portraits of Robert E. Lee, then to be consistent we must tear down the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, because those men were—after all—slaveholders. And while slavery was an abomination to the United States, it is far from the only instance. What about political corruption? Or adultery? Do we start tearing through the history books in a campaign to weed out all those who committed misdeeds, public or private? As I said, it is a slippery slope.
When we put up a statue or portrait, it is itself a historic act. If we tear them down, we are not only erasing the person being depicted but we are also erasing the act of those that erected the memorial. Sometimes there are great lessons to be learned about how we remember people if, instead of tearing down tributes, we ask questions and think critically. We might still be offended, but then again, reading the news produces the same effect.