Skip to content

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee
© Keith Knight

Yes, the renaming of schools to other people named Lee in order to save money is a real thing.

In addition to Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Bruce Lee, Spike Lee, and Gypsy Rose Lee, how about Stan Lee? I also like the school in Texas who changed the word LEE into an acronym for the Legacy of Educational Excellence.

However, some people are against removing Confederate names, claiming that it is equivalent to changing history. But they have it backwards.

Building monuments and naming schools after Confederate heroes actually peaked around 1910, a full 50 years after the end of the Civil War. That was during the Jim Crow era, a time marked by laws disenfranchising Black Americans and rampant segregation. And there was another peak around 1950 to 1960, at the height of the civil rights movement. It looks more like this was an attempt to rewrite history, and intimidate Blacks.

Timeline of Confederate Symbols in the US

It was clearly racist. How would people feel if a school was named after Adolf Hitler? He was also a racist who started — and lost — a war in which many Americans died. And Confederate heroes were also traitors to the US. Why would you want to honor them?



  1. notycoon22 wrote:

    I always come back to thinking about General James Longstreet and his service to the US prior to and after the Civil War. Reminds me that most things are not black and white. He was, by military standards, a veteran who served his country well, including being wounded in the US/Mexico war in the 1840s. After the Civil War, as Wikipedia describes his actions, “He enjoyed a successful post-war career working for the U.S. government as a diplomat, civil servant, and administrator. His conversion to the Republican Party and his cooperation with his old friend, President Ulysses S. Grant, as well as critical comments he wrote in his memoirs about General Lee’s wartime performance, made him anathema to many of his former Confederate colleagues. His reputation in the South further suffered when he led African-American militia against the anti-Reconstruction White League at the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874. Authors of the Lost Cause movement focused on Longstreet’s actions at Gettysburg as a primary reason for the Confederacy’s loss of the war. Since the late 20th century, his reputation has undergone a slow reassessment. Many Civil War historians now consider him among the war’s most gifted tactical commanders.” His role in assisting Grant in his reconstruction efforts in the the South is understated in the above paragraph.

    Of course, then one can look at Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard as an example of an unrepentant Confederate general – at least at first. Initially refused to take a loyalty oath to the US after the war. It was the intercession of RE Lee that convinced him to do so. He initially fought against reconstruction but then came around to supporting black suffrage and recognition that blacks living in the south were southerners, too. Why, in 1874 he wrote the following, “I am persuaded that the natural relation between the white and colored people is that of friendship, I am persuaded that their interests are identical; that their destinies in this state, where the two races are equally divided are linked together, and that there is no prosperity in Louisiana that must not be the result of their cooperation. I am equally convinced that the evils anticipated by some men from the practical enforcement of equal rights are mostly imaginary, and that the relation of the races in the exercise of these rights will speedily adjust themselves to the satisfaction of all.” Many of the statues honoring him have been removed. Why not a plaque that has the above inscription on it being added? Anyway, not quite the positive story of Longstreet, but definitely a man who came to view integration as a necessity.

    So, I’ll end this with Jubal Early – a died in the wool, never say die white supremacist. Nothing redeeming in his post-civil war activities.

    So, the above being preamble, I don’t think it’s all black and white. I’d like to think the the worth of a person, relative to public recognition, needs to go beyond one series of events to include his or her life work. This is predicated, though, on the proposition that the life being recognized is treated within the full context of events surrounding that life. I can’t argue with the supposition that the bulk of Confederate statues were erected at a time when they meant white power and served as a tool of white domination of blacks.

    P.S.: Robert E. Lee was pretty specific about not wanting monuments to be created to honor him or the Confederacy after the war. Taking his name off of public buildings and removing his statues in public spaces is simply complying with his wishes.

    Friday, July 26, 2019 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  2. Iron Knee wrote:

    I have no problem with naming a school or erecting a monument for someone who served the USA well, even if they also happened to be on the wrong side of the civil war. At worst, I would include their civil war time as a negative factor in whether they deserve to be honored, but not something that would necessarily disqualify them.

    However, I would also take into account when and why they are being so honored. As you point out, there are lots of monuments to R.E. Lee, even though he specifically didn’t want them. In particular, deciding in 1960 that a monument to a Civil War hero is sorely needed would be an automatic rejection unless they both had many positive things to their credit, and also was somehow unfairly previously unsung.

    I never said it was black and white. Just that honoring someone solely as a Civil War hero is not enough.

    Friday, July 26, 2019 at 9:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Carolina Gent wrote:

    The peak of monument-building around 1960 may be a reaction to the Civil Rights movement, but the one around 1910 does not necessarily relate to Jim Crow.

    In 1910, Civil War veterans were old, hence there would be a reasonable impetus to honor them before they died. In fact, they were almost as old as the World War II veterans in 2004 — the year the World War II monument in DC was dedicated.

    Lee was one of the most reluctant generals to fight. Offered command of the Union Army, he declined, because that would require him to invade his home state of Virginia. He stated repeatedly that he would not fight unless someone else invaded Virginia.

    This is the very opposite of being a “traitor” to one’s country. The states were more independent back then, not fully “united” until after 1865. In those days, a person’s first loyalty was often to their state. We can’t apply modern standards to historical figures.

    Similarly, as far as being “racist” — almost any white person at that time was a white supremacist. Lincoln himself advocated that African-Americans should go back where they came from.

    Nowadays, when Trump says the same, we properly condemn him as racist. But back then, it was considered a relatively liberal position. Again, we can’t apply modern standards to historical figures.

    If we don’t want to honor “racists”, who were traitors to their country — then logically, we must remove all monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. They were racists, and they were traitors to England — some of them more racist, and more traitorous, than Lee.

    People want simple narratives, but there are none here.
    As NotyCoon22 wrote, these issues aren’t black and white.

    Saturday, July 27, 2019 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  4. paradoctor wrote:

    Here are three things that the Stars and Bars, the Swastika, and the Hammer and Sickle have in common:
    1. Slavery
    2. Mass homicide
    3. Losing to the Stars and Stripes

    Sunday, July 28, 2019 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  5. Dan wrote:

    Before the war we were “These United States” after we became “The United States”

    Monday, July 29, 2019 at 8:10 am | Permalink
  6. Iron Knee wrote:

    I originally hoped to let people have their dissenting opinions on this, but I just have to respond to a couple of things said by Carolina Gent.

    > Similarly, as far as being “racist” — almost any white person at that time was a white supremacist. Lincoln himself advocated that African-Americans should go back where they came from.

    There are several things in here that are problematic.

    First, I am currently attending a week long workshop for blues musicians. Yesterday, there was a session on the history and origin of the blues. One musician talked about how when he was a child, his parents were forced off their land and their lives were threatened if they didn’t leave. Other blacks around them who tried to defend their land and families were murdered (or raped). This was done with the full knowledge of the authorities, who in some cases even participated in the murders. Many of the blacks fled to cities (for example, Chicago) and sang songs about their troubles, which became the blues.

    I even have a personal experience with this. My mother (who is white) taught at an all black school in Alabama in the early fifties, and she could never socialize with any of the black faculty, not even eat lunch with them in public, because if she did they would likely be lynched. She had other similar stories.

    I think people forget how horrible racism was in this country. Whites could commit almost any form of terrorism against blacks and not only get away with it, but also enjoy the full approval and even support of the authorities.

    Yes, many people in the past were racists and believed that whites were superior, but there are degrees. Not liking blacks is one thing. Murdering or raping them is quite another. And it isn’t like they didn’t know that what they were doing was evil. By the time of the civil war, many countries had abolished slavery.

    > Lincoln himself advocated that African-Americans should go back where they came from.
    Remember that blacks typically were forced into slavery and transported to the US. Many of them died during the voyage, conditions on the slave ship being so bad. Many slaves wanted to return to Africa. In fact, Liberia as a country was formed largely by freed slaves. Helping someone return to their homeland who wants to go is a far cry from telling someone who chose to immigrate to the US to leave. And that doesn’t even include the fact that 3 of the 4 members of “The Squad” were born in the US, and the other one is a naturalized citizen.

    In talking to people about racism, it often surprises me that people don’t know how horrific racism was in this country. even though the level of hate crimes that happen even today in this country should be a big clue. Erecting monuments to people whose sole distinguishing feature was fighting for slavery is likewise a form (although a more subtle one) of terrorism.

    Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  7. Wildwood wrote:

    I’m far from a historian but to me it’s fairly simple. The south lost. Thus no monuments for losers. Racism does not have to enter into the discussion.

    Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. Robert E. Lee – on Wednesday, July 31, 2019 at 4:24 am

    […]   From Iron Knee at Political Irony: […]