By Sam Burnham
There is still stirring in this land a movement that is dedicated to the annihilation of anything that resembles anything traditionally Southern. The movement is hellbent on the destruction of every icon, symbol, every person, anything whatsoever. There must remain no morsel of anything that would suggest that the South had ever been anything more than a carbon copy of the North, but with barbecue - and even that must be acknowledged as racist.
And so we see the current all-out assault on General Robert E. Lee. for over 100 years, Lee has been understood to be one of the finest men this nation ever produced. He was a gifted engineer, a brilliant military tactician, and is also remembered as finishing his life as an educator, beloved by his staff and students alike. He has been honored by American presidents and foreign dignitaries such as Winston Churchill. His tactics are still taught at West Point. As far as his personal integrity and honesty, you'll find no leader in contemporary American politics who can match him. An honest reckoning of his life will prove him to be far more honorable than the majority of his modern detractors.
As a fair and honest assessment of the man Lee must address slavery, I have to say that he was not a "kind" or "benevolent" slaveholder. I say that as I don't believe there is such a thing. There is no way to kindly refuse rights or personal liberty to another human being. The greatest evil in slavery was not the whip. The greatest evil in slavery was slavery itself. It was wrong for Lee to own slaves, regardless of how they were treated. But we must also judge Lee on the morality of his time and not that of our own time. We must look at him with our vision and see where he was right, where he was wrong. We must take that information with the willingness to honor the right and progress our society past the wrong.
There are accusations of treason being attached to him. Yet at Appomattox, where he offered his sword, no such accusation was extended. In fact, no Confederate - politician, officer, enlisted, or civilian would be tied with any such charges. Only Henry Wirz, the immigrant scapegoat of Andersonville, would be convicted on serious charges related to the war. Today the government admits that Wirz was railroaded and his execution was uncalled for, perhaps even criminal.
No, Lee was not a traitor. While we live in an age that subscribes to the "one nation" myth of the United States, "The Union" as we know it now was born from the Civil War. Antebellum men, especially Southerners, understood the importance of home, your state, your friends and neighbors. "The Union" is the same nationalist sentiment that Donald Trump supporters are often labeled with. Lee refused to take up arms against his neighbors, against his family, against his own home. Virginia did not secede until Lincoln had called for states to provide troops to invade and subdue the South. And Lee did not join the south until Virginia had seceded. Contrast this with men like Montgomery Meigs and John C. Fremont, who willfully participated in the killing of their fellow Georgians and the destruction of their property, and I ask, who was the real traitor in this situation?
But here is the endgame in all of this. Lee is not the goal, he is just one more moving of the goal post. 12 months ago, such an open assault on this man would have been thought as odd. But the leftist, anti-Southern movement has reached Lee. Next it will be Washington, and then Madison - and with him, the Constitution he wrote, and Jefferson and the Declaration. It will all have to be updated, properly cleansed of anything "offensive." It is a constant creeping to remove anything American from American history and replace it with what the left wishes for America to become. It is the pig Squealer on the ladder in the night changing the creeds on the barn wall. four legs good, two legs better. It's propaganda. It's lies.
Yes, Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was not perfect. In fact, he had one really big flaw. But he remains a fine example of a historic American. He's one we should look to for an example, one we should honor, one we should defend.
(This article appeared in its original form in 2013. It has been edited and updated.)
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire