To our collective horror, a vandal recently desecrated the Lincoln Memorial, and we’d feel no better were someone to harm the Martin Luther King Jr. or Iwo Jima Memorials. The moral principle that monuments are out of bounds—because all are sacred to someone, and we all have to get along like grown-ups—is quite sound. It also brakes calls for the destruction of Confederate monuments.
The iconoclasts who wish to get around this have devised some superficial talking points: a good example is an attack on Robert E. Lee for having been a traitor unworthy of commemoration, and on his commemorators for having been racially motivated and thus undeserving to leave monuments behind them. Lee was a traitor if the Southern states had no right to secede in 1861, yet many Americans have admired Lee nonetheless, and even raised statues to him. How could this be?
To answer such a question, we tend to fall into the trap of asking ourselves why someone would raise such a statue today. Hard experience from the civil rights era up to the recent march in Charlottesville has prepared us to find racist intent. Then when we ask ourselves why people of a more distant past erected statues to Lee, we project racist intent onto them, as though our thought processes were interchangeable with theirs, their motives deducible from ours.
Despite Racism, Commemoration Had Other Motivations
Noting the “presentist” fallacy does not give the statue erectors a pass. There is much objective evidence for the astonishingly offensive opinions whites took for granted about blacks in the Civil War commemoration era. In the South, powerful whites from governors down to policemen in the street enforced black subordination. Vigilante action and lynchings illegally enforced the same. The fortress of Jim Crow stood strong until federal intervention bypassed locally entrenched systems of repression.
Yet the claim that statues of Lee were intended as buttresses of this repressive social order before the desegregation era is dubious. It lacks support beyond mere plausibility and the circumstantial argument that Jim Crow caused commemoration of Lee because it correlated with it in time. Why would whites, safe within the fortress of Jim Crow, have wasted money building bastions within its walls?
There is an alternative explanation with more convincing plausibility and circumstantial arguments: Whites competed against one another socially by supporting and paying for those statues, thus signaling their civic virtue. They put the statues to Lee where they performed socially, at civic center and in their up-and-coming neighborhoods like Monument Avenue. I am unaware of any monumental statue of Lee erected in what was a black neighborhood at the time, which is where I would look for at least some of them if they were social weapons aimed at blacks. A recent impressionistic argument in Slate does little to establish its case that the Charlottesville Lee, a product of neighborhood development, was aimed at Vinegar Hill, a black neighborhood several blocks away.
Circumstantially, statue dedications correlate with the aging of the Civil War cohort. They looked back on the war as the astounding and fundamental event in their lives. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in 1884, “in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.” Recurring war anniversaries were like the tocks and ticks of a clock registering their mortality, each one making their nostalgia more acute. Those anniversaries also allowed them, their wives, and their children to remember the fallen and cement their own social position by emulously raising monuments right into the 1920s.
The Makings of an American Myth
Their view of the war as heroic emerged from their romantic sensibility and from the biblical and classical stories they knew well. A ready example of this is Horatio Greenough’s 1840 statue of Washington, leader of the revolutionary pantheon, heroically nude in the guise of Olympian Zeus.
Nineteenth-century Americans also knew that “heroic” meant something closer to “larger-than-life” than “beyond criticism.” King David had his adultery problem; Oedipus showed that sometimes all the choices presented to you are bad; the raging Achilles let many of his erstwhile comrades die; Hector showed that an enemy you try your hardest to kill is nevertheless human and can be viewed sympathetically. The myths of these flawed characters were morally instructive.
Now take Lee: He was America’s greatest soldier by the acknowledgment of Winfield Scott in nominating him for command of the U.S. Army and Lincoln’s offer to him of the same. He felt compelled by his interior sense of honor to renounce this great external honor and proceeded to visit awful destruction upon the very men he might have commanded, his former comrades.
His ambivalence about secession and slavery, his war-wrecked health, his grief-wracked heart, and his affliction by the titanic wrath of Montgomery Meigs, who lost a son to Lee’s army and confiscated Lee’s Arlington estate as a burial ground for his victims, all added their part to a growing myth. The romantic preference for noble loss over vulgar success put the keystone into that myth, a tragedy about a flawed, courtly man whose relentless pursuit of virtue, as he saw it, destroyed almost everything around him, including, in the end, the Army of Northern Virginia.
The aging Civil War cohort, predisposed for their own reasons to heroize the war, readily adopted the mythical Lee into the American pantheon, thinking to ennoble the country and themselves. Attacking Lee for treason now is like attacking Oedipus for not asking a man if he was his father before killing him—prosaic and beside the point.
Monuments tell us less about their subjects than about the people who raised them. Lee’s statues tell us a romanticized, white-centered myth of post-Civil War America that was subjective and self-serving, partisan and reconciliatory, noble and hurtful. This makes those monuments indispensable as markers of our growth as a nation.