Past Is Prologue

Confederate Statues Aren’t Even Honest About Who They Memorialize

What’s insidious is the way these monuments infect our memories, our relationships, and our beliefs

The interior of Lee Chapel with Robert E. Lee’s statue.
The interior of Lee Chapel with Robert E. Lee’s statue.
General Robert E. Lee’s statue inside Lee Chapel in Washington and Lee University with blue USA flag and flag of Coat of Arms of Washington and Lee University in foreground. Photo: Bruce Yuanyue Bi/Getty Images

When I hear the name Robert E. Lee, I think of the year Lee High won the state championship football game. I recall the look on my father’s face when I wrecked my first car off Lee Highway en route to my childhood home. I reminisce about strumming guitar outside the chapel at Washington and Lee University. My friends and I would play John Denver and dance beside the Lee family crypt.

I was born Elizabeth Lee Saylor, a name I’d eventually desert when I abandoned the ideologies and Blue Ridge vistas of my native Dixie.

Many of my fellow Southerners share similar stories of growing up against backdrops brandished with the names of men whose histories were only vaguely known to us. We knew their faces from sepia-toned pictures in museums or chiseled in bronze in a courthouse square, but their stories seemed barely peripheral to our own coming of age in an antebellum landscape.

Which is why it’s not enough to remove their statues; we need to raze every physical vestige. It’s time for their legacies to live exclusively in the pages of history books — not the pages of our family photo albums.

Onlookers watch cadets from Virginia Military Institute — my brother among them — reenact the Battle of New Market. Part of the Valley Campaigns of 1864, the battle included 4,100 Confederate soldiers who defeated Union Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel and his Army of the Shenandoah. My great-grandmother’s one-room schoolhouse abuts the field.

Following the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, the North made concessions in the spirit of swift reconciliation. Confederate figures thus reaped that leniency and reinvented themselves. They avoided charges of treason and took on new roles in their communities and civic life, architecting Reconstruction that propagated the very policies that were soundly defeated in the war. Indeed, not a single Confederate soldier was executed for insurrection — even Jefferson Davis was jailed only briefly immediately after the end of the Civil War.

As for Robert E. Lee, just months after his surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865, he transitioned from military strategist and segregationist to scholar and philanthropist, assuming the post of president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia.

Like his Confederate colleagues, he didn’t face trial, censure, or exile, but rather began life anew. Lee became, in the words of the institution that now bears his name, “a creative educator whose curricular innovations transformed the classical college into a modern university.” The principles he enshrined, they note, remain “part of the foundation for a… culture that fosters civility, integrity, and trust.” They go on to write that Lee will “forever hereafter [be] associated indisputably, as Founder and Restorer of our beloved College!”

There’s no mention of leading a defeated military. No note on his embrace of slavery.

This allowance for reinvention was, even then, disastrous for healing. To be sure, pragmatism played a role; the North realized that few juries in the South would convict their own. But the lack of recourse had the effect of reshaping the narrative, preserving it in symbolism and idolatry rather than disimpassioned scholarship.

In effect, the Union’s clemency allowed Lee and other Confederate leaders to ascend into mythic heroism. In 1868, Union Gen. George Thomas penned, “The crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion will go down in history hand-in-hand with the defenders of the government.”

What’s insidious about allowing the statues to remain is that their legacies infect us.

More than a century after Thomas’ prophecy, Congress passed a resolution to restore “the full rights of citizenship to Jefferson Davis…[which] officially completes the long process of reconciliation that has reunited our people following the tragic conflict between the States.”

That Congress proclaimed rapprochement complete is woefully overstated. More than that, it’s dangerous. Meaningful nation-building — the process in which we now find ourselves — demands naked self-reflection which, in turn, compels us to interrogate and countermand distorted, discordant narratives that bind to our own.

And yet, while I abhor the sins of Robert E. Lee, I also understand the grief that many of my fellow Virginians feel as they see the statues toppled. They’re not witnessing the fall of hate, but rather the spot of a first kiss or the logo of their alma mater.

Which is precisely why everything must be removed. What’s insidious about allowing the statues to remain is that their legacies infect us. As a woman raised in the South, my identity is inextricably tied to theirs — Lee is my streets, my memories, my battle cry on a Friday night. As Wallace Stegner wrote, “There is a sense in which we are all each other’s consequences.”

When we seek to rid the body of cancer, we don’t leave a mass behind for nostalgia’s sake; we cut it all out, knowing that preserving anything guarantees its spread. It’s time to confront this long neglected cancer and eliminate every physical relic — completely. Every statue, every namesake, every icon, and every image. Only then can we start the process of healing.

Elizabeth Métraux, founder of Women Writers in Medicine, is a writer, thinker, and seeker of a more fulfilling, connected existence. Follow her @Elizabeth_PCP

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store