When Lee Came Down From His Pedastal

Statue of Robert E. Lee being removed, Jack Gruber, USA Today

There was an interesting story in Monday’s Washington Post about the construction contractor who took down all the statues of Confederate generals that had stood on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA since at least 1890. After the far right and Nazi Charlottesville demostrations of 2017 and the George Floyd demonstrations of 2020, the Democratic administraiton of Virginia governor Ralph Northem decided to take down the Confederate statues in Richmond and called black contractor Devon Henry about taking on the job after white contractors rejected inquiries with overtly racist responses. Henry was reluctant to involve his company in the project at first because of the explosive racial politics of removing Confederate monuments but was gradually convinced with the Stonewall Jackson being removed first, followed by 13 other monuments and ending with the dismantling and removal of the monument to the most prominent Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. As pioneering civil rights activist and newspaper editor John Mitchell, Jr. wrote in 1890 when the Lee statue was initially completed, “The Negro … put up the Lee monument … and should the time come, will be there to take it down.”

Parker Michels-Boyce for The Washington Post

The removal of the Confederate statues is a much bigger deal for the understanding of American culture and history than has been acknowledged. The Jackson, Lee, and other statues not only loomed over Richmond as a representations of white domination over the black population and reminder of the white racial violence that kept that domination in place throughout the century segregation from 1877 to the Civil Rights acts of the 1960’s. Confederate statues also represented the national mythology of the Confederates as outstanding and broadly triumhant generals who only lost the Civil War because of the larger population and dynamic manufacturing economies of the North. When I was growing up in rural NY during the 1960’s, it was the Confederates who were the “cool” generals not the Union commanders, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson who were seen as “great” not Grant, Sherman, and Meade. The Civil War narrative was about how the Confederates “almost won” and how the the defeat of the Confederacy was the “tragedy of the South” rather than the victory of the Union. There was a sense in which the “American idea” was better represented by the daring and determination of the Confederates than what was seen as the blundering armies of the Union.

But the situation has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Even when Confederates aren’t derided as “traitors,” “losers,” and “bigots,” their cause is now seen almost exclusively in terms of advancing the “slave power” rather than “defending states rights” and other pro-Confederate excuses for secession. Far from being represented as quintessentially American, the Confederates are more often portrayed as the “other” to the ideal of a diverse, democratic nation that’s taken hold in mainstream culture since the 90’s. Lee’s reputation has especially suffered in light of the new stress on his failures at Gettysburg, arguments about Grant’s stratetic acumen, and revelations that Lee whipped his slaves. In many ways, Lee had already been taken down from his symbolic pedestal when the Richmond monument was removed by Devon Henry’s company.

But who’s rising as the Confederacy falls into slaveholding and treasonous otherness? That’s an interesting, important, and inevitable question. The Civil War Era was a crucial part of American history and it seems that the whole story of the Civil War Era would change given that the “Tragedy of the South” and valor of the Confederates are no longer part of the plot. If the Confederates are seen more as villains than tragic heroes of the Civil War, has anything risen to take their place as lynchpins of the Civil War part of the “American Story.” To a certain extent, the narrative void has been filled by a revaluation of Grant, Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. The renewed stress on Grant’s strategic skills, his support for black troops in the Union Army, and post-Civil War role as Reconstruction president have not only increased Grant’s prestige but also served to make the the experiences and action of black people more central to the story of the Civil War era. That change can also be seen of Frederick Douglass’ increased prominence and condemnation of slavery in his 1852 Fourth of July speech is now a standard reference during observances of the 4th and there’s much more discussion of his abolitionist writings and Civil War activism as well as the figure he cut in American culture as the most photographed figure of his time. In many ways, the “story of black people”–black people leaving plantations, black soldiers, blacks in Confederate territory, black political figures like Douglass, the initial formation of black leadership, etc.– has emerged as the fulcrum the Civil War story without there being (at least to my knowledge) any general narrative of the Civil War period with black people at the center. With the decline of the Confederates from tragic heroes of the Civil War era to bigoted “other,” the story of the Civil War needs to be changed and the story of American black people needs to be portrayed as central to the Civil War dynamic.

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