Where Confederate battle flag replicas once flew at Washington and Lee University in the chapel above Robert E. Lee’s tomb, controversy now hangs as Virginians prepare to observe the January 19 birthday of the Confederate general-turned-college president.
Almost 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the skirmishing over how to remember the most famous rebel general continues even at a Virginia college named, in part, for him. About half the students and alumni polled by a campus magazine opposed the decision to remove the flags this summer. Fortunately, the university officials who made the call can draw on the example of an improbable and imperfect champion: Lee himself.
Shortly after surrendering the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865, Lee became president of a war-torn school known then only as Washington College. The same day he took office, he took an oath to “henceforth” support the U.S. Constitution. He advised fellow former Confederates to do the same.
Far from being relics of Lee’s tenure, the Confederate battle flags only arrived in the college chapel decades after Lee’s death and were later replaced with the historically meaningless reproductions that hung until recently.
Lee did not want such divisive symbols following him to the grave. At his funeral in 1870, flags were notably absent from the procession. Former Confederate soldiers marching did not don their old military uniforms, and neither did the body they buried. “His Confederate uniform would have been ‘treason’ perhaps!” Lee’s daughter wrote.
So sensitive was Lee during his final years with extinguishing the fiery passions of the Civil War that he opposed erecting monuments on the battlefields where the Southern soldiers under his command had fought against the Union. “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,” he wrote.
Admirable as that advice sounds today, it can, of course, be taken too far. An eagerness for reconciliation can easily become an excuse for revisionism, a danger that Lee himself demonstrated during his own postwar attempts at writing history.
Lee wanted to prepare a history of his battles but struggled to obtain the records needed to compose it. He instead authored a short biography of his Revolutionary War hero father, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. What worried the younger Lee most about the project was that his commentary on the past would stir controversy in the present.
“I do not wish to revive any partizan feelings or to incite party criticism against the book or to stir up sectional animosity,” Lee wrote. “I would rather allay such feelings.”
Using that noble sentiment as cover, Lee took license to avoid topics that cast his own actions during the Civil War as contrary to the will of the Founding Fathers. For example, the final version excluded a line from an early draft conceding that his father had “zealously opposed” a series of resolutions whose arguments for states’ rights served as important milestones on the road to secession.
The editing looks especially self-serving when coupled with the knowledge that Lee himself had scorned secession before the war because, as he put it then, “the framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom and forbearance in its formation … if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will.” Only after reluctantly resigning his commission in the Union army and following his native state of Virginia into rebellion did Lee attempt to argue that the “the leading men of the country” had always sanctioned secession.
In his twilight years, Lee sometimes lost sight of the difference between mending a divided country and amending history. If his good intentions provide a model for defusing controversies today, his flawed implementation must also provide a cautionary tale about how trying to be too politically correct can lead one to be historically incorrect.
To its credit, Washington and Lee University has struck a better balance than its latter namesake. While removing the tacky replicas of the Confederate battle flags from the chapel, it will show the originals on a rotating basis in the place where they belong: a museum exhibit dedicated to remembering a sad chapter in American history.
Jonathan Horn is a former White House speechwriter and the author of a new Robert E. Lee biography, The Man Who Would Not Be Washington (Scribner).