Unsurprisingly, this raised the question of what to do with confederate statues. So, instead of just mindlessly arguing about history and monuments, I thought I would actually inform myself on the subject. Shocking, I know.
And what better way to do this then to read Clouds of Glory by Michael Korda, a 1300 page biography of Robert E Lee. Or in my case, listen to the 36 hour audiobook (Listen to it for FREE here).
It was quite an undertaking. But I am glad I did it. Not only was the book well written and enjoyable to read, but I learned a ton about Lee, whom I had known little about prior.
Unfortunately, with an audiobook of this size, I was unable tot take notes beyond a few points I jotted down. So instead of an outright review, I’d like to answer the following question using what I’ve learned from this book:
Should We Memorialize Robert E Lee?
People who are ignorant of history assume that Lee was a racist, slave-owning, traitor. Arguably, those descriptors are correct, but fail in describing him.
Lee was a slave-owner, but never bought slaves. He inherited them from his father-in-law, and per his father-in-law’s will, the slaves were to be freed five years from his death. They were freed in 1862, thus invalidating the idea Lee fought to preserve slavery.
Lee could be called a “racist”, but was a moderate in his beliefs by southern standards. He was not one to show ill-will towards blacks and treated them with respect, particularly after the war’s end.
Being called a traitor, is perhaps the gravest accusation. Lee was not a traitor. He simply fought to protect his home state of Virginia. In the mid-19th century, most people put their home state before the Union. Therefore, one could say Lee would have been a traitor had he fought against Virginia.
In fact, Lee was offered the position as field commander of the Union Army! He could have accepted the job, and if he did, he would be hailed as one of the greatest American heroes. As the man who preserved the Union and freed the slaves. He could have even become president like Ulysses S. Grant did, who was the leader of the Union army. Instead, Lee wavered, and was dismissed by Winfield Scott who led the US army, but was too old and well, fat, to actually lead troops.
Also, instead of just looking at what Lee didn’t do. We should look at what he did do.
Lee’s career included prominent positions such as being the head of the US Military Academy at West Point. He also worked in the US Army Corps of Engineers, and was pivotal in making St. Louis accessible to shipping coming up the Mississippi River.
He also was a brilliant commander in the Mexican-American war. In fact, it was this service that got him the tremendous military respect that garnered him offers to lead both the Union and Confederate armies.
Getting to the point: Should Lee be memorialized? It depends who you ask.
It would probably have been better if not statues were made of him in the first place. In fact, Lee did not want statues, believing they would make it harder to heal the country, saying that they “keep open the sores of war”. Yet, statues are here. They definitely should not be violently torn down. If a municipality wishes to remove them, do so, but at least send them to a museum or to private donor, instead of casting them aside.
Personally, I would just leave them up. Even though I can’t recall seeing a statue of Lee, if I did, I would imagine the bravery, virtue, and fighting spirit he exhibited throughout his life. Not the “racism” and “treachery”. But, there is no point in arguing. Let the statues come down with dignity and put them in a museum.
Back to the Book…
All in all, it was a great biography. It is massive in length, and not for the faint-hearted. If a powerful Civil War biography is up your alley though, this book is for you.