What Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee said about monuments to war dead

Visitors to Duke Chapel react to damage on a statue of Robert E. Lee

Video: Vandals struck the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee outside Duke Chapel on Duke University’s campus sometime Wednesday night or early Thursday Aug. 17, 2016.
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Video: Vandals struck the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee outside Duke Chapel on Duke University’s campus sometime Wednesday night or early Thursday Aug. 17, 2016.

If you sit quietly for a moment or two and listen carefully, you might be able to hear Gen. Robert E. Lee whispering from the Great Beyond: “See? I told you so.”

He did tell us. Lee opposed erecting monuments to the war, saying the headstones of the war dead should suffice as a reminder of the conflict. “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war,” he wrote, “but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

So it was only right, if richly ironic, that the Charlottesville statue depicting Gen. Lee was the centerpiece of the demonstrations that erupted into rioting and murder last weekend. The man who advised against monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders, the man who after the war called slavery “a moral and political evil,” became the focal point of a large demonstration by Klansmen, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

And in response to the Charlottesville unrest, there began a wave of attacks on Confederate monuments, including the pulling down of a statue in Durham and the vandalism of two Confederate statues in downtown Wilmington.

Under cover of darkness Tuesday night, the city of Baltimore quietly removed its four monuments to the Confederacy. “For me, the statues represented pain,” said Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, “and not only did I want to protect my city from any more of that pain, I also wanted to protect my city from any of the violence that was occurring around the nation. We don’t need that in Baltimore.”

And in Raleigh on Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper called for the removal of Confederate monuments from state property.

“We cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in defense of slavery,” Cooper said in a statement. “These monuments should come down.”

Perhaps they should, but not like that. Not without serious community conversation. It’s time for all of us to take a deep breath and a few steps back from the precipice.

All Confederate monuments aren’t created equal. Certainly there’s difference between one that honors a slave-owning leader of the Confederacy and one that honors a simple foot soldier who never took part in the slave trade, and who left a trade or a farm job to fight and die in the war.

How will we decide which monuments memorialize our war losses and which ones glorify white supremacy? Surely we can’t do it without a lot of conversation in every Southern community.

That’s what Fayetteville did last year as the city debated whether to keep the Market House on the city seal. Human beings were occasionally sold at downtown’s centerpiece historic building, and it offended many residents that it was part of the city’s official emblem. After much public discussion, the City Council agreed to change the seal. We need a similar exercise in dealing with Confederate monuments, including those in Fayetteville.

This should also be a teachable moment, in which all of us learn more about the devastating war between the states. We wish the proposed N.C. Civil War History Center in Fayetteville were up and operating today, conducting its mission of education and scholarship about what really happened in the South before, during and after the war. Too many people still want to believe the historical fantasy that the war was about something other than the preservation of slavery.

The governor won’t easily get rid of the state’s Confederate monuments, given that the veto-proof, Republican-led General Assembly in 2015 passed a law prohibiting the removal of Confederate statues without legislative approval.

But that doesn’t make the conversation about the statues – and about racism – any less important. For some of us, the monuments are about Southern heritage. For others, they are a reminder that white supremacy still plays a powerful role in American life. One hundred and 52 years after the war ended, it’s time we do a better job of resolving that conflict.