During his lifetime and through most of subsequent American history, Robert E. Lee was universally admired in both the north and the south. To understand why we need to look at the whole historical record. In the formative years of the 19th century, only decades after independence most people still identified primarily with their states and communities rather than the US as a whole. Indeed when Lee attended West Point it was then customary for cadets to swear allegiance to their home state, not the USA (which did not occur until the Civil War). When the Civil War broke out there was no more distinguished soldier in America than Lee, and and so it was natural that he be called upon to lead the Union army by President Lincoln. Lee was conflicted and refused, not because he favored secession or slavery but because he could not bring himself to attack his beloved home state of Virginia.
True he did subsequently take command of Confederate forces and wound up on the wrong side of history, but that is not the end of the story as ignorant people would have you believe. It is what he did at the end of the war and after that secured his place among great Americans. First, Lee surrendered gracefully and called on his forces to lay down their arms and second, spent the rest of his life devoted to reconciliation. That is why he was universally admired. You cannot judge a man solely on one part rather than whole of his life.
A lesser man might have refused to surrender, or at the very least called for continued resistance and guerrilla warfare, which could have resulted in years more of continued bloodshed and instability. But Lee instead devoted himself to peaceful reconciliation. Lee then stood not as a symbol of southern resistance and intransigence, but of reunion. He backed the wrong cause, but then made amends and a substantial contribution to strengthening his country. Through all the subsequent years no one questioned honoring Lee, at least until historical amnesia, ignorance, and political malice arose in recent times. Lee is simply the wrong figure to attack or displace in American history, never mind Virginia history. For politicians in Virginia to now turn on Lee is nothing less than obscene, given all that Lee gave and sacrificed for the state. It also flies in the face of the sentiment of a solid majority in this country.
Now I’m from Brooklyn and don’t have any particular stake in this controversy. I did have an aunt that once owned the Robert E. Lee hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, but there is a closer connection of sorts right here in Brooklyn. When I was growing up I belonged to a Boy Scout troop based at an Episcopal church across the street from Fort Hamilton army base. It was a wonderful storybook community and was largely where my American identity was formed. It was widely known as the “church of the generals,” one of whom was Robert E. Lee, who once planted a tree there in the 1840s, and to which plaque dedicated to Lee was attached and remained until yesterday, when the rump of what is left of the Episcopal diocese decided to remove it. Never mind that the church is now closed because the they could not maintain the parish, not least because of their political radicalism. This was once a thriving congregation, but in the 1960s the priest decided it was his moral duty to actively and loudly oppose the Viet Nam war, thereby splitting the congregation, which over time dwindled. The Boy Scouts left, and the Episcopal church imploded into irrelevancy as it became more interested on progressive politics than Christianity. The removal of Lee’s plaque from a shuttered church that is now for sale is just a sad coda to this idiocy.
This is all happening without any significant support among a majority of Americans of all races, and is largely a project of loathsome left-wing white radicals. Is there any more breathtaking hypocrisy than the Pelosi Democrats now clamoring to remove statues, erected by their own party, that they never once uttered a peep about during the years they had the power to do so and through the entire Obama presidency? Nevertheless there may be some monuments to less noble figures in the South that might be questionable, but the historical record shows that Robert E. Lee is not one of them.