Robert E Lee is a name that may not be familiar to everyone, but if you’re even dimly aware of the history of the US Civil War, it’s a name you will know. Lee served as a general for the Confederacy in the Civil War (indeed, he was the commander of Confederate forces), and he desired to preserve the Union yet joined Confederate forces in his home state of Virginia. He privately opposed the idea of secession from the Union yet fought to accomplish exactly that. He reportedly was against the idea of slavery, yet fought against the Union in part because of abolishment. Lee is documented as having re-captured slaves who escaped their owners, even overseeing their punishment (usually in the form of whipping).
Lee is a romanticised figure in America’s South. He’s seen as a hero who fought for freedom and rights, which is ironic when you consider his approach to slavery. It is no wonder then, that the Black Lives Matter movement celebrated as a statue of Lee in Richmond, Virginia, was removed the other day.
The statue itself represented a monument not to history but to an ideal that in the wake of the Civil War reared its ugly head in new and different ways. That ideal is racism. As Lindsay Adams puts it in her post here, ‘…monuments, are not history. Monuments are statements, often statements about power. And a Robert E. Lee statue in the middle of Virginia was a statement of white supremacy. Full. Stop.’
Lee’s is not the only statue or ‘tribute’ to Confederate ‘heroes’ who championed slavery. His could be considered the most prominent, given Lee’s position as commander of Confederate forces during the Civil War, and the way in which he is revered. Detractors of BLM will argue that removing the statue is removing a piece of history. I’d argue they’re wrong. All the information about Lee’s life is available at the click of a mouse and tap of a keyboard. Alternatively there are places called libraries that will contain books about him. Refusing to acknowledge and pay tribute to someone who went to war to uphold slavery is not what’s wrong here; glorifying supporters of slavery is.