General James Longstreet Statue Should Replace U.S. Civil War Confederate Monuments To Robert E. Lee [Opinion]

A General James Longstreet statue could replace the Confederate monuments to Robert E. Lee if moderate Americans desire to seek a middle ground solution. The facts are that one side of the ongoing debate wants all Confederate statues torn down, with some groups like the Take ‘Em Down NOLA Coalition saying even historical monuments honoring George Washington should be taken down since the first president of the United States “was a slave master.” On the other hand, we have people wanting the history of the Civil War to be remembered, or there are those where Confederate symbols represent culture, but racist groups and white supremacists perceive the Confederate monuments as a rallying cry. How do you bridge that great divide?

The extremists on both sides will probably never both be happy with any proposed solution, but it does seem obvious that there are reasonable arguments for replacing the Robert E. Lee statues. In modern times, the Confederate general is touted as a folk hero who morally opposed slavery and did not desire the secession of the Confederacy. Few people remember how Lee turned down an offer from President Abraham Lincoln to command the Union forces because of his prior commitment to his beloved state of Virginia. After the Civil War ended, Lee did, in fact, swear allegiance to the Union, tried to unify the country, and decried southern separatism, but there was a darker side to Lee that can’t be glossed over.

Recently, Dinesh D’Souza claimed on Twitter that General Lee “opposed both slavery and secession” because the Confederate leader had once written a letter in which he called slavery a “moral and political evil.” The Daily Caller fact checked that statement, calling it false because Lee’s actual thoughts on slavery were more complex when the letter is put in its full context.

Even has he proclaimed the evils of slavery, Robert E. Lee was a slave owner himself. He attempted to reconcile this moral paradox by claiming slavery was a necessity for black people to be civilized.

“I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influence of Christianity, than the storms and tempests of fiery Controversy.”

According to The Atlantic, after the American Civil War was over, Lee denied that the war was fought over slavery, but even if it was, then “it was only out of Christian devotion that white southerners fought to keep blacks enslaved.” During an interview with a reporter of the era, Lee argued in favor of blacks being “disposed of” from the South, yet he also claimed that “based on wisdom and Christian principles you do a gross wrong and injustice to the whole negro race in setting them free. And it is only this consideration that has led the wisdom, intelligence and Christianity of the South to support and defend the institution up to this time.”

A statue of Robert E Lee which the KKK is protesting the removal of
The statue of Robert E. Lee, which was originally planned for removal earlier this year [Image by Chet Strange/Getty Images]

Lee’s other letters were similarly contradictory in nature, on one hand denigrating black people, while also claiming to wish them well. In one letter, he gave his reasons for advising others to hire white laborers rather than give a job to freed slaves.

“You will never prosper with blacks, and it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours. I wish them no evil in the world — on the contrary, will do them every good in my power, and know that they are misled by those to whom they have given their confidence; but our material, social, and political interests are naturally with the whites.”

There is practically a list of reasons why General Lee is not the best candidate for remembering the history of the Civil War and the Confederacy. Lee was known for separating slave families, a terrible practice that did not occur under Washington’s Mount Vernon. When slaves were beaten, Lee ordered their lacerated flesh to be covered in salty brine. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks during the Civil War and he ignored atrocities committed by his troops against black Union soldiers. While the president of Washington College, Lee ignored the abduction and rape of black schoolgirls by a local KKK chapter. When it came to racial equality in politics, Lee wrote that “the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.”

Lee oddly tried to claim that the South only held people in slavery because of Christian love. It was because of this perverse type of reasoning that black abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote this statement.

“What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.”

Likewise, it could be argued that white supremacists of today take on the veneer of Christianity, yet their words do not espouse Christ’s love of all men — even your enemies — and the command to forgive.

Confederate flag veterans cemeteries
Across the South, government agencies are removing the Confederate flag from public places. [Photo by John Moore/Getty Images]

Confederate War Monuments Were Opposed By Robert E. Lee

Mere days after Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted into violence, Newsweek says the direct descendant of the Confederate general said, “There’s no place for that. There’s no place for that hate.” The family also believes that moving the Confederate monuments to museums “makes good sense.”

In fact, based on General Lee’s own words, it’s possible he would never have wanted the Confederate monuments built in the first place. When Lee was asked about the proposed Gettysburg memorial, he wrote that he thought it “wiser [to] not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

When it came to the Stonewall Jackson monument, he wrote that such Confederate monuments would only hurt the South, yet he felt that marking the graves of fallen soldiers was appropriate.

“As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated; my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; and of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour. All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble and generous women in their efforts to protect the graves and mark the last resting places of those who have fallen, and wait for better times.”

Regardless, in modern times, well-intentioned Americans believe that the past should be remembered in full rather than removed from public view. Byron Thomas is a black South Carolinian who flies the Confederate flag to honor his ancestors and because “the flag celebrates my heritage and regional pride.” Karen Cooper is an African-American Virginia Flagger who rejects the belief that the Confederate flag is inherently a symbol of racism and hate.

“I actually think that it represents freedom,” she said in an online video. “It represents a people who stood up to tyranny.”

So, if the Confederate monuments were to remain, how could the statues come to represent unity and an end to racism and hate?

General James Longstreet A Fitting Replacement For Lee?

Hundreds of Confederate monuments are spread across the United States, not just in the South. Some want them torn down. Others would prefer a replacement. But who would best represent the face of reconciliation and peace that the modern world needs?

General Lee is popular today in the American South, but few remember General James “Pete” Longstreet. Before becoming a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army known as “Lee’s Old War Horse,” Longstreet attended West Point as part of a class that included the future Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and George Pickett. Longstreet oversaw various Confederate victories, but he’s mostly remembered for his controversial defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 because some believe he was deliberately slow to attack. Longstreet blamed Lee’s maneuvers for the devastating failure, which tarnished his reputation among Southerners loyal to Lee.

However, it’s Longstreet’s life and actions after the Civil War ended that should be remembered today. Longstreet’s letters contained a clearly-defined belief that cooperation was the ideal course for the former Confederate states.

“The ideas that divided political parties before the war – upon the rights of the States – were thoroughly discussed by our wisest statesmen, and eventually appealed to the arbitrament of the sword,” Longstreet wrote. “The decision was in favor of the North, so that her construction becomes the law, and should be so accepted.”

While Lee “raged against Republican efforts to enforce racial equality on the South,” Longstreet joined the Republican Party of longtime friend Grant and supported Reconstruction policies. Because of such actions, he was “excluded from Confederate circles — even military reunions — through his death in 1904.” Longstreet settled in New Orleans and his “his loyalty to the administration [of Grant’s Republican Party] eventually earning him federal appointments as postmaster of Gainesville, minister to Turkey, U.S. marshal, and U.S. commissioner of railroads.”

What’s unknown is Longstreet’s motivations for joining the Confederacy in the first place. Regarding the American Civil War, Longstreet is attributed by others as saying, “If it wasn’t about slavery, then I don’t know what else it was about.” His father owned slaves for the family farm and he grew up with his uncle, Augustus Longstreet, who was well known for supporting slavery as a Methodist minister. It’s possible that the younger Longstreet espoused similar views earlier in life, but if so, it’s obvious he changed his mind. Not only did Longstreet eventually convert to Roman Catholicism, which was unheard of in the Protestant-majority South, he also became well known for promoting the civil rights and freedoms of African-Americans.

“It is our duty to abandon ideas that are obsolete and conform to the requirements of law,” Longstreet wrote.

In a 1867 letter to the New Orleans Times, he wrote that “the surrender of the former political relations of the negro” was one of several “political questions of the war should have been buried upon the fields that marked their end.” Not only did Longstreet bury political support for slavery, if he had ever harbored any personal racism he apparently buried those beliefs, as well. By 1875, the Macon Weekly Telegraph wrote that they had “infinitely more respect for Longstreet” because he “fraternizes with negro men on public occasions.”

The former Confederate general did not simply talk a good talk, he lived out his principles in action. Despite suffering a grievous wound to his throat and arm during the Civil War, Longstreet was in command of an integrated black police unit in New Orleans. A white supremacist paramilitary group called the White League had begun to riot in the streets. This meant that a former Confederate general led the black police against the white, racist rioters in a battle that killed 26 people and wounded many more.

Considering these facts, it seems odd that while wearing the lenses of modern sensibilities that General Lee is remembered as a folk hero while Longstreet is considered a disgrace. A distinction is not even being made by those protesting Confederate monuments since a memorial to Longstreet’s men was vandalized recently in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“The vandalism of the Fort Sanders UDC monument is troubling for two reasons,” said Dr. Aaron Astor of Maryville College, according to WVLT. “First, any defacement of a public memorial is a problem. But second, this particular monument was not really a ‘lost cause’ veneration monument like some of the others in the news. It was more of a battlefield marker commemorating the men fighting under General James Longstreet at the Battle of Fort Sanders in November 1863. It is a monument to the dead — like a cemetery marker — more than a testament to the Confederate cause, as at other sites.”

There is a General James Longstreet statue in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that was built in 1998, but it’s been described as “a smaller-scale statue hidden in the woods that makes him look like a hobbit riding a donkey.” If there is a nationwide movement to have all of the Confederate monuments changed, perhaps Americans should remember Civil War history by using Longstreet as the standard?

[Featured Image by Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]