On Saturday in Charlottesville, a rally in defense of a statue of Robert E. Lee turned into a reenactment of the cause he led—white supremacists marching behind the Confederate battle flag, their opponents left injured or dead on the ground.
But like Lee’s soldiers, today’s defenders of white supremacy are fighting for a losing cause, a defeat that their violence will only serve to make deeper and more lasting than it otherwise would have been. Across the United States, the statues are starting to topple, the streets renamed, the memorials removed. These visible inscriptions of white supremacy into the American landscape are being erased.
In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently hauled down three public monuments to the Confederacy and to white supremacy. “These statues were a part of … terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city,” he explained. In Kentucky, the mayor of Lexington responded to Charlottesville by accelerating his efforts to move statues of two Confederate leaders from the courthouse lawn to a public park. This was the rising tide of change that the Charlottesville rally hoped to stem.
As of August 2016, there were still more than 1,500 public commemorations of the Confederacy, even excluding the battlefields and cemeteries: 718 monuments and statutes still stood, and 109 public schools, 80 counties and cities, and 10 U.S. military bases bore the names of Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other Confederate icons, according to a tally by the Southern Poverty Law Center. More than 200 of these were in Virginia alone.
And one sits in the center of Charlottesville. It was commissioned exactly 100 years ago, a gift to the city from a local philanthropist, to honor his parents with a physical incarnation of Southern ideals. But the statue was hardly the only contemporary effort to enshrine and defend these ideals. As it was being commissioned, sculpted, and erected, the second Ku Klux Klan was surging through the country. In Charlottesville, the local Klan gave $1,000 to the University of Virginia’s Centennial Endowment Fund in 1921, funds it gratefully received; there was a second Klan chapter for the students on campus.
The statue stands 26-feet tall, despite its oddly small pedestal. “Let it stay that way,” urged a speaker at its dedication. “The planet as a pedestal would be too small for Robert Edward Lee.” It was unveiled in 1924, as the conventions of the Confederate Veterans and Sons of Confederate Veterans met, with “the greatest procession that ever threaded its way through the streets of Charlottesville.” The Boy Scouts policed the route; the National Guard and governor marched; the president, board, faculty, and students of the university joined in. The man who introduced the ceremonies praised the “deathless devotion” of the veterans, who had fought “at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg,” and now worked “to keep the record of Confederate heroism free from the stain of calumny!”
It was less a dedication than a canonization. The master of ceremonies called Lee “the greatest man who ever lived.” The president of Washington and Lee proclaimed him “a Christian saint.” Lee, he explained, embodied “the moral greatness of the Old South,” with its “unusual combination of manly courage and womanly tenderness, its habitual tenderness toward the weak and helpless.” (When three slaves escaped, Lee had them tied to posts and whipped—50 lashes for the men, 20 for the woman—and then had their backs washed with stinging brine.)
His defenders today insist that Lee’s heroism lay not least in his laying down his sword when the war was done, deciding to “promote harmony once he recognized defeat.” The speakers at the dedication likewise stressed Lee’s role as a peacemaker; one went so far as to imagine the statute depicted “not the lurid splendor of the battlefield,” but instead, Lee riding to Lexington to begin his tenure as a university president.
Yet this is not what the statue depicts. Not this one, nor the others. Where are the statues of Lee seated at Appomattox, signing the terms of that surrender? Where are the marbles and bronzes of Lee the college president, wearing civilian clothes, ensconced behind a desk piled high with paperwork? Why is this peacemaker always immortalized girded for war?
Perhaps it’s because this, too, is largely myth, as my colleague Adam Serwer has so ably documented. Grant excoriated Lee for “setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to be hardly realized.” And the reconciliation he offered was between whites—it pointedly excluded those he had held as property, whose freedom the war secured, but whose equality he bitterly contested.
Lee himself, after the war, encouraged a friend to banish the 90 newly freed women, children, and old men working on his plantation. The government could pay for their care, Lee advised; better to replace them with white labor. “I have always observed that wherever you find the negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find a white man, you see everything around him improving.” That is the harmony Lee promoted.
But the Lee memorialized in Charlottesville isn’t even the conciliator of myth. He’s attired in uniform, riding his horse. He’s the general who took an invading army north into Pennsylvania in 1863, in defense of a slave society. And not merely in the abstract. Lee’s army was ordered to respect white property, but chose to regard the blacks it encountered as contraband—to be seized and returned to the South, whether born free, manumitted, or escaped. The army seized scores of their fellow Americans as slaves, actions sanctioned at the highest level of command; it took as many as a thousand back to Virginia. Those actions are among the “calumnies” that speakers at the statue’s dedication praised the veterans of Gettysburg for contesting.
“Some of the colored people who were raised here were taken along,” wrote Rachel Cormany in Chambersburg. “I sat on the front step as they were driven by just as we would drive cattle.” Women, children, and infants alike were marched off to slavery. Philip Schaff, a prominent theologian, watched as Lee’s army seized neighbors born and raised in the town. “One, Sam Brooks, split many a cord of wood for me.” He appealed to the conscience of one of their captors; he insisted he felt “comfortable,” because they were merely reclaiming stolen property.
Lee’s army, retreating in defeat, released some, but most were hauled South to the auction block. For the crime of refusing to cross back to Virginia, one boy was horribly mutilated, doused in turpentine, his genitals sliced off, and left to die in a barn by his Confederate captors. If there is no evidence that Lee, the living embodiment of womanly tenderness, sanctioned such crimes, neither is there evidence he acted to stop them. Nor was the Gettysburg campaign an anomaly; slave raids were a persistent feature of Confederate campaigns out of Virginia. At the Battle of the Crater, Lee’s army slaughtered black prisoners; one soldier lamented that some survived because “we could not kill them as fast as they [passed] us.” This is what the uniform Lee wore represented; this is what the army he commanded did; this is the pose in which he is immortalized in the center of Charlottesville.
There is a reason why statues of Confederate generals are still powerful political symbols; a reason why a candidate came a hair’s breadth from securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Virginia by campaigning to preserve them. The statues in public squares, the names on street signs, the generals honored with military bases—these are the ways in which we, as a society, tell each other what we value, and build the common heritage around which we construct a nation.
The white nationalists who gathered in Charlottesville saw this perhaps more clearly than the rest of us. They understood the stakes of what they were defending. They knew that Lee was honored not for making peace per se, but for defending a society built upon white supremacy—first by taking up arms, and then when the war was lost, by laying them down in such a way as to preserve what he could.
On Saturday, President Trump told Americans they “must be united” and “condemn all that hate stands for.” He deplored the “violence on many sides.” A century before, such remarks would have been heartily applauded in Charlottesville. At the statue’s dedication, the keynote speaker deplored the violence of the Civil War, and praised Lee for his efforts at “reunion and reconciliation,” and for forging a nation with “hearts unspoiled by hate.”
The myth of reunion was built around this understanding, that the nation should treat both sides in a war that killed three-quarters of a million Americans as equal, or at least not inquire too closely into the merits of each cause. And that unity would come not from honestly grappling with events, but from studiously ignoring injustice, and condemning those who oppose it as hateful.
But the swift backlash against the president’s remarks by leaders of his own party and leading figures of his own administration signaled that the United States of 2017 is not the same nation it was in 1924. Republicans and Democrats alike saw the white nationalists in the streets of Charlottesville for what they were, and rejected their vision of a nation built on white supremacism.
This is why the city council of Charlottesville voted, a century after it was commissioned, to remove the statue of Robert Edward Lee.
And ultimately, it is why the others will come down, too. The statues will be moved, the streets renamed, and the military bases will honor patriots who fought for their country and not against it. Because a century and a half after Reconstruction began, America is still working on the project of constructing a more equal society, and reinvesting in the experiment of a multi-ethnic democracy.
The white nationalists in Charlottesville hoped to halt this project. Instead, they have simply given it fiercer, redoubled urgency.