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Robert E. Lee is not a symbol of hate

Ned Jilton • Aug 18, 2017 at 5:45 PM

“I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the country to do all in their power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.” — Robert E. Lee, four months after the end of the Civil War.

This past weekend I watched on social media as the violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Through online videos from local and network television, as well as uploaded by the protesters, I watched what looked like a medieval battle as members of Antifa and Black Lives Matter fought with neo-Nazis and KKK members, each side using shields, clubs and throwing rocks.

Then came the videos of the car plowing through the protesters, running into the back of another car. Protesters with clubs began pounding the car, which then backed through the crowd, dragging people as it went. One guy ran around videoing the victims and saying over and over, “I got the whole thing on video.”

Disgusted, I click off the site.

I was angry, not only at the violence I saw but the cause of it.

Members of the city council and the mayor of Charlottesville, in a move of political correctness, voted to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, portraying it not as a historical monument but a symbol of hate because Lee fought for the Confederacy.

Their actions set up the city as a flashpoint for violence from several hate groups.

But R.E. Lee is not a symbol of hate.

It was not hate that drove him to join the Confederacy.

For a moment I would like for you to forget your political beliefs, forget what you’ve heard in the media and what you’ve been told.

Clear your mind and put yourself in the place of Lee in 1861. You’re a colonel in the United States Army defending a nation that your family played a major role in founding.

Your father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, was a cavalry commander for George Washington. Another relative, Richard Henry Lee, made the motion in the Second Continental Congress calling for the colonies' independence from Great Britain. His “resolution for independency” of June 1776 led to the United States Declaration of Independence, which Richard H. Lee signed.

Then Virginia, your birthplace and the home of your family, secedes. Regardless of the reason, be it a disagreement over states rights, slavery or tariffs, the deed is done and your home is no longer part of the United States.

In addition, both Virginia and the United States have offered you army commands.

You have two choices.

One, you think secession is wrong (which Lee did) and choose the United States, turning your back on your family and leading an invasion to attack and subdue the place of your birth to keep the nation united.

Or two, you turn your back on the nation your family founded and choose Virginia to defend your family and your home, or your country as many called their state in the 1860s.

Lee chose to serve Virginia not out of hate against a race of people but for love of family and home. And once he made his choice he felt it his duty to dedicate his full efforts to defending the rights of his new country.

When Lee took command of the army, it was duty and not hate that drove him in battle. He never called the Federal forces the enemy. He always called them “those people.”

“I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South its dearest rights,” wrote Lee. “But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”

Even when the war ended in defeat, Lee expressed no hatred. When one of his former generals, Jubal Early, expressed hatred for Yankees, Lee responded, “Controversy will only serve to prolong angry and bitter feelings and postpone the period when reason and charity may resume their sway.”

As a role model for the defeated South, it was Lee that demonstrated acceptance of former slaves now free.

Less than a month after the end of the war, Lee was attending services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. When it came time for communion, a black man came forward and knelt at the rail. Everyone in the church froze, no white person would take communion next to him. It was Lee who rose and walked forward to kneel next to the black man and take communion. With Lee setting the example, the rest of the congregation followed.

In an 1874 speech, U.S. Congressman Benjamin H. Hill spoke of Lee and said the following.

“He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward.”

In the end, Robert E. Lee was a man who had to choose between some of the worst options in history. And he made his decisions with honor, dignity, integrity and without hate.

Doesn’t a person like that deserve a monument?

Ned Jilton II is page designer and photographer for the Times-News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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