Yesterday, the Eighth of September in the year of Our Lord Two Thousand Twenty-One, the Commonwealth of Virginia finally removed the godawful statue to Robert E. Lee in Richmond. Ever since its proposal and unveiling in the late 19th century, the monument has been a towering and ridiculous ode to the odious Lee and the Confederate cause he willfully partook in.
I have to emphasize that wilful part.
In the years since the American Civil War, there’s been a pathetic mythology surrounding Lee. Part of the myth is that he of course loved the United States, but loved his home state of Virginia even more. Therefore, he had no choice but to take up arms with the Confederate States of America once Virginia’s government threw its lot in with the rebels.
Now, I grant that Lee wasn’t exactly enthusiastic at first about fighting a civil war. Few people were, except the most fire-breathing of secessionists.
However, the man made his decision to not only join the rebel cause, but explicitly did so as a traitor. Not in the generalized sense, but in cold, hard fact. He was an officer in the Army of the United States in 1861, his 32nd year of service. As such, President Abraham Lincoln requested he command troops to suppress the rebellion after the Battle of Fort Sumter in mid-April 1861. Instead of following the oath he’d taken to defend the United States Constitution, Lee turned down the Commander-in-Chief’s request.
You know what? Let’s be generous. Fine, Robert E. Lee wanted no part in killing his fellow Americans. He could just sit on the sidelines in moral anguish. Resign from the army and pen some newspaper op-eds asking for both sides to stop being foolish. He was too old to be drafted anyways. He could have been a voice for non-violence.
Well, he didn’t do that.
Gotta toss aside the generosity because after refusing to command troops in the army he was part of, Lee instead traveled from his home in Arlington, Virginia, (just across the river from Washington, DC) to Richmond to take up command of the state’s military forces as it officially rebelled.
(When I visited the Virginia state capitol back in 2013, they still had a bronze statue of Lee standing in military gear at the spot where he accepted command of the state’s rebel forces. What a joke.)
For the next four years, Lee continued in defiant rebellion against the United States. In the process thousands upon thousands of people died in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the region where armies under his command operated.
(It should be noted that another white Virginian in the U.S. Army officer corps did NOT join the rebels, but instead followed his oath and helped put down the absurd Confederates. That man is George H. Thomas. A bad ass motherfucker in contrast to Lee.)
Now, I’ll leave aside debates on whether Lee was a “good general” (as in whether he was a good tactician and strategist) cuz that’s not my forte. What I can say is that he was a bad person.
Of course war is a brutish thing, but Lee went beyond the normal course of things. During his invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania he committed demonstrable war crimes by kidnapping numerous Black people and carrying them off to slavery in the Confederacy. But I guess if it’s Black civilians, it’s not a war crime.
Lee’s part in the rebellion did not cease until April 1865 when Ulysses S. Grant and U.S. Army troops, many of them Black at this point, cornered Lee outside recently captured Richmond. And I emphasize Lee was cornered. He had intended to continue resisting even though the jig was clearly up at this point. Finally, with no other rational choice, Lee surrendered to Grant.
Unionists, as loyal Americans were called at the time, did not forget that Lee was a particularly odious traitor. Montgomery Meigs, quartermaster for the U.S. Army, lost one of his sons in the war and decided to bury Union war dead on the grounds of Lee’s plantation in Arlington to make sure Lee would never want to live there again.
This cemetery is now Arlington National Cemetery.
The government also seized the land from Lee’s family for not paying taxes during the war. Sounds fair to me!
(Unfortunately, the Supreme Court later said the property was illegally seized by the U.S. government, so the feds had to pay off the descendants of Lee to retain the land.)
After the war, a defeated Lee was willing to acquiesce to a reunification of the nation, but not to Black rights in that reunion. In contrast, former Confederate general James Longstreet did truly accept the consequences of the war by supporting Black civil rights. Naturally, he was ostracized by his former rebel friends.
Unsurprisingly, Lee’s outlook helped foster the Lost Cause mythology that wound up creating that monstrous statue in Richmond. Although he died in 1870 not long after the war, Lee’s minions like Jubal Early were more than eager to flesh out the noble Confederate myth and its itinerant white supremacist ideology as the years passed.
White Southerners were justified in rebelling against an overbearing federal government. A.K.A. state’s rights! Black Southerners were not only content as slaves, but better off as slaves. They were given freedom (and nothing else) by Yankees ignorant of how race relations were really supposed to be. Never mind that Black Southerners often seized their own freedom. Acknowledging that would mean acknowledging Black people were not happy as slaves, though. It was also to be “never-minded” that Blacks often had a lot more than just freedom after the Civil War, but those other things were deliberately taken away by reactionary White Southerners.
Indeed, by the 1890s, the nation at-large had mostly settled on Lee’s outlook. And most definitely by the 1910s when Virginian and staunch segregationist Woodrow Wilson was elected president; and Birth of a Nation dominated movie theaters. Those events truly signified the nationalization of the Lost Cause.
But stepping back to the 1890s, Whites were already on good enough terms at that point since Reconstruction was over. They could be on even better terms if they simply stopped arguing about Black people and rolled back further the freedoms Black people enjoyed. So, that decade saw efforts to protect Black voting rights fall by the wayside as the Supreme Court issued decision after decision countenancing voter restrictions and the U.S. Congress, which saw the last of its Black members removed in 1901, did nothing in response.
In Virginia, particularly, a coalition of whites and Blacks known as Readjusters had held power in the state during the 1870s and early 1880s. No such fusion party was possible, or needed, after Black people were removed from the political equation. All whites all the time!
The creation of the giant Lee monument was now the Lost Cause flaunting itself out in the wide open paving the way for Birth of a Nation and Wilson later on. There was no need for secretive Ku Klux Klan activity. No need to speak in code. No need for apologist language. Former rebels could now openly celebrate what they had done just 30 years earlier to bleed the nation of over 700,000 lives.
The open celebration continued for decades as more statues of Confederate assholes were added to what became known as “Monument Avenue.” By the 1960s, Robert E. Lee was an American hero. It was now forgotten that he had been forced into ending the rebellion. The general narrative lauded him as a great man who ended needless suffering through graceful capitulation in 1865; instead of as the scoundrel who helped usher in the carnage of civil war in 1861. In the name of the slave system, he continued that bloodshed for four terrible years.
In keeping with the positive outlook, though, Lee’s former plantation in Arlington was symbolically connected to the Lincoln Memorial (unveiled to segregated audience in 1922) by a bridge in 1932. The North and South, Lincoln and Lee, were now at peace.
Nearing the centennial of the Civil War, the U.S. government in 1955 officially designated the old master’s house on the plantation as a memorial to Robert E. Lee.
All the while Black Virginians, and Black Americans generally, had to live life under the shadows of these clear signs of intimidation.
I had to learn a lot of this because in the fall of 2012 I was an intern at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial. That’s the name the government calls the plantation home of Lee and his wife Mary Custis, who actually owned the house, the plantation, and most of the enslaved people there.
Like a lot of chivalrous white men of the early U.S., Lee wasn’t that well-to-do, so he married into some money. In fact Mary Custis was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. George Washington was not related by blood to Mary Custis, but he did marry Martha, who was significantly wealthier than George. Mount Vernon was her property, not George’s.
Anyways, I learned all that stupid genealogy because the people who visited (or stumbled) onto Arlington House wanted to know Lee’s connection to Washington. And I would always insist that neither general owned the plantations they were synonymous with. Their wives did. Of course, they were all assholes for owning other humans as property.
Right behind the mansion at Arlington House are reconstructed slave cabins that were muuuuch less visited than the mansion. In the midst of Arlington National Cemetery, (white) people were more disturbed by the peering into reconstructed slave cabins than walking through actual graves of dead soldiers.
There’s more to be said on that, but another time…
One undeniably positive thing about that awful house was that the front porch has an awesome view of Washington, DC. The home sits atop a hill and the panoramic view of DC can’t be beat. I loved being there around 9am before any tourists arrived. You could just chill and enjoy the view.
But eventually the people came and so did the dumb comments.
Why would the government do this to Robert E. Lee? (Cuz he was a traitor.)
It’s a shame what they did to him. (No, it’s not. It’s a shame he has a memorial.)
Did he ever see his home again? (No, because he was, to reiterate, a traitor.)
Can you imagine how hard his decision was? (Imagine how much harder it was being a slave around here.)
My parenthetical inner dialogue usually went unmentioned because most of the people were speaking to themselves or a family member. They weren’t actually searching for an answer from me.
Anyways, after folks began falling out of the tourist buses around 10am, I promptly slipped away to the slave cabins or the replanted gardens. At least the people who came around those corners sometimes showed an interest in the lives of Black people who lived there like Selina Gray. Her recollections as well as those of her family, served as the basis for the government refurnishing and rehabilitating the house.
Other enslaved Black people emancipated during the war continued working at the plantation-turned-cemetery as gravediggers and laborers. If you ever visit Arlington National Cemetery and see civilians buried there, those are the Black people who called the place home.
My time at Arlington House was brief, but it has been wonderful to see just how much public opinion has swung against Robert E. Lee in the time since I interned there.
Adam Serwer in 2017 wrote the definitive short piece laying out just how trashy Lee was as a person. Later that year some Neo-Nazis and other assorted white supremacists gave further stench to Lee’s name by rioting in Charlottesville as the city tried to expunge a Lee statue there. And the disgraced former president Trump still thinks Lee is a very fine person.
Who could have foreseen the Big Lie and the Lost Cause finding common ground?
So what does any of this have to do with basketball?
John Harwood @JohnJHarwoodnow that Robert E. Lee has been removed, the only remaining statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, once the capital of the Confederacy, is that of legendary African-American tennis champion Arthur Ashe
Just saying, Bobby Dandridge is a muuuuch better person than Robert E. Lee. And he was actually born and raised in Richmond. Besides Arthur Ashe, I think he’s the best athlete to come from that city. I have not fully investigated the latter claim, but no one can possibly be better than Dandridge, Ashe aside.
Black folks like Ashe and Dandridge grew up in segregated Richmond under the watchful eye of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and other assorted racists lauded on the streets via statues and other exhibitions of honorific power.
In the actual halls of power, Virginia politicians practiced mass resistance to integration. Instead of sharing public resources and goods with Black people, white segregationists shut down entire public school systems. The state government then gave white families public tax dollars to send their children to private academies that just so happened to only serve white children.
A pathetic and bitter way to live life.
So, in the spirit of not being petty, I have temporarily buried my hatchet with the Basketball Hall of Fame because, coincidentally, this weekend Bobby D gets inducted there this Saturday!
Whatever force controlling the universe is sending us a message: out with Lee in with Dandridge!
(yes, I truly hate the Basketball Hall of Fame. Rest assured I’ll be back on my righteous bullshit next week)
So, a hearty “Fuck you!” to Robert E. Lee’s grotesque statue and a joyful “Let’s fucking go!” to the effort to memorialize two-time NBA champion, Robert L. Dandridge, Jr.
I humbly submit that any future statue of Dandridge should be him hitting this baseline jumper for the Washington Bullets to eliminate the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of the 1979 Eastern Conference Finals…