Jonathan Horn’s short article in The Daily Beast is designed to highlight his new biography of Robert E. Lee by wading into to the Confederate flag controversy at Washington & Lee University. While it will likely convince those predisposed politically to agree with his conclusions the historical content falls short. Horn’s basic point is that the available evidence concerning Lee’s brief tenure as president of then Washington College and his overall attitude regarding Confederate defeat ought to serve as a guide for how we see the current controversy about the display of the flags.
Far from being relics of Lee’s tenure, the Confederate battle flags only arrived in the college chapel decades after Lee’s death and were later replaced with the historically meaningless reproductions that hung until recently.
Lee did not want such divisive symbols following him to the grave. At his funeral in 1870, flags were notably absent from the procession. Former Confederate soldiers marching did not don their old military uniforms, and neither did the body they buried. “His Confederate uniform would have been ‘treason’ perhaps!” Lee’s daughter wrote.
So sensitive was Lee during his final years with extinguishing the fiery passions of the Civil War that he opposed erecting monuments on the battlefields where the Southern soldiers under his command had fought against the Union. “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,” he wrote.
Publicly, Lee played the reconciled ex-Confederate general. He had every reason not to want to bring negative attention to his struggling college campus in the immediate wake of the war. It is no surprise that he would not have wanted Confederate flags flying on campus or in any other part of Lexington, Virginia. However, as we well know Lee remained bitter in private about defeat, emancipation, and occupation. Continue reading →