Celebrating the Birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King

Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas still have one holiday honoring both Martin Luther King’s birthday, January 15, 1929, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee, born on January 19, 1807. My initial reaction to this was to ask if the Old South will ever let go of its glorification of its white supremacist past?

What an insult to African Americans, I thought, to place a 19th-century Confederate general on par with a 20th-century crusader for freedom and peace.

And yet, Robert E. Lee as an individual was certainly a principled and admirable man, and a brilliant military leader. Personally, he was opposed to civil war, he believed that slavery was a “moral and institutional evil,” and thought secession would be a disaster. As a Virginian, he felt he had a duty to defend his state and the principle of state’s rights. As my friend Charlie Glendinning has pointed out:

When Robert E. Lee surrendered he asked all of his followers (concerning the Confederate flag) to “Furl this flag. Stow it away. Put it in your attics.” He refused to be buried in his Confederate uniform. His family refused to allow anyone dressed in the confederate uniform to attend his funeral. He even requested he not be buried in his uniform. “His Confederate uniform would have seemed ‘treason’ perhaps!” Lee’s daughter wrote.

When he was elected president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) he said, “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.”

I can understand the desire of Southern whites to say, “hey, we have things to be proud of in our history, not simply ashamed.” LeeWhen I was the age of my seven year old, growing up in the South, I frequently heard that Robert E. Lee was a saint, the pure image of white manhood, and Martin Luther King was a demon, a “rabble-rouser.” I came to mock and disdain Lee as highly over-rated, a dutiful, boring stuffed shirt full of “shoulds” with little joy in his life. Certainly not a hero for an “enlightened” young man growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.

The photo perhaps illustrates a bit of this attitude — a Southerner in repose like Lee, falling asleep next to his tomb. And yet, in retrospect, if one can detach oneself from the competition between honoring either King OR Lee, there is much to admire in both men.

Quotes from Lee:

  • “We failed, but in the good providence of God apparent failure often proves a blessing.”
  • “We have fought this fight as long, and as well as we know how. We have been defeated. For us as a Christian people, there is now but one course to pursue. We must accept the situation.”
  • “What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.”

Reader Comments

Ron said…
Lee, in many ways, is one of the more tragic figures in American history. He was a wonder kid–Mexican War hero, Superintendent of West Point–he was on a fast track to be the commander of the US Army. Top dog. Numero uno. Many people don’t know that Lee was asked to take command of the Union Army prior to Virginia’s secession. But, instead, he went with his home, his state, his “country”. Prior to the Civil War, it was “these” United States not “the” US. Most men felt more loyalty to their state– whether it be Virginia or Alabama, Massachusetts or New York–than they did to the United States. Lee was no different. When his state of Virginia seceded, he felt honor bound to resign from the US Army and offer his ser vices to Virginia and the Confederacy. His military career in the CSA should be remembered in that light. My favorite story of Lee took place after the war during services in his church. A black man came up to the railing for communion–probably the first black man to be in that church other than in the guise of a servant. As might be imagined, the congregation didn’t know what to do as the black gentleman knelt patiently at the communion rail waiting for the priest to give him communion. Finally, perhaps the most famous man in Virginia–Marse Bob–rose, walked to the rail and knelt beside the black man. The rest of the congregation followed suit. That incident tells me more about the courage and character of Lee than his actions at Antietam, Chancellorsville or Fredricksburg.
Jim Buie said…
Excellent story and insight, Ron. Perhaps with some historical perspective, in 125 years (that’s how much time has passed since Lee’s death), you and I will look back on the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and agree on just about everything.
Ron said…
You are going to convert to the “true way”?
Jim Drummond said…
I strongly recommend a book by Gene Smith, “Lee and Grant.” It is a fascinating juxtaposition of their lives in alternating chapters.
Ron said…
For an excellent fictional study of the personality of Lee as well as Longstreet and Chamberlain, read THE KILLER ANGELS by Michael Shaara.
Jim Buie said…
We agree. “The Killer Angels” is an excellent book. Learn more about it by surfing these web sites: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=THE+KILLER+ANGELS&btnG=Search

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