Glorifying history is not the same as remembering it. The distinction is lost even now in corners of the United States still pining for days when the country was torn by secession.
And it explains why 156 years and 5 months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War, his 21-foot bronze statue was finally plucked from its prominent pedestal 75 miles away, in Richmond. It’s about time.
Just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, a crane removed what The Associated Press noted was one of the largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy from that city’s Monument Avenue. It was the final execution of an order given last summer by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, reacting to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the focus on racism throughout the country that followed. It’s not yet determined where the 12-ton statue of Lee on horseback will go.
“We put things on pedestals when we want people to look up,” Northam said last year. “Think about the message that this sends to people coming from around the world to visit the capital city of one of the largest states in our country. Or to young children.”
That the statue survived this long is an embarrassment, certainly to Richmond but to the rest of the country as well. And no amount of dissembling can hide the racism that erected it in 1890, 25 years after the Civil War ended, and shrouded it for six generations thereafter.
How else to explain the romanticism of a traitorous general? Lee knew better than anyone the stakes of the Civil War, which killed more than 618,000 people, having criticized the secession of Southern states as revolution and anarchy before he switched sides. And all of the legend poured over him since — the pabulum about a genteel general conflicted by loyalty to his home state — has spread like mold spores in racist fertilizer.
Throughout the South, the intent of so many historical markers and Civil War monuments was not education but defiance — at first against Reconstruction and later court decisions and laws demanding equal rights for Blacks. Indeed, an entire alternative telling of American history grew up to obscure the fact that preserving slavery was the base motive of Southern secession and the Civil War, itself.
And, until yesterday, the city of Richmond glorified it still.