Robert E. Lee And Equal Rights

A visit to Arlington National Cemetery provides a different view of the Confederate general who celebrated the end of slavery, saying he was “rejoiced” that it is abolished.

Robert E. Lee, commanding general of the Confederate army in 1865, would approve of the heroic actions of journalists in the civil rights era, told in great detail by Hank Klibanoff in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Race Beat.

He would have approved of the actions of officials such as Gov. Ernest Vandiver, who changed his ways and ensured the peaceful integration of the University of Georgia. He would have approved of the actions of Gov. Roy Barnes in changing the Georgia state flag by doing away with the stars and bars “battle flag” of the Confederate army.

I came to this conclusion on a recent visit to Arlington National Cemetery, on a tour of Arlington House, the 19th century mansion that sits in the middle of more than 250,000 military gravesites.

The home was built in 1802 as a memorial to President George Washington by Washington’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, whose daughter, Mary Anna, married Robert E. Lee in 1831. Lee and his wife lived in the house, but never owned the home, because it was held in a life estate to be passed down to their first child. It was confiscated by Union troops at the beginning of the war, and the grounds used for Union burials.

In the home, I expected to see a living memorial to President George Washington. Instead the interior is full of paintings, furniture, memorabilia and historical items that were owned by Robert E. Lee. The entire home is a monument to the Confederate general, who fought against freeing slaves during the Civil War. Or so I thought.

The person giving us the tour was the curator of Arlington. He explained that after the war it was decided to dedicate the mansion to Lee because he was held in such high esteem, even revered, by black and white people from the North and South.

After Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox, many Southern forces were still in the field ready to fight on. Confederate armies were in North Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, Texas and Mississippi; there was shooting and dying all around as the war ground on. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered Lee to continue the fight. There was even talk of a retreat to Mexico, where forces could regroup and continue the struggle. Under Davis’s orders, the war would have continued as a conflict much as we see in Iraq today.

A young man fighting with Mosby’s Rangers was sent to get instructions from Lee as to what the Rangers should do. Should they surrender or fight on? “Go home,” Lee told the young scout, “all you boys who fought with me go and help to build the shattered fortunes of our old state.”

Soon after, Lee gave an interview to a reporter from The New York Herald. In the story he was quoted as saying he condemned the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He called it “deplorable,” “a crime.”

More important, Lee celebrated the end of slavery. (“I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished ... the best men of the South have long been anxious to do away with this institution ... “slavery [is] forever dead,” he said. “The South was anxious to get back into the Union and to peace.”)

The news story received wide circulation in both Northern and Southern newspapers. Lee’s words did more than anything else at this critical juncture to help bring the United States of America to peace.

Soon after, Lee and his family were attending St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va. The blacks in church were seated at the back, as was the custom of the time. Their former white masters were seated in front. When the minister called for Holy Communion, a black man advanced to the communion rail. The congregation was stunned. Usually whites received communion first. After a moment, a tall white man got up and knelt beside the black man to take the Lord’s supper. Watching the scene, others both white and black followed. The white man who joined his black brother was Robert E. Lee.

Now you know why the mansion at Arlington National Cemetery is a living memorial to this man. Robert E. Lee tried to bring the races together and heal a torn nation, at the end of a war that killed 600,000 Americans. It is a fitting memorial.

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