By Olivia B. Waxman
August 16, 2017

As it remains to be seen whether Charlottesville, Virginia, will keep its statue of General Robert E. Lee—a debate that sparked a rally and counter-protests that resulted in at least one death and multiple injuries—one may naturally wonder what the leader of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia would do.

While we’ll never know what he would think about efforts to remove Confederate monuments (of which there are 700 Confederate statues and monuments on public property nationwide today), it’s clear he didn’t want them built in the first place—and for some of the same reasons they’re controversial today: too divisive.

Jonathan Horn, author of the biography The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History, wrote that after Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, in 1865, he received many proposals for memorials, but turned them down because he thought they would “anger the victorious Federals.”

As he wrote in a 1866 letter:

“As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated; my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; & of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.”

In that same year, he also rejected a proposal to build a monument to Stonewall Jackson, arguing that it would be unfair to ask families of Confederate veterans for money to build one when they hardly have enough money to feed their families, as Horn explained.

Three years later, when the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association invited Lee to come up to the historic site “for the purpose of marking upon the ground by enduring memorials of granite the positions and movements of the armies on the field,” he didn’t explicitly reject the invite because he lost that battle, but framed his reason for not attending more broadly: “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

Horn also points out that Lee didn’t want to be buried in his Confederate uniform either, so no former Confederate soldiers wore their uniforms and no flags were present during his 1870 funeral procession.

Lee thought instead of putting a lot of time and money into memorializing the Confederate Generals, “All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen, & wait for better times,” as he wrote in 1866.

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