In the summer of 1869, General Robert E. Lee was invited to a meeting officers who had fought in the Battle of Gettysburg. The purpose of the meeting, as Lee described it, was “marking upon the ground by enduring memorials of granite the positions and movements of the armies on the field.” Lee declined to attend, saying that he thought it best “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” (http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu).
We don’t know, of course, where Lee would stand in the current public debate about removing Confederate statues, but it’s pretty clear that he wouldn’t have approved of erecting them in the first place.
Ironically, it’s not hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln on the other side of this question. The final paragraph of his second inaugural address, given just a month before Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, begins with the phrase, “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . .” As the leader who had preserved the Union and defeated the rebellion of the Southern states, Lincoln didn’t bask in his triumph. Instead, he contemplated the possibility that the entire war was divine retribution for 250 years of slavery in America: “He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” In place of a celebration of triumph, “Lincoln’s priority . . . was ‘to bind up the nation’s wounds’ and unite the country together again as a functioning democracy under the Constitution; extended retribution against the former Confederates would only slow down the process.” Accordingly, the terms of surrender reflected what Smithsonianmag.com calls a simple gentlemen’s agreement: “The Army of Northern Virginia would surrender their arms, return home, and agree ‘not to take up arms against the Government of the United States.’ At Lee’s request, Grant even allowed Confederates who owned their own horses to keep them so that they could tend their farms and plant spring crops.” Lee himself was treated with honor and respect.
Lincoln probably would have agreed with Lee in opposing the erection of Confederate statues after the war, but it’s not hard to imagine him opposing their removal once they were up—or at least leaving the question open to local authorities—as part of his vision of “charity for all.”
Lincoln’s renunciation of revenge and triumphalism was an amazing exception among presidents and politicians of all kinds. I’ve just finished a remarkable book, Lincoln’s Melancholy (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005), which suggests that Lincoln’s well-documented tendency toward melancholy—the 19th century term for what we now more coldly call depression—may have empowered him to take this noble position. As author Joshua Wolf Shenk explains,
With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul; whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.
The sober assessment that God wasn’t on either side of this war, and that even at victory’s door the Union should acknowledge God’s chastisement and judgment, may have been one of “the piercing insights of depression.” A more cheerful soul would have just joined the victory parade and gloried in divine vindication, but not Lincoln.
As Shenk notes, Lincoln’s melancholy did not detract from his “inimitable character.” Instead it may have contributed to it.
So, what about those statues? Whatever is decided should reflect Lee’s wish “to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered” by the Civil War and the tragic history of Jim Crow that arose decades afterwards, which was actually the era during which most of the statues were erected. At the same time, it would be unwise to try to cleanse our national history with unbending rules imposed from outside.
Can Lincoln’s intention still guide us today? “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . .”