History, History Column

The Lee-Jackson Debate


©2020 Sarah Becker

The Lee-Jackson Debate


At long last the New Year has arrived.  Joe Biden (D-DE) is president-elect; COVID-19 continues its sinister spread, and Virginia no longer observes Robert E. Lee-Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson Day.  Lee-Jackson Day was established in 1904.

“It is past time that we stop honoring the Confederacy,” Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said in 2020.  The times—the politics—are ‘changin.’  Last October Virginia judge W. Reilly Marchant ruled Richmond’s controversial 1890 statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee can be wholly removed—from Monument Avenue by order of the Governor.  Virginia Military Institute’s 108 year-old statue of Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson was removed last month.  Jackson was nicknamed “Stonewall” after his showing in the first Battle of Bull Run.

Lee-Jackson Day—celebrated coincident with Martin Luther King’s birthday—included Confederate wreath-laying ceremonies, a Civil War parade and ball.  The lore is “deeply entwined in the state’s self-image;” the related monuments “erected by propagandists pushing a Lost Cause.”  In 2017 white supremacists and Neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to aggressively defend a 1924 statue of Confederate General Lee.

Robert Edward Lee was born January 19, 1807, the fifth child of overspent Revolutionary War hero General Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee and his second wife Ann Hill Carter, the great granddaughter of Virginia slaveholder Robert “King” Carter.  Robert E. did not live the “legendary Victorian virtue” as “celebrated in a thousand marble statues across the South.”  His sense of Duty, Duty before desire did not include the South’s “terrible hardening of the heart.”

Lee emancipated his father-in-law George Washington Parke Custis’ slaves on December 29, 1862; approximately three months after President Lincoln’s September 23 Emancipation Proclamation was published in draft.  Congress renamed Arlington’s historic Custis-Lee mansion—the Custis’ family home—Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial in 1972.  The name change first discussed in 1954.

The War Between the States, America’s Civil War began April 12, 1861, when dissatisfied South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter.  Virginians—initially—were reluctant to separate from the Union.  The mood changed when President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the “insurrection.” Union General Robert E. Lee, forever loyal to Virginia, resigned his U.S. Army commission on April 20, 1861, and followed the Commonwealth.

“After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the [Confederate] Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources,” Confederate General Robert E. Lee told his troops on April 10, 1865.  “I need not tell the survivors…that I have consented to this [surrender] from no distrust of them; but, feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing [more than] loss.”

Reconstruction did not proceed easily.  President Andrew Johnson, a southerner and Unionist Democrat, failed to win widespread political support.  By contrast “[Lee’s] unchangeable sweetness, the absence of all rancour, of all bitterness of feeling so natural to the vanquished, raised him high above the prejudices and hatreds of the day,” author Edward Lee Childe then wrote.

Defeated as of his surrender, former Confederate General Robert E. Lee declined an 1869 request to help mark the positions of the troops in the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg with granite memorials.  “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,” he said.  Nephew Fitzhugh Lee also refused.

“If the nation is to continue as a whole, it is better to forget and forgive rather than perpetuate in granite proofs,” Lee told The Charleston Daily News on August 26, 1869.  He was indicted for treason on June 7, 1865; entered his Richmond home a prisoner, applied for a pardon then later absolved.

“In his captivity and in his humiliation Lee’s anxieties were still for his soldiers,” Union General Adam Badeau noted in 1887.

“[Lee’s] specialty was finishing up,” Alexandria, Virginia school teacher Benjamin Hallowell said of student Robert’s studies.  “He imparted a finish and a neatness, as he proceeded to everything he undertook.”

“When Congress ordered the drafting of new constitutions in the former Confederate states and disgruntled southerners contemplated a boycott of the system, Lee announced that it was ‘the duty of the [southern] people to accept the situation fully’ and that every man should not only ‘prepare himself to vote’ but also ‘prepare his friends white and colored, to vote and to vote rightly,’” the Virginia Museum of History & Culture wrote.  “Lee’s code of conduct demanded submission to authority.  With characteristic self-discipline, he put the past behind him and moved forward.”

Post-war Robert E. Lee “promoted political harmony.  He also became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia,” the Virginia Museum of History & Culture confirmed.

President Lee died on October 12, 1870, one month before The Robert E. Lee Monumental Association of New Orleans was incorporated; a decade before The New York Times described The Lost Cause Regained.  The economic downturn, combined with the emotion of Lee’s death resulted in a surge of southern sentiment.

In 1880—in Virginia—72.7%, eight of the eleven Congressional office holders had Confederate roots.  Of the eleven Southern States 75.8%, seventy-two of the ninety-five Congressional office holders were ex-Confederates.  Their “greatest” granite “hero” was deceased Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

In April 1885 Alexandrian Edgar Warfield, a pharmacist and former private in the 17th Virginia Infantry, asked the R.E. Lee Camp of the United Confederate Veterans to construct a monument on behalf of the Confederate dead.   In 1888 the City Council approved the project, permitting placement of the statue—Appomattox—at the intersection of Prince and Washington Streets.  The Confederate statue stands—in part—where local soldiers, mostly between the ages of 19 and 26, assembled prior to evacuation.

“The memory of the Confederate soldiers who fell in the Battle of Manassas…has at last been perpetuated by a monument,” The Washington Post reported in 1889, President George Washington’s Centennial year.  Said U.S. Senator (D-VA), speaker and former Confederate Major John W. Daniel:

“There was an irrepressible conflict between the free-labor system of the North and the African-labor system of the South.  That northern sentiment was growing very rapidly because of immigration and the addition of new States, and in excess of the Southern sentiment, it was apparent that it was bent upon destroying slavery and that the fight must come…The Southern situation: The slaves will be freed if we remain in the Union [and] with freedom will come suffrage, with suffrage will come race conflict; for no two races so differing from each other as the African and the Anglo-Saxon have ever in the world’s history lived side-by-side in peace…The Southern people realized it, and events have shown that whether wise or not in the remedy they adopted, they truly diagnosed the evil which they vainly sought to avert.”

A Lost Virginia caused Confederate General Lee’s statue to be placed “in the Statuary Hall of the National Capitol” in 1909.  Said Virginia State Senator Don Peters Halsey (D-20th) on February 8, 1903:

“In presenting the Bill now under consideration, I did so from no desire to offend Northern sentiment, or to re-open old wounds now happily healed.  Rather I did so from entirely opposite motives, for, believing that the feeling of good will between the sections is now greater than ever before, I considered this an opportune time for Virginia to accept the invitation so long held out to her by the Federal Government, and place in the National Valhalla, by the side of [President, rebel, and Revolutionary War General George] Washington, the figure of him whom she deems to be his peer, and the fittest of all her sons for this high distinction, there-by showing her good feeling towards the reunited nation of which she is a part.

Right glad am I to feel that those who are the truest exponents of the sentiment of the North, sustain me in my belief that in this era of good feeling the statue of Lee may be thus placed without justly exciting passions of sectional animosity or tirades of bitter comment. I did not hope, of course, that the idea would meet with the approval of everybody….

I recognize the fact that there are those in the North who are still irreconcilable as well as those in the South who are still ” unreconstructed ” — to use that word in the Northern sense — but I take it also that the irreconcilable of the North are no more representative of the true sentiment of that section, than the unreconstructed are representative of the true sentiment of the South, and, therefore, I believe that the great heart of the North beats in unison with that of the South in honoring the memory of the great exponent of the chivalry and the glory and the true manhood of the South, just as I know that the South delights to honor the memory of his great adversaries, Lincoln and Grant, the first of whom pursued his course from a sense of duty as he saw it, “with charity towards all, and malice towards none,” and the other of whom uttered those words —”Let us have peace.”

Let us have peace indeed!  It seems the more Black Lives Matter the less Lost Cause advocates can ably defend.  More than 100 Confederate statues were installed after 1950.  In response to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka: school desegregation?

Last year Congressman Don Beyer [VA-8] introduced legislation requesting the removal of Lee’s memorialized name from Arlington House.  In 1972 the country was again debating change.  An all-white jury acquitted black academician, prison reform advocate, and Communist party member Angela Davis of murder charges.  Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment, black women included.  More disturbingly, presidential candidate and Governor George Wallace [D/AIP-AL] was shot while campaigning in Laurel, Maryland.  A southern segregationist reared in the “Rebel-haunted reaches of southeast Alabama” Wallace’s racial message was clear.

President-elect Biden’s selection of retired 4-star Army General Lloyd Austin to serve as the first black Secretary of Defense is historic.  Lee did ask his fellow southerners “to accept the situation fully,” every man white and colored “to vote and to vote rightly.”

Talk of secession has gained loose-lipped momentum following President Donald Trump’s [R-FL/NY] election loss.  Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh [FL] now claims the U.S. is again “trending towards secession.”  Black’s law dictionary defines sedition as an “‘insurrectionary’ movement tending toward treason, but wanting an overt act; attempts made by meetings or speeches, or by publications, to disturb the tranquility of the state.”

To what extent is Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton’s December 8, 2020 lawsuit against Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin a seditious act?  The AG asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the states 2020 election results.  The Supreme Court rejected the case three day later.

Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West, a black replied: he suggested “perhaps law abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution.”  The more than 100 Republican House members who signed the accompanying amicus curiae did so out of loyalty.

Amendment 14, Section 3, as ratified July 18, 1868: “No person shall be a senator or representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who having previously taken an oath…to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same….”


Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email abitofhistory53@gmail.com 

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