Social Media Backlash to Removal of Iconic Robert E. Lee Statue in Richmond

Did the mythology of the valiant and romantic Southern Lost Cause finally die In Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, on Sept. 8? A huge statute of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was removed from Monument Avenue, the city’s main boulevard, amid cheers. Several commentators have noted that “the capital of the Confederacy has fallen for the second time.” The statue was a way to continue fighting the civil war, said Va. Governor Ralph Northam. Now the most prominent statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond is the unifying figure of Arthur Ashe, a tennis great who won three Grand Slam titles and happened to be African American. He broke down racial barriers. Read more from The Washington Post :

By no means are all opponents of Confederate statue removal racists and diehard supporters of the “lost cause” mythology.

A colleague who is an educator and a historian wrote to my Slender Threads newsletter that he has mixed feelings about the removal of Lee’s statue. On the one hand, the removal seems to represent the will of the majority in Richmond. On the other hand, “I worry that my students know very little of either the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention something as recent as 9/11. I don’t want to lose anything that gives my students a chance to confront and grapple with their nation’s past. In that sense, I fear we are losing something by removing these monuments.” 

Plans are to reconstruct the Lee statue in either a Confederate cemetery or on the grounds of a museum where his memory can be placed in historical context, but not to perpetuate a false mythology.

After Richmond, VA removed Lee’s statue, former president Donald Trump deplored the removal of “the magnificent and very famous statue. Our culture is being destroyed and our history and heritage, both good and bad, are being extinguished by the Radical Left, and we can’t let that happen!”

Playing to his base, he insisted that Lee remains an American hero and strangely, would have decimated the Taliban in Afghanistan. “That disaster would have ended in a complete and total victory many years ago,” he said. “What an embarrassment we are suffering because we don’t have the genius of Robert E. Lee.”

Despite Trump’s divisive statement — imagine if he were still president! — and this symbolic Confederate retreat, Virginia, Republican candidates for governor and lieutenant governor in 2021 even say they agree with the decision to remove the statue. The Richmond City Council, presumably representing the city’s residents, voted unanimously in 2020 to permanently remove all Confederate statues from the city. There has been no groundswell to defeat council members for their decision.

On Facebook, thousands of Lee supporters groused about the statue’s removal, complaining about the erasure of civil war history, calling the perpetrators “sickening woke leftists”; “spineless RINOS”; “communists” “right out of Adolph’s playbook.”

In fact, the Lee statue wasn’t erected until 1890 as part of the lost cause mythology and as a message to African Americans that white supremacists were still in charge of the government and would enforce Jim Crow segregation.

So far, Virginia remains peaceful. The public relations problem for Lee supporters is that those who feel most strongly about this seem to be older white men born in the Jim Crow South who express no empathy for the discrimination African Americans have endured and the pervasiveness of the “lost cause” mentality. Lee supporters mis-portray the decision to remove the statue as a top-down decision by a “liberal Democrat” governor, Ralph Northam, rather than a bottom-up consensus democratic decision by the residents of Richmond.

On Facebook, Tim Decker, a country musician from Tennessee and former conductor and engineer for CSX Railroad, “feeling pissed,” posted a protest against the removal of Lee’s statue that received 4,500 likes and 12,000 shares. He wrote “For those who don’t care about your history, like that Northam in Virginia. Lee just wasn’t the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, he also was a Mexican War Veteran US Army. He also was Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point. And after the war Lee was instrumental in helping bring the Southern states back in to the Union by helping heal the wounds of the war. He was President of Washington College, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. He transformed the College into leading institution for higher learning in all of the South.”

It is true, as Decker wrote, that “it was Lee who showed the war was over and a new way of life had begun in America.” In other words, Lee urged Southern whites to accept the Union victory and not engage in an endless guerrilla war to create a Confederate nation and perpetuate slavery forever.

He notes that Lee set an example of civility and peacefulness, even leading white people in church to take communion with a black man. True.

But he undermines his own position and reveals his own bias when he describes as “truth” the post of Anthony Phillips that received 649 likes: “If we forget where we come from we won’t know where we’re going. The white race is being bred out. This is not racist it’s fact…The white race has just as much right to exist as any race. I’m thankful God made me white.” Decker also posts that he favors “impeachment and a rope” for Joe Biden and his “hoe” (Kamala Harris).

On Facebook, Avis L. Hill posted a tribute to Robert E. Lee that as of the morning of Sept. 22, 2021 garnered 5,100 shares, 1,700 likes and 40 comments. It was a statement from Carl Jones of the Alabama Sons of Confederate Veterans, who concludes: “That a monument to this man has been taken down is a monument itself. The barren space where his memorial stood is a testament to the depraved depths to which the morality and character of our society has fallen.”

Jones wrote:

On Lee’s last visit to Richmond, a lady approached General Lee with an infant in her arms and asked “Would you please hold my baby?” General Lee took the child, looked the woman in the eye and said “you must teach him to deny himself.” Biographer Douglas Southall Freeman pointed out that this one statement characterized the entirety of how General Lee lived. As the end of his life was approaching Robert E Lee was asked, with all of his accomplishments, what should his headstone say. He answered “that I am a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for my salvation.”

Previously, this was posted on the Sons of Confederate Veterans Silver State (Nevada) Grays Facebook page, with 2,280 followers and 44 shares. “Ok now i see, tear down the monument for this man, and instead put one up for George floyd!! Anyone care to see the direction we are heading?” one commenter posted.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans describe themselves as a “historical and heritage organization” but seem to be full of neo-Confederates who venerate the lost cause and criticize Lincoln.

Jones’ statement was also posted on the Conservative Daily Briefing along with a rant against “woke idiots” and “critical race theory,” which is not defined.

At least Avis Hill’s post on Lee received some pushback. “Too bad he turned traitor and swore allegiance to the Confederate constitution,” wrote Tony Finney. Donald Curtis replied (falsely) that “he in no way was a traitor. He told Lincoln his first allegiance would always be to Virginia as did hundreds of other officers. The US attacked a sovereign nation and destroyed it.” Finney did make one half-defensible statement: “It was purely about money for northerners. Slavery was a secondary issue. Purely economic.”

David Young wrote that Lee “was no hero. He was a man of his times, whose understanding of honor and morality only extended as far as his raising.”

The Richmond Times-Dispatch thoroughly reported on how the Lee statue came to be removed and residents’ reaction to it, mostly positive. The Washington Post noted the rapid shift in public opinion and efforts to remove the remaining city-owned Confederate monument to Gen. A.P. Hill.

Drill Deeper:

Revising Opinions of Robert E. Lee (on my Substack site). He wasn’t really anti-slavery, and he chose treason over defending the union. Should his birthday be a holiday? Should statues honoring him be taken down? Should Washington & Lee change its name?

The Civil War Lives On In Contemporary American Life. A 16-post mini-course with Zoom meetings. The civil war explains American identities, doesn’t feel 160 years ago. Prospects for a new civil war. Possibilities of personal reckonings.

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