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Me and Robert E. Lee
In the South, the past isn’t history. It isn't even past. ~William Faulkner
On my desk is a picture of Robert E. Lee. It sits right beside a picture of my great grandfather. One was a Confederate general; a leader of men, an owner of slaves. The other was a shop steward; a sometime drunken whoremonger, the man I loved most in this world.
As I sit writing, I am but a few miles from the site of the only Civil War battle fought in my home county in Arkansas, the Battle of Longview. It was a short-lived gambit. My forebears lost that battle, and in time they lost the war. But in losing a cause they gained a country. So I am not particularly melancholy about the outcome.
A single, stone monument stands on the courthouse lawn paying tribute to the men who lost their lives in that campaign. Modestly adorned with a plaque of names and dates, that memorial renders homage to a few dozen farmers, trappers, shopkeepers, and tradesmen who died to keep a garrison of Union troops from burning their crops and disturbing the course of daily living. One or two may have been ideologues, but most were just poor, tired, and hungry folk.
When I was five, my great-grandaddy gave me a fifty-dollar Confederate banknote. I still have it in a small box, along with sixty-seven cents in change, a little bottle of nitroglycerine tablets, a wallet, a pair of reading glasses, and a picture of a dead aunt I never knew—all the items that papaw had on his person the day he died. I stuck that fifty-dollar bill in there to keep it safe. His grandfather, who received it as compensation for wounds received at the Battle of Longview, gave it to my papaw when he was just a boy in short-britches. Though worthless, it has been a family treasure—part of who I am—for over a hundred and fifty years.
I mention this to remind the reader that when many of us from the South talk about the Civil War we aren’t speaking about an abstract history of conflicting ideas, we are thinking about the people whose pictures line the hallways of our homes. At some point my mortal remains will be interred just a few yards from the man in the yellowing portrait, the man who took a bullet in a pitiless war fought for a pitiful cause.
Southerners are often accused of being defensive concerning “the recent unpleasantness,” a term still in vogue in my part of the world as late as 1990. Doubtless this is true. Many of us find ourselves in the precarious position of wanting to honor our fathers while also recognizing that they hobbled about on feet of clay. We are compelled to admit that they were party to some horrible atrocities committed against their fellows, while simultaneously admitting that they were also sinners redeemed quietly resting in the good hand of God.
Though the idea that desperately flawed people can still be regarded as decent provokes moral outrage at fever pitch these days, there is not a man alive who isn’t clad in his own garb of tattered gray. And this has ever been the case. Think of Abraham with his doubt and deception. Isaac with his rebellion against the election of grace. Moses, that hot-tempered manslayer. Samson, ruled by his passions. David, murderous and adulterous, whose celebrated statue is nothing short of an apotheosis. These are but a few of those whom the Scriptures speak of as "saints," and does so without blushing. It is for just this reason that outfitting some with white hats and others with black hats is a fool’s errand.
I will grant that statues of Lee, Jackson, Davis et al., may not have been good ideas. But that is only because there is none good, no, not one. If a society is going to honor anyone it has to account for those persons’ failures, as well as their successes. Yet, a country’s perennial ability to make such meaningful distinctions is not set in stone. There are those who want to sandblast Mount Rushmore as much as they wish to remove memorials to Confederate generals. And not entirely without warrant. The ubiquity of human imperfection is surpassed only by our inability to perceive it in ourselves. Perhaps this is reason enough to raise a monument or two. Raise them to remember. Even men cast in marble are but dust. Let the stones cry out.
Let he who is without sin pull down the first stone.
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