From the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial printed 01/19/17
The old story goes that General Robert E. Lee was having difficulty finding food enough to feed the prisoners of war in his charge. As his officers discussed how to overcome the problem, one of them bitterly suggested that the Union Army had plenty of food, and perhaps they could send a letter over the lines to General Grant, asking him to send rations to feed his own soldiers. To which General Lee quietly replied: “These aren’t General Grant’s prisoners.”
Don’t you love it when a politician or anybody else–but mostly politicians–start out a sentence with “Frankly . . . .” Our soon to be president and commander-in-chief is expert at it. These folks often feel the need to signal to the rest of us when they’re being honest. Such as, “Honestly . . . .” Or maybe they simply back up a declarative sentence with “That, I can tell you.”
It’s big of them to let the rest of us know when they’re being honest and frank. That way we can just assume when they don’t preface their statements, they’re lying. It certainly makes things easier.
Honestly, frankly, this-we-can-tell-you, those seeking to separate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and the Robert E. Lee holiday simply want to get rid of the second. That’s being honest and frank. But few seem to want to say it out loud.
Today is Robert E. Lee’s birthday, the 19th of January. Over the weekend, on Sunday, was the 15th of January, Martin Luther King’s birthday. For a generation now, at least in Arkansas and a few other Southern states, both are celebrated on a Monday, no matter when the dates fall on the calendar, more’s the pity.
Some in this state want to separate the two holidays, keeping MLK Day on the Monday nearest his birthday, and moving R.E. Lee off to the fall sometime.
The fall? Why the fall? He was born on Jan. 19. What purpose would that serve other than allowing folks to forget about it completely?
Actually, moving any recognition of Robert E. Lee to the fall allows it to be forgotten among the football games and hunting trips. That’s the whole point. If we can be honest, frank, and that-we-can-tell-you.
The whole idea follows what’s going on around the country as folks try to erase the past, Soviet-style. Even in New Orleans, they’re trying to tear down Lee Circle. Imagine New Orleans, La., erasing its past. What would it have left? For heaven’s sake, that’s where Jackson Barracks is. Are we going to erase that old Indian killer and money crank–and defeater of the British–from the history books too? Why, maybe the Brits just decided to forfeit the War of 1812. No need to go into difficult detail about the leaders of this country over the years. Maybe we could tear out certain pages from the history books and forget about all those leaders, men and women of their time, who wouldn’t fit into ours.
Who would be next down the memory hole?
A NATION can’t erase its history, pliable though history might be. For a nation without a history would be no more a nation than a human being would be human without a memory.
Certainly the uses of Robert E. Lee’s name and symbol and character have been varied. (Much like the name of another man named Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) To the old folks at home, R.E. Lee might be an icon to be remembered fondly, the centerpiece of all those Confederate Memorial Day observances, the marble man of the Southern mythology–less man than monument. The Confederacy has fallen, and down the hatch with it. But somehow, to many, an officer and gentleman like Lee remains above it.
The cynics and scornful can’t resist using and misusing Lee’s name. As a foil. As the personification of all Southern sins and hypocrisies. The hero as an anti-hero. Call this history one of the plastic arts. We go to the past not as students but as scavengers, on the lookout for what we can find and finding just what we always expected. Even if we have to plant it there ourselves. But don’t some of the worst among us misuse Dr. King’s words? As they’ve done with Lincoln and Washington and all through American history.
“History shows . . .” says the historian, who then explains what he wants history to show. But the idea that the past is something complete, something whole, something that speaks for itself? How quaint. As quaint as an officer upholding the laws of war in an age of terror. As the terrorists today make their own rules to get where they want.
Robert E. Lee, it should be noted, was not so flexible. These are not General Grant’s prisoners, he said. As in, these are my prisoners, and will be fed. Even if my troops go with less. Because that’s what my values demand. No matter what the chattering brass around me might think.
THE AMERICAN Civil War is often hailed as the first modern war. It saw the introduction of not only new technologies–automatic weapons, ironclad ships, submarines–but of new strategies that did away with old qualms. William Tecumseh Sherman’s total war, an innovation in 1864, became the standard for the next century. His march to the sea, destroying whatever stood in the way, also destroyed the distinction between military and civilian targets. “War is cruelty,” he told the people of Atlanta, “and you cannot refine it.” In short, war is hell. Sherman certainly made it so. Which might be one reason why nobody remembers his birthday.
What began with the burning of Atlanta would culminate a century later with the incineration of Hiroshima. Say what you will, W.T. Sherman was a modern man.
But if the American Civil War was the first modern war, it also ushered out the old formal ways and a certain code. Robert E. Lee’s campaigns of mobility and surprise against forces superior to his own in every material respect may have been the last in a long line going back to Saladin’s.
The most celebrated and analyzed battle of the war still remains Gettysburg, a loss for Robert E. Lee and his army. Not just two armies met there, but the past and future of war. Pickett’s charge meets massed artillery. And there was never any doubt who’d win in that match-up.
But even before the battle was begun, before his army would limp back to defeat, before the Lost Cause was lost, Robert E. Lee–already a man of the past–issued an order on entering enemy territory. His troops would act like his troops:
“The commanding general considers that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it our whole people, than the perpetration of the barbarous outrages upon the unarmed, and defenceless and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country. . . . It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain.”
The separation of King and Lee’s birthdays is coming, undoubtedly, and probably should. But let’s remember Lee’s birthday on Jan. 19.
His victories in America’s most terrible war might have been (literally) monumental, but his honor was greater.