A Question I Sometimes Ask Myself
Down in my adopted home state of Mississippi they're
having a big fight about the Mississippi State Flag which incorporates the Battle Flag of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Philip Gunn, the two United States Senators, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, and other state leaders have called for the elimination of the Battle Flag from the Mississippi State Flag. Others, such as Governor Phil Bryant and Lt. Governor Tate Reeves, have pointed out that Mississippians in a 2001 referendum overwhelmingly voted to retain the present Flag and that it would be up to the voters to decide if any change is made. Still others, prominent among them, State Senators Chris McDaniel and Melanie Sojourner, who consider themselves the embodiment of "true conservativism", have said in effect, "Never!"
This is where I ask my question, "What would Robert E. Lee do?" One of the more fractious followers of the two intransigent Senators has invoked Lee to take his stand against Northerners, Democrats, and spineless Republicans. The problem with this kind of stuff is that all we know about Lee tells us that Lee would have no sympathy whatsoever with such imposition of his portrait on the Battle Flag.
Lee was and is the epitome of a gentleman, one characteristic of whom he eloquently described:
The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman. The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.Lee opposed secession, though his unwillingness to take up arms against his state and his sense of duty to defend her led him to resign his United States Army Commission and enter the service of the State of Virginia:
I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honour for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It is intended for 'perpetual Union,' so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession: anarchy would have been established, and not a government. … Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and, save in defense will draw my sword on none.After the War, Lee counseled moderation, acceptance, and reconciliation:
The questions which for years were in dispute between the State and General Government, and which unhappily were not decided by the dictates of reason, but referred to the decision of war, having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor to recognize the fact.
I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.
Madam, don't bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.So, I come to ask about the Mississippi State Flag, "What would Lee do?" I think there can be little doubt, given what we know about his character and the things he both counseled and practiced after the War, that Lee would say, "Change it. Take the Battle Flag (of the Army of Northern Virginia) off it."
So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.
The interests of the State are therefore the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote; and elect to the State and general Legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself.
Lee's counsel would be formed by his desire to see the hostilities within the nation put away and the disunion healed. He would have counseled removal of the Battle Flag in the interests of national reconciliation and unity. That much we can surmise from what Lee wrote.
But, I think it is not unduly speculative to think that, if Lee could give us his counsel now, he would counsel
removal of the Battle Flag for other reasons: (1) The Battle Flag unfortunately has been so co-opted by racists and those who have sought to stir sectional hostility and resistance to equality of rights that it is no longer a symbol of the courage and heroism of those who fought under it. (2) When a black citizen of Mississippi sees that Battle Flag corner of the Mississippi Flag, he or she sees a symbol of slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow laws, the Dixiecrat Party, Mississippi politicians such as Theo Bilbo, John Bell Williams, and Ross Barnett, unequal opportunity, denial of voting rights, and all the worst things about Mississippi. I do not much see those things, but it is undeniable that black people do - and that it's understandable. (3) The purpose of a state flag is to provoke pride and loyalty and to symbolize the unity of the state. All citizens should be able to salute a flag and feel a sense of attachment to the state it represents. Not quite 40% of the population of Mississippi is black and practically none of them find the Mississippi State Flag a symbol of unity. My guess is that is also true of whites who, either as Southerners share the values of General Lee, or who don't care about the War and the reasons it was fought and, therefore, feel no need to have the Battle Flag on the State Flag.
There is an unverified Lee quote that does sound like the man, and which, whether he said it or not, aptly summarizes what I think he would counsel about the Battle Flag: "Fold it up and put it away."
But a disturbing thought intrudes. I think of black
evangelical and reformed men such as Jemar Tisby, co-founder of the Reformed African American Network and newly appointed Director of the African American Leadership Initiative at Reformed Theological Seminary. I think of the things that have been said in connection with discussion of the resolution on racial reconciliation introduced at this year's PCA General Assembly. They can correct me if I am wrong, but I think they would say, "Never inform your decisions by asking, 'What would Robert E. Lee do?' Not only does the Flag need to go; Lee needs to go. He was a traitor to his country, and he fought to keep blacks enslaved. He was not a honorable man. He is no example. Furl the flag, and put it away. Free yourselves of this man who that has no place among America's heroes. Forget about Lee."
In other words, I think there is no satisfying of such men - if you have any sense of attachment to your ancestors, as I do to Francisco Moreno, Jr. who died at Shiloh; if you have any sympathy for the position of the Southern states in the dispute that was settled (mind you, it was and is settled) on the battlefields; if you are deeply stirred at the graves of Lee and Jackson and from the Southern battle line on the fateful day in Gettysburg; if Southern soldiers are your boyhood and adult heroes and even now inform your sense of courage and honor.
The Memphis City Council has voted unanimously to exhume the bodies of General Nathan Bedford Forrest (whom Shelby Foote said was one of two genuises of the War, Lincoln being the other) and to remove and sell his statue. Nevermind that he was converted to Christ and showed respect for black people and sought racial reconciliation:
I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none.
I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office... I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us.
When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together.They all must be dug up - Lee, Jackson, Davis, every one of them. And we who have considered them heroes must say, "I denounce you."
No. Not I. It would not be honorable.