David Cox: WWLD?
Column by David Cox
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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell surely raised a ruckus by declaring April to be “Confederate History Month.” Reviving a practice begun only in 1997 by Gov. George Allen and then foresworn by his two predecessors, he initially omitted any mention of slavery. After hitting all the national news shows with this alleged gaffe, he ate proverbial dust, revising his statement and condemning slavery.
As the month has progressed, I’d been wondering how Robert E. Lee might react to such a thing as “Confederate History Month” at all. What would Lee do?
For some years, I’ve been reading Lee’s letters, especially to his family to whom he unburdened his mind and often his soul, trying to understanding how his religious convictions affected his actions. I maintain that for Lee, there was a strong connection. As a result, I suspect that Lee would probably not cotton to our governor’s proclamation, whether or not slavery were included in it.
Lee might be what could be called a “providential gradualist.” Like Stonewall Jackson and many of his era, he upheld a strong concept of “providence.” That means that “God’s in his heaven and, while all’s not well with the world, God is making it so, in God’s good time.” And there is a corollary: Whatever happens is probably the will of God.
Thus, Lee, like his family, severely questioned the institution of slavery, but looked to God to bring it to an end. For that reason, they shared in the “American Colonization Society” that “repatriated” freed blacks to Liberia. Though ludicrous as a solution to slavery, they favored it over abolitionist attempts that, to them, tried to rush what only God could ultimately accomplish.
Likewise, he scorned those who wanted to break up the Union (which, after all, he served as an Army officer).
When faced with the fact of Virginia’s secession, though, he famously declared that he could not unsheathe his sword against his native “country” which, like many in his day, meant state versus union. Fighting for Virginia inevitably meant fighting to preserve slavery which, in his case, was doubly ironic: he opposed the institution, even as he was trying to follow his late father-in-law’s instructions and free the slaves on Arlington plantation.
Four years later, the South lay in ruins. The cause Lee supported had lost. Given his theology of “providence,” for the Union to win must have been God’s will. He said as much to an old, if Yankee, friend. Gen. Marsena F. Patrick and Lee knew each other from Mexican War days. As provost marshal for the Richmond area immediately after Antietam, Patrick oversaw the distribution of rations to the local population, including to the Lee family. nd so they met.
According to Patrick’s son, the two colleagues-turned-enemies clasped hands. Said Lee, “Patrick, the only question on which we ever differed, has been settled, and the Lord has decided against me.”
If true—and the son repeated the quotation in several letters—Lee concluded what was consistent with his theology: God did not wish the South to prevail.
Soon after, Lee moved shortly to Lexington to share in reconciling and rebuilding the South and the nation, no longer a general of war but rather an agent of peace.
It’s not that he repudiated his past: One legend has him losing his temper over hearing a former soldier who claimed to have “wasted” his time in the (Confederate) military. But other legends picture him purposely marching out of step with VMI cadets, very much the civilian.
But he discouraged former colleagues fleeing to Brazil or (like Beauregard) Mexico. They were needed here in the USA.
Perhaps most telling, if it is true, is the tale of the mother who wrote Lee, the college president, full of resentment over a cherished tree that Yankee troops shot up. Lee told her, rather testily, to chop down the tree, and “teach your sons to be Americans.”
Lee was not ashamed of his past. But he was aware that his cause had lost. And if that was truly God’s will, as he evidently came to think it was, then the rest of us do well to accept that fact. Do we ignore our past? Not at all, but rather we learn from it what is in fact God’s will.
So then, would Lee approve a “Confederate History Month”? Many will disagree, but I think he’d be much more comfortable meditating on the lessons of the Civil War, not reigniting in any sense the Lost Cause, but rather learning from the entire tragic experience. And then, as he so often advised his family after hearing of an adversity, how we “can do better.”