The Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, has been a part of the National Park Service as a national monument since 1955, when Congress designated it. The building was the household of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, built in 1803. It was never torn down and has remained for more than 200 years.
Notably, the Robert E. Lee Memorial kept its designation as a national monument all throughout the Obama administration from 2009 to 2016. Former President Barack Obama never proposed removing it.
So, why honor Lee with a national memorial? Why wasn’t it torn down during the last administration? In reality, this is not as controversial as the current post-Charlottesville, Va. national climate would have you believe. At the time, in 1955, Congress resolved that “after Appomattox [Lee] fervently devoted himself to peace, to the reuniting of the Nation.”
Today, the National Park Service website on the Arlington House states its reason for being a national monument: “Arlington House is the nation’s memorial to Robert E. Lee. It honors him for specific reasons, including his role in promoting peace and reunion after the Civil War. In a larger sense, it exists as a place of study and contemplation of the meaning of some of the most difficult aspects of American History: military service; sacrifice; citizenship; duty; loyalty; slavery and freedom.”
After the horrors of the Civil War, Lee was honored precisely because of the 1865 surrender at Appomattox, which both symbolized and realized the restoration of the Union. Famously, the Union and Confederate soldiers saluted each other at the ceremony, affirming the restoration of national brotherhood as well.
This was no easy project, and Lee’s role was pivotal to bringing a close to this dark chapter of American history. He could have gone out in a blaze, or refused terms even in defeat, potentially making national reconciliation more difficult. Instead, Lee ended the rebellion and surrendered. He was never arrested for treason and later went on to serve as President of Washington College.
The issue of former Confederate soldiers was resolved with mass amnesties and limited pardons by President Abraham Lincoln and later full pardons by President Andrew Johnson in 1868.
The leniency toward Lee was obviously bigger than the general. Ultimately, the Civil War was resolved by allowing the rebelling states to reenter the Union and participate in the political process, with representation in Congress and the Electoral College.
One of the first states was Louisiana, which had a new constitution and had committed to ratifying the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. But some critics wanted Louisiana to go further, extending the franchise of voting rights to blacks. However, President Lincoln intervened, in his final public address on April 11, 1865, saying, “Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them?… [I]f we reject Louisiana, we also reject one vote in favor the proposed amendment to the national Constitution… Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining or discarding her new State Government?”
In short, states were brought back into the Union under the agreement to abolish slavery, with forgiveness to confederate soldiers, and with an understanding that other changes, such as citizenship and voting rights would come later. And they did in the 14th and 15th Amendments. After a brutal war, this was the national reconciliation that could be achieved at the time. State sanctioned-segregation came later, sadly affirmed by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), almost thirty years after Lee died, and set progress back decades.
But, in its totality, the contribution made by Lee at the end of the war was notable to such an extent that Congress saw fit to honor him with a national memorial, despite his pivotal role in the rebellion, which stands to date. Now, Congress might see fit to revisit that issue. As a part of that debate, we might consider how much more difficult ending the Civil War and achieving national reconciliation would have been without the nobility of Lee.
We must also consider that by rejecting Lee, we risk reopening national wounds by rejecting the delicate terms that ended the war. Do we no longer honor the end of the Civil War and Lee’s surrender? Do we wish to fight it again? Really? Has history taught us nothing?
This is a moment to pause and reflect on that history and learn from it — not erase it.
President Donald Trump is doing the right thing by continuing the Obama policy of keeping the Confederate war memorials on national parks open. You should visit them and learn about this time in American history.
Overall, the national Lee Memorial reminds the nation of the legacy of leniency pursued by Lincoln and later Johnson that helped heal the nation by reducing violence on all sides — leadership we sorely need today in the aftermath of the tragedy at Charlottesville, Va.