Robert E. Lee: Was he a traitor to his country?

Robert E. Lee: Was he a traitor to his country?

Questions over the “legacy” of Virginia son and Confederate General Robert E. Lee are emerging once again on the campus of the university named for him and George Washington in Lexington.

A group of law students want Washington & Lee to remove Confederate flags from the grounds, “acknowledge and apologize for participating in chattel slavery,” officially recognize Martin Luther King Day and ban a neo-Confederate march on campus during Lee-Jackson Day.

Their demands, of course, are not sitting well in a town where some would prefer the Stars and Bars flying in place of the American flag on streets.

Calling the students involved in the demands part of “a hotbed of these kinds” and claiming they “are not entitled to be offended,” the “commander” of the Lexington-based Stonewall Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans told Luanne Rife of The Roanoke Times the students “would be better off in Communist China than in the United States.”

Strong words by Brandon Dorsey, the so-called “commander” who still thinks celebrating a war fought to protect “states’ rights” that included the “right” to own and use slaves is a source of pride.

As a native-born Southerner, I have long been bothered by the questionable practice of honoring those who, by most measures of patriotism, abandoned their country and became traitors by fighting against it.

When Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army and signed on to command the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, he became — under the Uniform Code of Military Justice — a traitor of the United States.

Is such an action worthy of honor?  History has varying opinions on the matter but Virginia’s insistence of keeping a state holiday that honors both Lee and another Confederate general — Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — for their actions raises questions about whether or not the hatred that sparked the Civil War is buried or still alive and well in the Commonwealth.

Confederate flags still fly in front of some homes (usually trailers with tires on the roofs) in our area or drape the back windows of pickup trucks that are also adorned with bumper stickers that say “Forget Hell!” or proclaim other beliefs that the reasons for the war were valid.

Anjelica Hendricks and Dominik Taylor are two Virginians among the seven students protesting W&L’s continuing “tradition” of honoring a sordid past.

Hendricks told The Roanoke Times that W&L ignores Lee’s failures as both an American and a human being when it asks students to “sign an honor contract to uphold our honor according to the honor of Robert E. Lee.  Signing that contract in the shadow of a slave owner, and beneath plaques honoring Confederate soldiers, and battle flags bowing to a movement to keep black people enslaved is hurtful.”

“I’m a native of Virginia. I know what it’s like to remember the past,” she said in her interview with the Times.  “However, I didn’t feel the racism and disrespect as I did in being asked to uphold an honor that aligns with the views of Lee.”

Taylor says the university’s practice of allowing neo-Confederates, costumed as soldiers of the South, to march across the campus and hold a ceremony on Lee-Jackson Day  hurts students and faculty and dishonors the school.

Proponents of the right to honor Lee claim that he and his wife inherited slaves from her father and immediately set about to free them.  History, however, sasy otherwise, noting that freedom for the slaves was part of Lee’s father-in-law’s will and that Lee fought in court to delay that freedom before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation forced him and other slave owners to comply.

Which, once again, raises the question:

Was Robert E. Lee a patriot or a traitor?