Why Bobby E. Lee?

June 7, 2017

One hundred years is a blink of an eye in the deep well of history. One hundred years is a long time in other ways.  

One hundred years ago this summer, the Murray Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy hit the wall in raising funds for the final payment on the monument in memory of the Confederate dead and the stone replica of Robert E. Lee.

The Murray Bank, under the leadership of the president, Ed Diuguid, struck a deal with the chapter of Daughters. It would finish off the payment, as long as the monument stood on this corner and faced his bank. The name of that bank is gone; but it is still a bank. And Bobby Lee still stands.  

Two questions I pose to you today is this?

Why Bobby Lee? And how long will he stand?

The great men and women of 100 years ago were in the business of constructing monuments of appreciation. The lessor men and women of today are in the business of tearing them down. We have moved in one hundred years from proudly dedicating this monument in the full light of the noon day sun, to tearing down monuments under the cloak of darkness and police protection. We have moved in one hundred years from a generation of appreciation to a generation of historical amnesia.

I am proud that that a statute of Robert E. Lee was chosen for this site. For Robert E. Lee is an example of the best of the lost Confederacy. His military record has its critics. But no one would deny the strong and impeccable character of the man. That was his great strength and inspiration. He was a man of dedication, honesty, bravery and integrity.

Facts are stubborn things. Even after 100 years, the truth does not change.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the state of Virginia had been in existence in some form for 275 years. The government of the United States for less than 90 years. There were people alive at the outbreak of the Civil War who had lived under the British Crown. To whom did the people of Lee’s state owe their allegiance….their state government centuries old, or a country still trying to find its sea legs?

At the 1789 Constitutional Convention, the status of states and their autonomy was upmost on minds of the delegates, especially the southern states. States’ rights were the tantamount consideration. If the delegates at the convention had been able to see the size and control of our Federal government today, almost all of them would have gone home. We would have no constitution.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, it was universal sentiment of most Southern patriots that the primary obligation was to the state, not the nation. The cause of the Civil War was States’ rights. Unfortunately, the issue was slavery.

Bobby Lee was a Confederate general for one reason and one reason only. He was loyal to his state—the Old Dominion.

Robert E. Lee was a good person. And being a good person, he was staunchly anti-slavery. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the words of Robert E. Lee himself. I quote from a letter he wrote to President Pierce two days after Christmas in 1856—less than five years before the outbreak of the War Between the States.

“There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will

not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral

and political evil.”

 Why-I must ask the revisionists and monument marauders of this age- would General Lee choose to be loyal to his state, forfeit his beautiful and grand estate just across the river from Washington D.C., be separated from his family, expose himself to four long years of the horrors of a bloody war– for a practice which he considered evil? It doesn’t make sense, to think that Robert E. Lee was fighting to preserve slavery.

He, like most all Confederates, was fighting out of loyalty to the principle of state rights and envisioned that war as basically the second war for American independence—this being for the Southern independence.

Who do you know that is pleased and proud of what is going on in Washington, D.C. today? But the revisionists fail to have the intellectual breadth to understand and accept the historical fact that the inefficiency and gridlock of our Federal Government which frustrates us so much today is exactly what our Confederate forefathers foresaw as the ultimate result of a government removed and disconnected from the people.

For Lee and most all the Southern military leaders, the war was not fought to preserve slavery, but over which government—Federal or state—and by which method was slavery to be abolished. The latter concern was confused by the bloody uprising of Nat Turner and John Brown. These historical events spurned fears of bloody retribution if the slaves were emancipated all at once. So, the slave holding states had a tiger by the tail. There was also genuine, if perhaps misplaced, notion that slaves were not yet prepared for an immediate freedom. So, the general dispute was not over whether slavery was wrong—many if not most Southern leaders thought so—but how to rid ourselves of this monstrous institution. There were even black leaders of that day—both slave and free—who thought the best method was to establish and emigrate to a newly created country of Liberia. Even Abraham Lincoln subscribed to this view at one time.

But such a movement was opposed by both blacks and whites, because they saw the slaves for what they truly were—Americans, whose families had been on our shores for longer than many whites. These people of color who we loved and cherished even through the thin veil of slavery contributed then, as now, to the rich tapestry of America.

A distorted perspective exists on both sides. Southerners have been wrong to demonize Abraham Lincoln. Married to a southern wife, possessed a vision for this country that blinded the view of our Southern leaders. In his second inaugural address he called for future of “malice toward none, and charity for all” and of “binding up the nation’s wounds.” The day after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox he had “Dixie” played at the White House.

All knowing Southern leaders were in fact saddened by his death. Said Lee upon learning of the murder of the president, “It’s a crime previously unknown to this country and one that must be deprecated by every American.” Said Jefferson Davis, “I fear it will be disastrous to our people and I regret it deeply.” When Union General Tecumseh Sherman broke the news to Confederate General Joseph Johnston at Hillsboro he described Lincoln’s death as the “greatest possible calamity to the South.”

If the great Emancipator-the president who requested Dixie to be played in the White House– married to a Southern wife, was alive today, he would be adamantly opposed to the removal of the monuments honoring the southern war dead and their cause.

He would admonish the American public—let it lay.

Do not, 100 years in retrospect, desecrate those names of long dead and no longer able to speak for themselves. Do not, over 100 years after the Civil War, and 50 years after the Civil Rights movement and ensuing laws eliminating discrimination, open old wounds and stir up matters which divide us, instead of stressing those things which unite us.  For this was a man who, even from before the time the war ended was already talking about reconciliation and mutual respect.

“We are not enemies, but friends.” he proclaimed,” We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

So if those who wish to divide us once again into North and South, those of who wish to continue, one hundred years after the Civil War by stirring up divisive issue by attacking our sacred landmarks, do not wish to respect our Southern leaders, perhaps they will listen and follow to the words of the hallowed name of Abraham Lincoln himself.

In closing, I wish to emphasize one vital truth.

It is egregiously unjust and unfair, to judge people of a past age long dead and no longer able to speak for themselves, by the values of our age, rather than those of the time in which they lived.  

Let’s get real folks. If we are allowed to discount past valor and bravery with a century of hindsight, then nothing will be sacred, either today, or in the future.

I am a Vietnam vet. It is hard to believe that a half century has passed since that war ended. It was a controversial war, even at that time. Some of my colleagues were spat upon when they returned to this country by a segment of our youth who had turned against those who served.

There are many who call it, even to this day—an immoral war. Sound familiar? There are the names of 58,000 Americans on that solemn, black granite wall in Washington, D.C. But this fitting edifice to those brave Americans may not be standing 100 years from now. After we are all dead and gone, and the blood or their sacrifice is washed from the view of the living then the Monument Marauders will mount up to desecrate their memory based upon their own narrow and simplistic view of history. That long and dignified granite wall will be pushed down in the inky cloak of night to be remembered no more.

Most Americans believe the Iraqi war was a huge mistake. Soon, the term immoral will seep into the conversation. And our monuments honoring those brave men and women who left homes and families to die for America will be demeaned. These somber reminders of their sacrifices will fall to the whimsy of an uncaring, ill-informed, and distant generation.

Some distant day—unless truth is to reign—those monuments paying tribute to the brave and gallant men and women who died in those two wars, may be pulled to the ground and covered up.

Let us remember, as I close, that in spite of what some may say, Bobby Lee and the men and women this monument represent were not evil. Jeff Davis and our own Simon Bolivar Buckner and John Caleb Breckinridge, and scores of good old Kentucky and Tennessee boys who died on distant battlefields were not evil. That our Confederate ancestors—many, if not most of which did not even own slaves—were not evil.

So let us pray monument honoring a great man will remain to celebrate another century of standing on the court square in Murray, Kentucky. And let us pray that at that time our future generations will then live in a more perfect union, a more understanding union, and a kinder union.

I close by laying before you two parallel writings which will graphically illustrate the ambiguities of all wars in which our nation has been involved; they illustrate the unfairness of trying to pass judgement upon one generation from the lofty viewpoint of the mountain top of time, far removed from the close combat and chaotic conditions and noise of the clashing swords of wars of the distant past.

Major Michel Davis O’Donnell of Springfield, Illinois was a helicopter pilot killed in action in Vietnam. He wrote these words only days before his death. If these words I speak today could be immortalized this would be my personal plead to the Monument Marauders of 2117 on behalf of all my fellow Vietnam vets that they might spare the monuments to our beloved dead.

“If you are able, save for them a place inside of you

 And save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go.

 Be not ashamed to say you loved them, though you may or may not have always.

Take what they have left and what they taught you with their dying

And keep it with your own.

And in that time when men decide

And feel safe to call the war insane,

Take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind.”

 And in closing, hear the words of the great Kentucky writer, Robert Penn Warren, as he gave honor to those who this monument of Robert E. Lee represents.

So let us bend ear to them in this hour of lateness,

And what they are trying to say, try to understand,

And try to forgive them their defects, even their greatness,

For we are their children in the light of humanness, and under

The shadow of God’s closing hand.

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