Bye Bye Bobby Lee. Can a Stone Wall be Moved?


After 133 years, a statue of Robert E. Lee came down in New Orleans last week. It made me wonder, again, about the portrait of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson that’s in our bedroom. I’ve been enormously intrigued by Jackson for years, and researched and wrote an historical novel about him (Cross Over The River; Lives of Stonewall Jackson, available on and years ago. Jackson, like Lee, fought valiantly to defend the South and its inhuman institution of slavery. Is he to be admired? Why do I have him hanging on my wall?

Herman Melville wrote a poem about Jackson when Stonewall was accidentally killed by his own troops at the battle of Chancellorsville:

The Man who fiercest charged in fight,
Whose sword and prayer were long –
Even him who stoutly stood for Wrong,
How can we praise? Yet coming days
Shall not forget him with this song.

Dead is the Man whose Cause is dead,
Vainly he died and set his seal –
Earnest in error, as we feel;
True to the thing he deemed was due,
True as John Brown or steel.

Relentlessly he routed us;
But we relent, for he is low –
Justly his fame we outlaw; so
We drop a tear on the bold Virginian’s bier,
Because no wreath we owe.

Stoutly stood for wrong. Earnest in error. Melville called him true as John Brown, who fought against slavery in Kansas and Virginia. Each a zealot, each spilling blood both innocent and guilty in his cause. Can one do something admirable, moving, courageous, in a bad cause?

Of course, “bad cause” and “earnest in error” are tepid bits of language for something as abominable as human slavery. But Jackson fought successfully against desperate odds. His 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, when he defeated five armies with his much smaller force and caused Lincoln to pull back troops from Gen. George McClellan’s attack on Richmond, is still studied at West Point. While the Federal armies were getting everything in order, arranging supplies and getting all horses shod, Jackson would move like lightning with only part of his force only half equipped and sweep down on the Federal flanks and rear. At the height of his greatest victory he was killed by friendly fire. If he had not been shot then, it’s very possible we would be two countries, not one, today. Jackson would likely not have hesitated two months later at Gettysburg, as his replacement did, on the day the Confederates almost swept the Federals from the field. And the war might have ended then with a Union defeat. So he’s clearly a powerful and influential figure in history.

On my first visit to New Orleans I was in a cab swinging around a traffic circle, in the middle of which was a statue on a pedestal so tall I couldn’t make out whom the statue depicted. I asked my cab driver, a black woman, who was up there. “That’s Bobby Lee, baby,” she said, as if I was a hopeless rube. She said it with what I heard as pride. I was probably wrong.

I asked a black friend of mine when she came to my house if the portrait of Jackson bothered her. No, she said — I took her to mean she had more current racial battles to worry about.

When I first heard, years ago, of movements to remove Confederate statues, I thought it was a mistake to try to erase history. The first instance I recall was a push to remove a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate cavalry general, from Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. Forrest was a ferocious, unconventional and successful fighter, like Jackson. After the war he was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. I understood that honoring him in public was at best a moral quagmire. But what about “Bobby Lee, baby”? Lee was a man of grace and honor and storied lineage. He married the daughter of George Washington’s stepson. His father was a colonel in the American Revolution and a governor of Virginia. After Appomattox, when many advocated that the remnants of the Confederate armies head for the hills and conduct guerrilla warfare, Lee told Confederate soldiers to lay down their arms, go home, and obey the law.

Should statues of Robert E. Lee be taken down? Or all the statues of Confederate line soldiers in countless courthouse squares across the South? Or Jackson’s statue at his grave in Lexington in the beautiful Shenandoah?

If I were Jewish, what would I think of finding a statue of Herman Goering in a public park?

I believe Donald Trump, with his denial of global warming and his rescinding of Obama’s environmental regulations, will share responsibility for hundreds of millions of deaths in his children’s and grandchildren’s generations as the seas warm and rise and weather worsens and crops and fish die off. I don’t ever want to encounter a statue to this barbarian.

Slavery is just a word to a well-off white guy like me. But in some of the museums in the South I’ve seen artifacts of slavery that are haunting, like an iron collar with six-inch spikes that clamped around a man’s neck and restricted his ability to do almost anything a human being should be able to do. I’ve lately heard two African American historians and writers explain whey they call their ancestors an “enslaved person” rather than a slave. No one is born a slave, they say. Slavery is something another person did to them. And continued, day after day, to do. Rounding up humans in Africa. Packing them in ships like cordwood, a large percentage of them dying on the passage. Beatings. Selling children away from their parents. Endless rape. Denying the right to read. Denying the right to be respected or even seen as human. Murder for sport. Terrible housing. Disease and death. There’s no way for me to imagine what existence was like as a slave. And the hypocrisy of the whites who said slavery was good for this “childlike race” is staggering.

Jackson and Lee fought to keep the right to keep people enslaved. How can that be admirable, no matter how resourceful and inspirational and successful they were against impossible odds?

Lee and Jackson said they fought because their country was invaded. They believed in the right of a state to secede from the Union it had voluntarily joined, and were appalled that other states would march murderous soldiers into theirs to force them to stay in the fold. They both owned slaves and said, correctly, that the Constitution guaranteed them the right to do so. They considered themselves patriots and opposed secession until it happened, then served to defend their native state.

Part of the answer to all this is unfolding in Charleston, South Carolina, the flashpoint of the Civil War. Like Washington, D.C., Charleston will open in 2019 an International African American Museum on the site of a wharf where perhaps 40% of the Africans enslaved and brought to America landed. The city’s mayor for four decades, Joseph Riley, is one of the people most responsible for the museum’s creation. He hopes the museum helps all Americans learn from the unvarnished truth of our country’s original sin by seeing the horrors of slavery and the heroism of those enslaved. Asked about taking down monuments to Confederates, he has said the answer isn’t less history, but more. Keep the old monuments but tell the whole story by adding new ones such as Charleston’s and D.C.’s museums and programs. That sounds like wisdom to me.

Otherwise, how many more statues will come down? In New Orleans, where Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis were just removed for display in some not-yet-determined, more-appropriate less-public place, a statue in Jackson Square of Andrew Jackson rises on rearing horseback. Our seventh president. Who conceived and carried out a policy of Indian removal that uprooted America’s indigenous civilizations and killed tens of thousands on many Trails of Tears. If Lee’s statue can’t stand — can Jackson’s? Must Jefferson be led away from his gorgeous stone gazebo on the Tidal Basin? Must Washington City be renamed?

So why do I have a portrait of Thomas Jackson on my wall? Stonewall wouldn’t have liked me, a reprobate pantheist. I probably wouldn’t have much liked him, a stern Old-Testament Presbyterian and a college teacher who delivered memorized lectures that allowed for no discussion. But as a father and husband he was tender and, flouting local custom, he taught a Sunday school class to black children. And his daring and decisiveness were breathtaking. The South was vastly outnumbered in everything — population, soldiers, ships, resources, railroad iron, manufacturing, guns, food, fuel, foundries. The only force they had stronger than the Union’s was their generals’ audacity. How quickly Jackson took the measure of his opponents, the chances he took, how he used the beautiful geography and topography of the great Valley of Virginia to hide his moving troops, all make him a fascinating man for me. Yet despite why he said he fought, the result of his fighting, if successful, would have been continued slavery. History is complex and unclear.

In Lexington, Virginia, where Lee served after the war as president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, there is a stable next to the president’s house. Lee died in 1870 in Lexington of pneumonia after a ride in the rain on his horse, Traveller, who had served Lee faithfully during the war. A year later Traveller died. The doors to Traveller’s stable are always kept slightly ajar, even today. In case the horse comes home.

One day, perhaps, America will come home. I can still hear George McGovern’s acceptance speech in 1972, late late at night, when the quixotic candidate ran against Richard Nixon in an America as divided as it is now, and almost as divided as it had been one hundred years before — “Come home, America,” was McGovern’s plea. Come home, together, despite conflicting views and values.

I’m fine with Robert E. Lee being taken off his pedestal in New Orleans. We don’t have to hold him up, but we can’t make believe he was never an American. We can’t delete Lee, or either Jackson, from history or from the tangled twisted improbable story of America that is still being told. As we all try to find home.

— Bruce Benidt

17 thoughts on “Bye Bye Bobby Lee. Can a Stone Wall be Moved?

  1. pm1956 says:

    I don’t think that history should be erased, but it needs to be put into context. And, frankly, the context of those old Civil War statues has changed. As they are now, too often they are a tribute to “the Lost Cause”, the glorification of the Confederacy, which, at best glosses over slavery (can’t tell you the number of conversations I have had with people who try to tell me that the Civil War was not about slavery…yet another failure of our educational system).

    The real problem isn’t the statues, but rather that the educational system in many parts of our country goes far to easy on the role of slavery in the Confederacy and the Civil War, not to mention the role of racism in the end of Reconstruction. Too many people, mostly in the states of the old Confederacy, believe that there was something noble in that war, and this has come to them from the educational system there, and what they are taught in American History.

    Better to fix high school history texts than to remove statues.

    1. Well said. People fought then for many reasons. The poor Southerners who did not own slaves still fought for the system that kept the rich in power — a lesson that’s reflected in low-income people voting for Trump, whose policies serve only the rich.
      And I agree that the tragedies of Reconstruction set America on a painful road of discriminatiom and denying Blacks rights and humanity that continues today.

  2. Mike Kennedy says:

    Great essay Bruce.

    Always good to reflect on the past, especially such an ugly part of our past.

    The fact that almost every society has enslaved humans is a blot on human history in general, but we were supposed to be better…a higher standard…and we weren’t.

    Many still aren’t. It’s estimated 25 million to 40 million people are enslaved today. WTF. It’s 2017. Freedom has a long way to go.

    Just a correction on the Trump voter comment. Low income voters fell to Clinton, not Trump.

    According to the data, Clinton won by 12 points among voters making less than $30,000 a year—53% to Trump’s 41% —and by 9 points among people making between $30,000 to $49,999. Trump’s support was the inverse. He won every group making $50,000 or more.

  3. Dennis Lang says:

    Not to digress, but heck we’re all friends here. If you, Austin, Kennedy, PR pros, we’re designing communications–in other words running the WH “War Room”–in response to all the latest in the Russia probe, what would you do????

      1. Dennis Lang says:

        Hah! I hear you.
        (There’s a pretty unbelievable novel in all this. Magical realism?)
        Happy Memorial Day weekend!!

  4. Mike Kennedy says:

    Dennis, I’m so far removed from the PR bizz and don’t have half the experience of Messrs. Benidt and Austin so all I can say there is that traditional advice wouldn’t work with him anyway. He needs his Tweets reviewed (apparently being done) and to talk less in general and leave the policy explanations to the advisors he has around him…and to fire as many Obama department heads and managers as possible to stop the political leak circus.

    The whole Russia thing looks as if it will take much time and money and most roads look, at this point, as if they lead to nowhewhere. A cover-up in search of a crime, as Dr. Krauthammer often says.

    It may slow Trump’s agenda, but probably not much else. But hey, progressives did finally come around to Russia as being an unfriendly threat after Obama sneered and practically laughed at Romney for suggesting that in the 2012 campaign debate while conducting his own overtures to the Russians. Now it is a talking point for the left (incorrectly) that Russia is our number one enemy (as the hapless Joy Reid stated on Meet The Press yesterday, after which Kimberley Strassel proceeded to inject reason and facts into the discussion).

    None of this takes away from the surreal idiocy of how the admin is being run. He doesn’t need PR. He needs effective chief or chiefs of staff and way more discipline. I feel at times as if I’m watching a Fellini movie, waiting for the appearance of a spaceship, giant metronome, the head off a puppet, a whale and a dwarf.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      “…fire as many Obama department heads…”
      Are other contributors out there of the opinion that the administration is merely being victimized by an Obama holdover “conspiracy” to undermine it? Is the act of leaking of information more odious than the information that is being leaked (ie. the Flynn matter that likely would have never come to light)? What does the public have the right to know? Where is the ethical divide?

      1. What if leakers were called whistle blowers? Different value load on those words. Was Deep Throat a skuzball or a patriot? Letting people know about bad things that are hidden is a service.
        Many who leak info are partisans who want to make their side look better or the other side look worse of course. But many are dragging ugly things into the light so we can deal with them.
        And of course we haven’t touched on the hypocrisy of people who leak to their advantage and then berate leakers who make them look bad.
        Leakers and whistle blowers are sources. And, as with any source, what they say needs to be checked out with other sources.

        1. Dennis Lang says:

          Yes. I think some commentary drew a useful distinction. To “leak” (kind of a disparaging term to begin with) information conjures an irresponsible act with a self-serving motive. While the whistle-blower/watchdog is at least in good part motivated to make transparent in the public interest. We can name a number of whistle-blowers, considered heroic, who acted at the risk of great personal cost: Erin Brockovich, Deep Throat of course, the scientist who spilled the beans on the tobacco industry, etc. etc…. Even despite anonymity it takes courage to stand against the wave.

          1. Mike Kennedy says:

            I didn’t mean to suggest that leaks weren’t coming from Trump people as well and should have added that they should be fired, as well. Leaks will always be a part of the political/press process, though Obama managed to instill incredible loyalty in his administration with help from a compliant and loving press corp. This will never be true of Trump. He could come out tomorrow and start doing everything right and he will never get any credit nor any breaks (see the Harvard study on the difference in press coverage between Obama and Trump.) Of course much of what Trump says is self inflicted. But his actions have been quite different than the rhetoric.

            As far as firing Obama insiders, remember this is the same outfit that the FISA court (recently exposed publicly) expressed serious concerns over regarding violation of American’s Fourth Amendment rights. The FISA court found that the spying and monitoring not only have serious Fourth Amendment issues, but faulted Mr. Obama’s intelligence agencies for an institutional lack of candor, which one could interpret as covering up. This fits into the M.O. of the IRS scandal and other operations of which Obama was smart enough to stay arm’s length away. However, the buck stops…..where?

            1. Dennis Lang says:

              Heck, I’m thinking for reporters to have discovered 20% favorable in covering Trump is a stretch.
              As you say, “self-inflicted” disasters. Hardly necessary for a recap.
              But this is ignorance talking because I haven’t read the Harvard study. I may be biased but has the reporting on him been dishonest, or even in the remotest sense “fake”? His bloviations and bizarre behaviors–how many can we name?– lies actually, concealments, indiscretions and misdirections, speak for themselves. Don’t they?
              Have there been diplomatic and policy achievements inaccurately or under reported? The probe into possible Russian connections, a witch hunt?
              I wonder though, and I don’t mean this rhetorically, if any of us were journalists covering Trump, would our observations and reporting differ? I really don’t know.

            2. Mike Kennedy says:

              Well, suffice to say that the 20 percent was probably from Fox News. Have there been achievements? Depends where your ideology lies. Global elitists hate the fact he started his trip in the Middle East, boosted relations with Israel, which Obama decimated, shunned Iran, which Obama appeased and sold hundreds of billions of arms to bolster nations that oppose Iran and has sworn off playing footsie with North Korea like his predecessor.

              Did you know he got China to sign an agreement that allows U.S. developers to directly target Chinese buyers of liquified natural gas? We are the fastest growing supplier of LNG and they are the largest consumers.

              You probably didn’t know it because the mainstream media didn’t report it. Doesn’t fit with the green agenda.

              The investing markets are at an all time high, business earnings are surging, corporations are sitting on trillions is cash, deploying it in reinvestment and watch what happens if business taxes are cut, to say nothing of individual taxes.

              The left is so breathless over Russia, it can’t focus on a single new idea or worthy candidate to take Obama’s place. Watch for the bounce back when all the investigating leads to a lot of nothing.

              Again, where is a crime? What IS the crime? How are we to define collusion? Progressives ran such a flawed candidate that she couldn’t beat Trump. Now her surrogates are deflecting the blame in a grand conspiracy theory that is so devoid of evidence it would leave a Willie Mitchell law student befuddled.

              I would have voted for any Republican or decent Libertarian over DJT, but I like some of the directions so far.

            3. Dennis Lang says:

              Hey Mike–Thanks for riding along on this, since we both know we’re beating a dead horse by now. But kind of fun. Too bad the rest of the Crowd is evidently vacationing in St. Barts and doesn’t want to be bothered. The more voices the better.
              Personally speaking, rehashing Obama or Hillary’s resentments do little to enlighten anyone about the first 200 days of this presidency or strike me as at all relevant.
              This is just a guess, but my assumption is that there is sufficient smoke to warrant investigating if there is a crime or something that can be considered collusion. This is pretty important. No?
              Is it all a red herring fostered by liberals with sour grapes over a misguided Hillary campaign?

  5. Dennis Lang says:

    …Or David Lynch.
    Still, an incredible mystery with clues (false?) dropped everywhere, not the least of which is the strange obfuscation on the part of key players–Flynn, Sessions, Kushner, others (?). Can it be it’s all just a masterful macguffin dragging us to meaningless a dead end? (That might be Beckett.)
    Staying tuned!

  6. Mike Kennedy says:


    St Bart’s sounds great, though it’s difficult to beat this weather. I’ll take a week in MN like this any day! So I voted twice for WJC. But the Democratic Party I knew is dead…so far left I don’t recognize it. I listened to almost all of her interview the other day. She should have been wearing tinfoil, fantastical imagined conspiracies.

    I agree there is smoke. Let’s investigate and look at the big pic, including Obama officials roles in spying and leaking. Did you catch John Brennan and Michael Morell (no friends of Trump) and their comments about criminal leaking and bad sourcing?

    Let’s get to the bottom of all of it. Trump officials seem more than willing to testify…Flynn perhaps nonwithstanding. Let’s see if Rice, Power etc are so eager.

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