Think About This Before You Tear Down that Robert E. Lee Statue

This article first appeared on the Just Security site.

In an article on renaming Lee Barracks at West Point, Benjamin Haas, who like myself is a West Point graduate, argued that the United States Military Academy should remove Robert E. Lee’s name from a building that houses cadets.  

Whatever the ultimate answer is to that question, we should recognize that it is a thread of a much larger, interwoven conversation about the selective and expressive use of Confederate Generals’ names by federal, state, and local governments and institutions.

And we should try to understand the different uses of these symbols, which are sometimes for competing and sometimes for overlapping purposes.

More specifically, in focusing on the federal use of such names at West Point and in the US Army, I suggest we consider why they were originally dedicated and what that says about us, then and now.

In thinking through these questions, we should conduct individualized and contextualized assessments about the appropriateness of their continued use in public spaces. One size does not fit all.

In terms of the scope of the issue, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are more than 1500 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces in the United States (barracks, bridges, counties, dams, gates, lakes, monuments, parks, schools, statutes, roads, and entire military installations). The vast majority of these symbols are located in the South, though some are not.

What does the recognition of Lee and other Confederate military leaders say about us a nation?

Many countries have had civil wars. But how many other countries in the world have ever had symbols of and tributes to leaders of an unsuccessful insurrection or rebellion?  

That we do says something about Americans, though I’m just not sure precisely what. It probably says many, different things—some may be commendable, others may be contemptible.

GettyImages-837190108 The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the center of the renamed Emancipation Park on August 22, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. A decision to remove the statue caused a violent protest by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and members of the 'alt-right'. Mark Wilson/Getty

And our new-found zeal to remove monuments and rename objects because they have been either adopted or co-opted by hate groups is also telling, but again of what I’m not exactly sure.

Ultimately, I doubt there is a satisfactory all or nothing answer to the monument/building question, or at least one that we will look back on and be completely comfortable with and be able to explain.

Racing to remove monuments under cover of darkness is not exactly the governmental action one expects in a democratic society. Understandably, in some cases the fear of militant groups coming to one’s neighborhood may have played a role in how state and local authorities have gone about this business.

Yet the rush is exposing our internal tensions and inconsistencies.  

In New York, lawmakers, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), are calling for renaming Lee Barracks, seemingly regardless of why the barracks were originally named after Lee.

This raises the question whether anything named after Robert E. Lee is automatically and exclusively considered a Confederate or racist symbol? If so, removal or renaming seems appropriate.

But if the answer is that objects may be appropriately named after Confederate leaders in some circumstances, then removal or renaming, now and without discussion, seems both reactionary and empowering to hate groups.

Why the specific focus on the barracks? Also at West Point are Lee Gate, Lee Road, and portraits of Lee (West Point Superintendent from 1851-1855) in the Superintendents’ quarters and the cadet mess hall.

There is also the Robert E. Lee Memorial Award for the graduating cadet with the highest grades in the core math curriculum.

Should any, all, none of these be removed or renamed? Is it possible to commemorate some aspects of Lee’s life but not others?

Who was Lee? Among other things, he was a brilliant engineer, finished second in his West Point class while not earning a single demerit in four years. He served in the US Army for 32 years, including combat in the Mexican American War.

In 1861, he resigned his US Army commission and fought for the Confederacy, eventually becoming General in Chief of Confederate Forces.

In 1975, Congress passed a resolution reinstating Lee’s full rights as a U.S. citizen. In the resolution, Congress noted that “in order to further the goal of reunion of this country,” Lee had applied to the President in 1865 for amnesty, a pardon and restoration of his rights as a citizen and that General Ulysses S. Grant supported it.

In signing that legislation, President Gerald Ford quoted from a letter Lee wrote to a former Confederate soldier concerning his signing the Oath of Allegiance:

This war, being at an end, the Southern States having laid down their arms, and the questions at issue between them and the Northern States having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony.

That is just part of Lee’s story and what he brought to the U.S. military. It is obviously mixed with his decision to command the Confederate army in the first place in the South’s quest to save slavery.

Haas asks us to think about African-American cadets at West Point living in Lee Barracks.

That is a valid point to raise, but where does it take us? What about when they, and indeed all soldiers, serve at one of the nine US Army installations named after Confederate Generals ? (Fort A.P. Hill, VA; Fort Benning, GA; Fort Bragg, NC; Fort Gordon, GA; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Lee, VA; Fort (now Camp) Pickett, VA; Fort Polk, LA; Fort Rucker, AL)?  

In 2015, Time Magazine quoted a Defense Department spokesperson that “these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies. It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.”

The spirit does indeed move in mysterious ways, though the naming seems more about recruiting and fostering a “fighting spirit” – every US Army installation named after a Confederate General was established either during or the months leading up to the US entering either World War I or II.

Military recruiting may partially explain the federal government’s use of Confederate leaders’ names in these contexts, but that then raises several thorny questions.

The North-South frame seems both unavoidable and unhelpful. We must remember that it’s our service members who pledge their lives to support and defend the US Constitution.

While military service has always been demanding and dangerous, the US has been in one or more armed conflicts for the last 16 years. And it is the South that has provided a disproportionately larger percentage of our service members. In 2013, 44 percent of all US military recruits came from the South, despite that region only accounting for 36 percent of the 18-24 year old population. At the same time, the most under represented region in the country in terms of military recruits was the North East.

Now layer on top of that the fact that active duty enlistment draws more heavily from the African American population than their makeup of the general population, and the Army and Navy are the most racially diverse services.

While the focus of my reflection here is on West Point and the institutional decisions of the US Army, the US Navy is not immune. The US Navy has named nuclear submarines after Confederate Generals, including the USS Robert E. Lee , though these vessels are now no longer in service.

More perplexing is the guided missile frigate Chancellorsville , which is in active service, and named after General Lee and the Confederate Army’s greatest victory in the Civil War, which of course was against the United States.

General Lee and many other Confederate officers made important contributions to the US Military Academy, the US Army and the United States before and after the Civil War.  Perhaps the use of their names is because we are forgiving, or that it is honorable after a civil war that the victors recognize the leaders of the vanquished.  

But if that were the case, wouldn’t there be more Confederate monuments in the North? And does that mean we should look differently at the various Lee named structures at West Point, NY then at a similar building at a university in a southern state?

What, if anything, should be made of West Point’s unique role in the Civil War? West Point produced 445 Civil War Generals, 294 fought for the Union and 151 for the Confederacy.

The Civil War began when Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, a West Point graduate and former West Point Superintendent, opened fire on Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor, under the command of Major Robert Anderson, a West Point graduate and Beauregard’s artillery instructor.  And at every major battle of the Civil War a West Point graduate commanded one or both sides.

In international law, we separate behavior associated with jus ad bellum (the cause of a war) from actions taken in bello (conduct during the war), so if we are commemorating a Confederate officer’s leadership or bravery in a battle is that okay?

For that we would need to know when the building or monument was dedicated, by whom, for what ostensible reason, and what history tells about that reason. Trying to discern intent is difficult and those factors are likely too malleable.

For example, how should West Point dedicating Lee Barracks in 1962, and the Lee math excellence award in 1931 factor into our analysis?

We might also learn something from how very different attitudes seem to be toward memorializing Confederate General officers who rebelled against the United States compared to General Benedict Arnold, who betrayed the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War with England, our first civil war.  

In 1780, Arnold, a Continental Army officer in command of West Point, unsuccessfully attempted to sell West Point to the British, then joined the British Army and fought against the Continental Army.

But in 1777, Arnold was one of the heroes of the Battle of Saratoga, arguably the most important battle of the Revolutionary War. The American victory at Saratoga convinced France to enter the conflict in support of the colonies, providing critical ground and naval forces that ultimately resulted in our independence.

The willful omission of Arnold at Saratoga memorials is revealing. There is a 154 foot obelisk at the battlefield, with four niches at the top for statutes of the four American commanders responsible for the victory.

In three of the niches are statutes of General Horatio Gates, General Phillip Schuyler and Colonel Daniel Morgan. The fourth niche, which would have depicted Arnold, remains empty. Elsewhere on the battlefield is a monument to only Arnold’s leg, where he was grievously wounded after heroically leading a charge to seize a crucial British position.

The inscription at what is known as “Boot Monument” does not mention Arnold’s name. It reads:

In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution, and for himself the rank of Major General.

Almost immediately after Arnold’s treachery, West Point renamed Fort Arnold, one of the fortifications. And the Old Cadet Chapel at West Point contains plaques for each of America’s 36 Revolutionary War Generals. Arnold’s reads simply “Major General. Born 1740.”

If we are to pull and examine this thread, then let’s do so, recognizing that this is a much broader issue than a cadet barracks building at West Point. We must understand why we have named objects and places after individuals who served in the Confederacy before we can reasonably discuss what we think of that rationale today and whether modification or removal is appropriate.

It is time to take a deep breath, and engage in a deeper reflection before reaching any conclusions.

Chris Jenks is an assistant professor at the SMU Dedman School of Law. He previously served in the United States Army for over twenty years, including as the Chief of the Army’s International Law Branch in the Pentagon.

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