NEW YORK - The removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans in May reminded me of Herman Melville’s poem, “Lee in the Capitol.” My college graduation paper half a century ago was on “Moby-Dick.”
As Melville explains in his note to the poem, Lee, like some other Southerners, was summoned by the Reconstruction Committee of Congress a year after the Civil War was over. Evidently, what the former general might say aroused great interest, “both in itself and as coming from him.” As it turned out, he said little. He “briefly answered” “various questions” put to him, and when, at the close, the committee urged that “if there be any other matter which you wish to speak on this occasion, do so freely,” Lee waived the invitation.
That means that most of Lee’s words that take up half of the 200-odd-line verse are Melville taking “a poetical liberty.” So one can’t be sure if Lee actually mentioned things like “Our cause I followed” and “Secession’s pride,” or, referring to the South, “You ask if she recants; she yields,” and such veiled warnings as “Shall the great North go Sylla’s way?” to allow “Freemen [to be] conquerors of the free?”
But the question is: In imagining such defiance in the man of “a cold reserve,” did Melville expect, if not condone, reversion to slavery for the South? I am hazarding a guess, and Melville readers may object. What actually happened is well-known: the “gradual and shameful Northern acquiescence in the terrorist imposition of apartheid on a post-slavery population” in the 1870s, as Adam Gopnik put it in “We Could Have Been Canada: Was the American Revolution Such a Good Idea?” (The New Yorker, May 15, 2017).
In his essay, Gopnik discusses two new books that propose to break the cherished, idealized American notions of the founding of the country: Justin du Rivage’s “Revolution Against Empire” and Holger Hoock’s “Scars of Independence.”
In the process of “acquiescence,” the South’s “our cause,” which was expressed in biblical terms as early as the second year of the war, transformed into “The Lost Cause,” the idea that the South seceded from the North, not so much to keep “our peculiar institution,” as for preserving the antebellum way of life. The “peculiar institution” was slavery — what Walt Whitman called “the foulest crime in history known in any land or age.”
My wife, Nancy, who happened to be reading “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World” by Andrea Wulf, said the Prussian explorer and naturalist met Thomas Jefferson and found him agreeable enough, on all sciences, except slavery. He traveled to Washington and met the American president in mid-1801, shortly after his inauguration, several times. Having seen Cuba and South American countries, Humboldt regarded slavery as the same as colonialism, “a disgrace.”
Lee’s view of slavery is expressed fully in his oft-cited letter to his wife, Mary Anna, in late 1858: that slavery is “a moral & political evil in any Country,” but that “the blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction.”
About the same time, September 1858, Abraham Lincoln in a letter expatiated on the incompatibility between the black and white races. He was presenting his policy papers, as it were, in a series of debates with Stephen Douglas.
After the Civil War, it didn’t take long to turn Lee into a “demigod,” as Thomas L. Connelly details in “The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society.” By 1884, when the monument for Lee was unveiled in New Orleans, Charles Fenner, justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, could sanctify him, calling him “gracious and beautiful.”
The Lee statue removed on May 20 was the fourth such monument in New Orleans, the first city to do so. Dismantled earlier were, on April 24, the obelisk for the Battle for Liberty Place, a white supremacists’ attempt to take over Louisiana politics in 1874 (built in 1891); on May 11, the statue for Confederate President Jefferson Davis (1911); and on May 17, the equestrian statue of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard (1915).
Once you start looking at this matter, you may be surprised how so many Confederate monuments and statues were built — by reputable artists. With Lee, there are three others: an equestrian one each in Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia, and another one in Marianna, Arkansas. This last is similar to the one removed in New Orleans: the general in dress uniform atop a column.
Marianna, a tiny city of 4,000 people, is in Lee County, and the Lee statue stands across from the Lee County Courthouse. So, how many places, buildings, and roads are named after Robert E. Lee alone?
The New Yorker has recently carried an article, “A Confederate General in Brooklyn,” noting that there is a “General Lee Avenue” in New York City. Why? Lee was stationed in Fort Hamilton, “the city’s only active military base,” in the 1840s, and the New York chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy decided to commemorate it, in 1912. Yvette Clarke, a black congresswoman from Brooklyn, proposed on Juneteenth, June 19, to rename the avenue. That’s the day slavery was abolished in Texas, in 1865.
The movement may spread beyond Civil War artifacts.
Charlottesville, where Gustave Heldt, my friend at the University of Virginia, invited me to talk last fall, voted this spring to remove its Lee statue. But for some time before my visit, Jefferson’s city was facing a demand to remove another statue — the one depicting Jefferson’s expedition team, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, with their Indian guide Sacagawea. Why? It embodies an ethnic and gender bias.
Hiroaki Sato is a poet, essayist and translator based in New York.