As the national conversation over the legacy of the American Civil War and the role that monuments play in our society continues, lawmakers are taking the issue to Congress. Democratic New York Rep. Yvette Clark has introduced a bill that would strip the names of any person fought for or supported the Confederacy from government buildings.
The movement to remove monuments and memorials to Confederate veterans has picked up steam in the aftermath of the chaos in Charlottesville, and was recently brought to the attention of the military when Democratic Sen. Kristen Gillibrand and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney requested the Secretary of the Army rename a barracks at West Point currently named for General Robert E. Lee.
In addition to Confederate references at West Point, the Naval Academy in Annapolis also houses two buildings named after navy officers who took up arms against the United States during the Civil War and joined the Confederacy, and would also be subject to a ‘Confederate Ban.’
The subject has taken on special significance for me, as I called West Point my home for four years, and spent considerable time along with my classmates there thinking critically about the legacy of the Civil War and what it meant for our army. Perhaps no other institution in the United States was as uniquely affected by the war. There were 151 Confederate and 294 Union general officers who were graduates of the academy during the war. In 55 of the 60 major battles of the Civil War, commanders on both sides were West Point graduates, and in the other 5, at least one of the commanders was a graduate. 105 graduates were killed in combat, and another 151 wounded, which accounted for 25% of living graduates at that time.
Before he became the legendary commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate Army as a whole, Robert E. Lee graduated at the top of his class at West Point, never earned a single demerit while a cadet (an honor I do not share with Lee), distinguished himself during the Mexican-American War, and served as the Superintendent of West Point from 1852-1855. Until he chose to take arms against the United States, Lee was a model officer. After the war, he became somewhat of a national celebrity and prominent advocate for reconciliation and reconstruction.
Many will point to the massive destruction and death he wrought at the helm of the Confederate Army, fighting in defense of a morally reprehensible institution like slavery, as reason enough to topple statues of Lee and strip his name from places of honor in our history. As cadets, we studied the battles where he commanded, and the maneuvers he led which crushed U.S. Army units and killed thousands. How could it be that we could study the legacy of an enemy of our army and country, and yet go to sleep that same night inside a barracks named in his honor?
There are many lessons that should be learned from that time in our country. At West Point, we studied the legacy of graduates like Lee because it tells an important story about our country and Army, one that can’t simply be boiled down to “traitor!” like so many are doing today. Without question, Lee made concrete and honorable contributions to the United States and the Army; he also waged war against it, along with many hundreds of thousands of other Americans. But when the war was over and the South was ruined, forgiveness and reconciliation were absolutely necessary to get the country functioning again.
One component of that is recognizing the contributions of men like Lee, if for no other reason than remembering that our history is nuanced, and bears reminding that people who at one point were our enemies were not so forever.
If a community no longer wishes to honor a Confederate leader like Lee, then it should have the right to remove it through consensus. But Lee plays a critical role in the history of West Point and the Army, and the politics of the moment should not have the right to stamp out the important legacy he’s had in my community.
Featured image courtesy of U.S. Army