President Donald Trump announced on Twitter Thursday morning that he believes statues depicting Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson should not be taken down. But over 140 years ago, Lee himself wrote letters explaining that he didn’t want monuments to the Confederacy erected at all.
Lee died in October 1870, five years after the Civil War ended in 1865. Two letters written after the war show that Lee did not believe there should be monuments for the “lost cause.” As PBS notes, he wanted to see the U.S. move on from the war and swore allegiance to the Union after it ended.
In December 1866, a year after the war ended, Lee wrote to former Confederate General Thomas L. Rosser explained that he thought statues would hurt the country’s post-war healing process. Lee wrote that it would be best to make sure that the graves of the fallen soldiers were at least protected. Here is the letter, dated December 13, 1866, from the Lee Family Digital Archive:
y dear Genl
I have considered the questions in your letter of the 8th Inst: & am unable to advise as to the efficacy of the scheme proposed for the accomplishment of the object in view. That can be better determined by those more conversant with similar plans than I am.
As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated; my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; & of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour. All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen, & wait for better times.
I am very glad to hear of your comfortable establishment in Baltimore & that Mrs. Rosser is with you. Please present to her my warm regards. It would give me great pleasure to meet you both anywhere, & especially at times of leisure in the mountains of Virginia; but such times look too distant for me to contemplate, much less for me now to make arrangements for –
Very truly yours
R E Lee
Three years later, Lee was invited to attend a ceremony at Gettysburg. Lee declined the invitation to mark troop movements on the battlefield, writing that it would be “wiser… not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” The letter was printed in full in the Republican Vindicator and was written on August 5, 1869.
Dear Sir–Absence from Lexington has prevented my receiving until to-day your letter of the 26th ult., inclosing an invitation from the Gettysburg Battle-field Memorial Association, to attend a meeting of the officers engaged in that battle at Gettysburg, for the purpose of marking upon the ground by enduring memorials of granite the positions and movements of the armies on the field. My engagements will not permit me to be present. I believe if there, I could not add anything material to the information existing on the subject. I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered. Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee.
The letters Lee wrote over 140 years ago have attracted newfound attention in the days since the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12 led to the deaths of a woman and two police officers. White supremacists gathered there to protest the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee Statue.
Robert E. Lee V, the great-great grandson of Lee, told CNN that it would be more “appropriate” for Confederate statues to be in a museum.
“Eventually, someone is going to have to make a decision, and if that’s the local lawmaker, so be it. But we have to be able to have that conversation without all of the hatred and the violence. And if they choose to take those statues down, fine,” the 54-year-old Lee, who lives in Washington D.C., told CNN. “Maybe it’s appropriate to have them in museums or to put them in some sort of historical context in that regard.”
Robert E. Lee V also told CNN that the acts of violence in Charlottesville were “senseless” and believes that General Lee would not have endorsed the violence.
Lee was a West Point graduate and the son of a Revolutionary War officer. He also fought in the Mexican-American War. Lee’s letters showed that he opposed secession early on, but he decided to fight for his state of Virginia when it seceded instead of remaining in the Union Army. Lee was a slave owner, but he once wrote to his wife that slavery is a “moral and political evil in any country.” But in that same letter, Lee wrote, “The painful discipline they (blacks) are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race.”
In 1870, Lee wrote that he is “rejoiced” to see slavery end.
“So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South,” Lee wrote. “So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.”
In a series of tweets Thursday, Trump wrote that he is against removing Confederate statues.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” he wrote. “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”