The tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, were triggered in part by protests against the removal of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue.
Ironically, when asked to attend a meeting to commemorate Civil War monuments, Lee once said, “I think it is wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who have endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
While writing “The Secret War Diaries of Abraham Lincoln – Including His Recurring Dreams” for the past four years, I’ve gotten to know Robert E. Lee. Without him, the War Between the States, or the Civil War, could have had a very different ending. Had he not ordered Pickett’s ill-fated charge at Gettysburg and suffered the loss of his best general, Stonewall Jackson, God only knows how much longer the bloody struggle might have waged.
My family landed in America on April 7, 1637, in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan). My 18-year-old ancestor, Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, was paid 50 guilders per year for six years. His home, located on a former 39-acre orchard in Brooklyn, is the oldest wooden residence in New York state. It has been preserved as a place to teach early Dutch history.
His Wyckoff family descendants have kept meticulous records of his offspring. They number in the many thousands. From 1637 to 1861, when the Civil War began, they lived in states and territories on both sides of the struggle. Some fought to preserve the Union; others were loyal to the Confederacy. Ironically, my direct Brooklyn ancestors owned three slaves in the 19th century, whom they liberated.
Soldiers and sailors on both sides of that bitter war rarely thought of slavery. They dreamed instead of home, family and how to survive the struggle as best they could. There were Southerners who owned no slaves and Northerners whose families owned them, particularly within the border states.
Lincoln was never an Abolitionist, but he had abhorred slavery since he was young. He’d seen it during two trips to New Orleans, when he visited slave markets. When South Carolina’s forces attacked Fort Sumter in 1861, war was thrust upon him. He committed to saving the union, with or without freeing the slaves.
Only later, in 1863, when it became obvious that the struggle would be long and incredibly deadly, did he issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He considered it a necessary military decision and not a civil rights matter.
Lee also disliked slavery. He wrote to his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, in 1856, “In this enlightened age, there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country.”
Yet he failed to immediately free slaves inherited from his father-in-law’s death in 1857, although he intended to liberate them within five years. In 1862, in accordance with Mr. Custis’ will, Lee filed a deed of manumission freeing all the slaves at Arlington House and at two other plantations.
Lee had proudly served in the U.S. Army since 1829. He distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War and later commanded the U.S. Military Academy. In 1859, his troops captured John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
When the Civil War broke out, Army Gen. Winfield Scott recommended to Lincoln that Lee command Union forces. Lee declined the post when Virginia seceded in April 1861. He had hoped America would remain united.
From 1862 until surrendering to Grant at Appomattox, Lee commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, often brilliantly.
He rejected suggestions that the defeated South resort to guerrilla warfare. Instead, he favored reconciliation between the two sides and fully supported President Andrew Johnson’s program of Reconstruction and intersectional friendship.
In 1869, President Grant invited Lee to the White House, and he went. Lee favored civil rights for all and free public schools for blacks. He served as president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, from 1865 until his death. Barracks at West Point are named for him. Postage stamps have been issued in his honor, statues erected and places named for him. Children are still proudly called “Lee.”
I consider him a noble man of honor, a great American whose statues, wherever they are, should remain standing either outdoors or within museums. Those white supremacists who flaunt Nazi, KKK or Rebel flags while intoning Lee’s name are way beyond the pale.
Robert E. Lee never had an ounce of hatred within his body.