To Lee, or Not To Lee...
A Letter to the Members of Save our Circle - and Americans at Large:
My father was a giant Robert E. Lee fan. He nearly named my brother Robert Lee Campbell, in fact.
He worked in the oil business, which took us overseas from New Orleans to Dubai and Belgium. I grew up as one of those New Orleans kids who was raised abroad like others, a product of the energy heyday of the 70s and early 80s.
I currently run tours in Europe, and history is something I deeply love. Nothing is more hideous to me than a strip mall or the defacing of a glorious old city by a race for hyper-modernization. I'm preaching to the choir stating this to a lot of New Orleanians.
One of the stops my family has always enjoyed is the mountain village of Berchtesgaden. For eight years, we went skiing in the Bavarian Alps and stayed in the very hotel that was used to quarter Hitler's personal security detachment.
His house was just down the mountainside. You could drop a snowball on the driveway from the hotel veranda...
This house was not completely destroyed in WWII. Seven years later, the Bavarian government blew it to pieces. They were even going to blow up the famous Eagle's Nest, a mountaintop lodge built for Hitler's 50th birthday.
The mayor of Berchtesgaden pleaded to have it spared... and it is now one of Germany's biggest tourist attractions.
So what about our monuments?
Are we really going to see a giant rash of digging going on, such as this latest uproar over Harvard's emblem - the coat of arms of a man who funded the university's first professor (and was a monster to his slaves, burning over seventy of them)?
What should be the fates of our monuments to the Civil War? The one in Texas is still proudly labelled, "To the War of Northern Aggression," which the historian and half-Texan in me loves.
Europe has a LOT of history, and New Orleanians know full well that it is this which makes us relevant in the national identity. We are the family heirloom of all of the American cities. Orleans Parish prides itself on its history, architecture, music, and cuisine.
But Germany has no monuments to a single general of the Second World War. Throughout every village in Germany, as well as France and the United Kingdom, you still have magnificent memorials to the fallen of the First and Second World War. Germany has not hidden the memory of its lost sons. I enjoy taking time to walk in German cemeteries and read the plaques remembering sons whose bodies never came home. In many instances you'll find brothers, twins even. One had an older brother who died in WWI and his kid brother who was killed in WWII. The most somber ones are the plaques with father and son side by side, each paying the tab of his generation's violence.
Yet here is where Germany differs markedly from the United States. Many great German generals had honor and fought for country - not cause or ideology. Yet you will not drive down Guderian Street. You will never find Rommel Square. WWII will never be glorified in Germany. Another one of Germany's biggest tourist attactions is the concentration camp at Dachau, after all.
In the hubris of WWII remembrances, a giant part of me demands that Robert E. Lee be left where he is. He was a man of great principle, and he is the co-author of a massive chapter in US history. We need to remember that chapter, too - and not just the bubble gum answer, "Slavery." I find it intellectually dangerous that we fawn over WWII a bit too much and don't dwell on other wars and lessons. It fuels the "American Exceptionalism" that an American raised abroad very much questions. We are a year away from the 100th anniversary of WWI, and I know most Americans know next to nothing about it. How many more centuries before people know nothing of Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Hood, Stuart, Forrest... of Antietam, Shiloh, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg? Surely Robert E. Lee is worth remembering... but the cause in which he served is one that, according to Germany's culture, would still be part of a national sense of shame...
I sincerely wish that there was a compromise, for I understand the merits of the other position. I understand that the Civil War DID represent slavery and human bondage for many, many people.
I had to read "Twelve Years a Slave" as a student under the brilliant Joe Louis Caldwell at the University of New Orleans. As a kid raised abroad, I had never really examined the American story from a cultural and societal level, and I was able to do it objectively. It was amazing to experience it at the hands of a fair and conservative - and brutally honest - professor who delivered lectures like a black Baptist preacher. I remember him ripping into black people who might ever go and visit plantations with any sense of playfulness...
"Could you imagine Jews prancing around the grounds of Auschwitz?!" he thundered one time. I never forgot that giant dose of perspective...
That is why I remain torn on such an important subject...
So how about a proper compromise?
Erect a major monument to the slaves of Congo Square and city auction yards. Build a slave museum. Remember their story, too.
But Lee is a vital and special part of the Southern story, exemplifying like others, the brutal decision of having to choose between state and country.
It's a great reminder of how people once viewed these United States - and what they were prepared to do for their state. The opposition to Civil War monuments likely understands this as well... and don't want these statues fanning the flames of any desired return to such division or glorification of a cause that will forever be associated with a great deal of human suffering
Unfortunately, trying to remove monuments is causing the very thing they claim to wish to quell. There were no parades and marches around Lee Circle celebrating the Confederacy - until now.
Heritage and Home mean many different things to different people.
To my father and many Southerners of Scots-Irish, French and English descent, Lee will always be an American giant.