The current spin in defense of retaining Confederate monuments in our town squares and parks is that opponents of the bronze and marble Civil War era effigies are attempting to erase history. Of course, no one’s erasing history but, instead, the goal is partly undo the revisionist history of the fictitious Lost Cause that arose following Reconstruction. In other words, the Lost Cause and its defenders already erased history more than a century ago, and today, the record is being corrected. The statues we’re fighting about today are paeans to the revisionism of the Lost Cause, which, among other goals, sought to deify southern commanders.
So, in the name of preserving history, here’s a brief story about the former home of Robert E. Lee.
Even if you haven’t visited Washington, DC, you’re probably aware of Arlington Cemetery and the plantation-style mansion that sits at the top of the hill, beyond the myriad gravestones to our fallen soldiers. You might also know that for the several decades prior to the Civil War, the mansion was the home of then-U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis, a distant relative of George Washington.
During the Civil War, the federal government imposed additional taxes — to be paid in person — on any property owned by southerners in open rebellion. Lee, after choosing allegiance to home state of Virginia, was commissioned as a general and went off to war in defense of southern secession, eventually commanding the elite Army of Northern Virginia. Meanwhile, his wife was so racked with arthritis, she was unable to make the property tax payments and, as a consequence, the Arlington house and the surrounding property was seized by the government.
As the death toll mounted from one horrifying battle after another, more grave sites were needed to bury the bodies, so the U.S. Army Quartermaster, Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs, proposed that the War Department designate the former Custis-Lee mansion and its grounds as a national cemetery. On June 15, 1864, Arlington National Cemetery was born, and Meigs, rightfully believing Lee to have been a traitor against the United States, made sure that the property could never again be occupied by Lee or his posterity. As further insurance, Meigs ordered that the Civil War Union dead be buried as close as possible to the mansion. No one wants to live in a cemetery, certainly not one containing mutilated bodies accumulated partly by ones own bellicosity. By the time of Lincoln’s death, around 12,000 soldiers were buried on the grounds surrounding the former home of General Lee and his wife.
In case you’re interested, here’s a little more about Meigs’ vast contributions to the site.
At Arlington, Meigs designed and commissioned mausoleums, statuettes, Tanner amphitheater, and the McClellan Arch, which framed the cemetery’s main entrance. In a move characteristic of Meigs’ well documented ego, he inscribed his name in gold on the south column below the arch. Meigs was involved in every step at Arlington—he chose plantings, directed workers in their repairs of the Mansion, and even dictated the composition of soil used to landscape the grounds. When the question of replacing wooden tombstones arose, Meigs recommended galvanized iron as a long lasting, cost effective and durable option. A nationwide headstone replacement program was enacted in 1873, but Meigs’s particular suggestion was rejected in favor of the marble and granite we see today.
Meigs himself is buried in the cemetery, interred alongside his family and encased for the ages within his own custom-designed marble sarcophagus.
As for Lee, it makes sense that traitors were treated this harshly, though there’s plenty of debate over whether “radical” Reconstruction gave way to southern resentment and thus Jim Crow, the KKK and continued institutional racism. Perhaps there’s some validity to the argument, especially given that President Lincoln called for “malice toward none and charity for all” in his Second Inaugural address. Elaborating upon this debate would require volumes of text and I won’t bore you with it. Suffice to say, Lincoln’s vision for Reconstruction was never really carried out due to his assassination a few days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April, 1865.
But in thinking about history and the notion of punishing high profile traitors, an idea for Trump’s would-be punishment occurred to me. Last week, Trump tweeted: “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!” Clearly, Trump is man who (apparently) cherishes history even though I doubt he could tell us anything about the lives of Jackson or Lee, much less Washington and Jefferson.
As you’ve no doubt observed, history is being made right now — as we speak — specifically regarding the story of the 2016 election and how Trump very likely conspired with the Russians to hijack the democratic process. If he turns out to be guilty, Trump will have committed treason against his nation by collusion and a pernicious cover-up of his crimes.
This is historic. And, if convicted, Trump should be appropriately punished. Since he’s such a fan of monuments to history, here’s a proposal for one possible punishment.
It’s time to start work on monuments to the following heroes of the Trump-Russia investigation. Off the top of my head, let’s commission monuments to Robert Mueller, James Comey, Rep. Maxine Waters, Sally Yates and others. Hillary Clinton, too. Since Trump doesn’t seem to mind the existence of Confederate monuments placed in areas that are offensive to the people subjugated by the southern cause, the new monuments I’m proposing should be placed as close to Trump’s various properties as possible. Let’s put the Hillary statue directly across the street to Trump Tower. Place another statue near Trump Soho. Hell, let’s put two across from Mar-a-lago. I think you get the idea.
Again, we’re commemorating an historic event — the effort to uncover a massive conspiracy to undermine the election, as well as elections still to come, by the Republican nominee and eventual president. So, let’s build some monuments to commemorate this history-making event and place them in areas where Trump and his family can’t avoid seeing them. Let’s make these monuments a constant reminder of the treachery he inflicted upon his fellow citizens and the world…
…unless, of course, he wants to erase history, that is.
(h/t to Joseph G. Kopfler and Jerry L. Hermann.)