Monuments to Mendacity

06/26/2015 09:51 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

The Southern states in American seem to have a propensity for erecting monuments to traitors, and by the fact that these various statues, reliefs, markers and other forms of memorialization exist, it also seems that those who should have stood in opposition failed at their duty to the truth.

A traitor is a traitor, no matter the degree. Robert E. Lee was a traitor to the United States of America, and by such was directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Is there a traitor in our nation's history who caused more death and destruction? It doesn't seem that anyone comes even close in terms of the numbers, impact and legacy, unless you place all of what Lee did at the feet of the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. If you want to use the creaky justification that Lee was following orders, this really doesn't fly as obeying the orders of a traitor also makes that follower one. Also, Lee could have refused Jefferson just as he refused President Abraham Lincoln's offer of command of the Federal forces in 1861.

Yet how many statues exist bearing Lee's likeness? One wonders if they outnumber those dedicated to Lee's vanquisher, the quiet, modest and at times shabby man who many historians give the most credit for ending the Civil War and thus saving the nation, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant.

Was the task of "defending" his home state and its foundation of Slavery so vital to Lee that he was willing to kill hundreds of thousands to do it? Why is this incredibly large flaw in his character not spoken of? Instead, we get statues of the proud Lee, sitting ramrod straight in his saddle, the paragon of honor, duty and sacrifice.

This notion that Lee was an honorable southern gentleman who reluctantly sided with his home state instead of his country has been well played over the last 150 years. Military experts shown naked admiration over his battlefield exploits, and his ability to stave off defeat while facing superior numbers and equipment, if not always superior leadership. Fortunately for our country, that began to inexorably change on March 3, 1864, once President Lincoln installed Grant as the commander of all Union military forces. Grant eventually grabbed Lee by his hindquarters and shook him until Lee's surrender in Wilmer McLean's parlor in April, 1865. A brilliant general defeated another brilliant general.

Were the seeds of Lee's saintly status planted then, with the generous terms of surrender offered by Grant? Immediately after Lee rode off to inform his troops of the surrender, Grant's men began to celebrate. Grant admonished them: "The war is over; the rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field." Rarely have the vanquished in a war been treated so well.

Did Lee's legend grow because of the federal government's inability and out-right refusal to prosecute him as a war criminal? Over the years did historians burnish the image of the stately Lee, ignoring the obvious while romanticizing his soldierly manner? Did "The Lost Cause" - the uniquely pro-Southern interpretation of the Civil War - help push Lee to a status of hero, just as it pushed for the restoration of white supremacy in the south?

(By the way, this notion of rehabilitation didn't begin and end in the 1800's. The loud and garish "General Lee" Dodge Charger of the "Dukes of Hazzard" was a none-so-subtle propaganda prop, as the good old boy heroes outran and outsmarted the heavy hand of the law weekly on America's TV screens. Who knew that Lee could be good for business? To this day the model of the General Lee car - featuring its rooftop Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia - remains a sought-after collectible.)

We rightfully should ask these questions and seek the answers, especially now that recent events have cast a renewed and long overdue light into the pernicious institution of Slavery, the meaning of the flags of the Confederacy, and the true cause of this most calamitous event in our history. Let us be both technically and totally correct when we describe General Robert E. Lee. It may be true that he was courtly in manner and kind in temperament (although apparently not to the slaves he owned). It's also true he turned his back on his country which he swore an oath to protect. In any assessment of the man, we should always start and end with "Traitor."

As Lee appears to be the victor in the arena of public perception, he is also appears to be the clear winner in terms of physical memorialization, at least as compared to Grant. It's past time for those monuments to Lee, the Myth, to come tumbling down. Surely there is better use for public space, and there certainly are more appropriate and deserving people to honor.