Yoni Appelbaum: Take the Confederate statues down
“It also gave you a general, who was incredible. He drank a little bit too much. You know who I’m talking about, right?” Trump asked. The crowd understood he meant Ulysses S. Grant, even if not all the assembled reporters grasped the reference. Trump did go on to praise Lee as “a true great fighter and a great general,” but even that was in the service of his larger point—that Grant was all the more remarkable for defeating him.
It’s not news that Trump thinks Lee was a great general. Lee took his place in Trump’s familiar pantheon of military leaders—alongside George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Ulysses S. Grant—even before Trump ran for office.
And, as president, Trump has not been shy about exploiting Lee’s contested memory to stoke divisions. It was a violent protest against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville that produced Trump’s equivocations at an August 2017 press conference. He proved unable to simply condemn the tiki-torch fascists, instead declaring there “were very fine people on both sides.” And when a reporter asked him to acknowledge the difference between Lee and George Washington, he rejected the premise of the question—instead suggesting that if the statue of Lee were removed, statues of Washington and Thomas Jefferson might be next to go. “You’re changing history, you’re changing culture,” he objected.
There are, moreover, good reasons to doubt Trump’s understanding of the Civil War. He has little grasp of its causes. When he discusses the conflict, he tends to reflect the views prevalent in the textbooks of his youth—downplaying the role of slavery.
But all of this only underlines the significance of the moment. Corey Stewart, formerly Trump’s Virginia campaign chair and now the GOP nominee for Senate in the state, has praised Lee as “a hero & an honorable man” and made defending his statues a centerpiece of his campaign. Until Sunday, there was no reason to think Trump might distance himself from praise for Lee. In the 20th century, in fact, it would have been hard to imagine any president distancing himself from praise for Lee.
Adam Serwer: The myth of the kindly General Lee
For Woodrow Wilson, the first southerner to win the presidency after Reconstruction, affection for Lee was deeply personal. Lee visited Augusta, Georgia, when Wilson was 13. All his life, Wilson savored “the delightful memory of my standing, when a lad, for a moment by General Lee’s side and looking up into his face.” After he left the presidency, he wrote a hagiographic portrait of Lee for The Journal of Social Forces, holding him up as a “national hero” who was “in some regards unapproachable in the history of our country.”
But it wasn’t just Wilson. Lee was held up as the embodiment of Southern honor, duty, and sacrifice; by lionizing him, presidents were advancing the cause of sectional reconciliation. That the cause for which Lee had fought was, as Grant put it, “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse,” was seldom mentioned. That the reconciliation had been built on a shared commitment to white supremacy or, at the very least, on the tacit approval of Jim Crow went entirely unsaid. And Lee’s personal cruelty as a slave owner—so ably detailed by my colleague Adam Serwer—was simply omitted.