To the editor:
A trip to Winchester, Virginia will illustrate the difference between that city and Alexandria. Winchester has chosen to embrace its Civil War history – the good the bad, Union and Confederate. That history is by no means that city’s only asset, but it has been recognized as an attraction and significant asset.
Alexandria seems to have chosen a different path and seeks to “cleanse” itself of Civil War history. Considering that Alexandria was a city occupied for the duration of the war by Union forces, was a rail and hospital center and a Union foothold in the Confederacy, that is both difficult and foolish.
Christ Church, for some reason, has chosen to move the Washington and Lee plaques from the front of the church to a less visible site, the contemplative soldier represented by the statue “Appomattox” previously located at Washington and Prince streets has been removed and the plaque noting where the first deaths in the Civil War occurred at Marshall House has disappeared. There may well be other examples, but these make the point.
Now we face an effort to change the name of Lee Street. Let us put aside, for the moment, Robert E. Lee. The Lees have been a prominent Virginia and Maryland family since mid1640. Two Lees have been governor of Virginia and one governor of Maryland, one a U.S. senator, two members of the Continental Congress, one a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one a decorated officer who served in the War of Independence, “Light Horse Harry” Lee. The latter also wrote the eulogy delivered at President Washington’s funeral by Chief Justice John Marshall, “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen.”
Before clamoring for the Lee Street name change, one should consider all of R.E. Lee’s life. Many are aware of his Civil War military efforts, but little attention has been given to his actions immediately before, during and after Appomattox.
The surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox was not widely popular at the time. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and many in the Confederate Army preferred that the CSA fight on. Many urged guerrilla warfare even after surrender at Appomattox.
Lee, virtually single handedly, is responsible for that not happening. One morning in mid April after the surrender, a scout from Mosby’s Raiders came to Richmond with a message from Mosby. What should the Raiders do? Surrender or fight on? “Go home,” Lee responded. And he remained steadfast in that position for all Confederate soldiers. He promised “to make any sacrifice or perform any honorable act that would tend to the restoration of peace.”
And committing to that principal, he reluctantly accepted an invitation to become the president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, now known as Washington and Lee University. He did so in an effort to rebuild the South as a peaceful and productive part of the Union. During his five-year tenure, he transformed the school through careful administration, by raising money for the impoverished school and by accepting all comers as students, including, as time passed, students from the North.
Choosing to serve the Confederacy may well have been a mistake, but a lifetime must be considered before condemnation. Attempting to cleanse history is intellectually dishonest.
Is George Washington next?
-David A. Norcross, Alexandria