It has a proud history, having been the home of three presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, and it was central to the formation of the American Republic, being the location of the new nation’s first university. Despite these proud associations and its central historical importance, probably the most revered figure among local Virginians was not that of Jefferson, but that of General Robert E Lee, whose name would always be followed by the sobriquet of “the finest gentleman who ever came out of the South”.
Lee was neither a supporter of slavery nor indeed of seccession, but as an honourable soldier felt duty bound to obey the wishes of his native state and to fight on behalf of the confederacy when the Commonwealth of Virginia voted to seccede from the US.
What is more important than his extraordinary courage and resourcefulness in twice bringing the North to the point of defeat despite its vast numerical and industrial superiority, was the fact that, in the wake of the Civil War, Lee became an icon for reconciliation between North and South. He absolutely refused to lead any southern civil resistance to the northern victory and when he died he was a hugely popular figure not just in the Southern states but in the North as well, with his former nemesis general Grant, now president, leading tributes to him.
For this reason alone he deserves honourable recognition in American history. Those who seek to destroy his memory for the most part do so not so much from a sense of historical sensibility but from a sense of antagonism to those they see as their enemies. Apart from the danger of disturbing the long rested ghosts of the Civil War, they would do well to take example from Lee’s honorable behaviour in insisting on reconciliation with former enemies.