By Greg Markley
Ceneral Robert E. Lee, born in Stratford, Virginia in 1807, could not save the South from defeat; the Confederates won some battles but were outnumbered and outwitted by Union Forces. Returning to Virginia after the Civil War, Lee saved an academic institution named Washington College. Its current name, Washington & Lee University, reflects pride in George Washington and in Lee, namesake of our Alabama county.
Before the war Lee was an engineering professor at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. Afterwards, he served as president of Washington College for five years. He built the school into an elite liberal arts college, pioneered new classes, including journalism and added a business school and a law school.
Lee thought that he, as Confederate President Jefferson Davis had already, would be charged with treason and be imprisoned. A federal judge, who was an avowed abolitionist, convened a grand jury in Norfolk, Virginia intended to indict Lee and other Confederate generals and leaders.
“The issue (of the Courthouse amnesty) was highly charged,” wrote Ron Chernow in his bestseller “Grant.” “Memories of the war were fresh, the war was still raw and many bodies lay unburied around Appomattox.” Lee and the others were indicted, yet Grant convinced President Andrew Johnson he would resign if the amnesty did not stand. Johnson consented, but “wanted to make treason odious.” Lee delved into his post-war work as a college president.
In my travels around Lexington, Virginia, signs read “Retain the Name” and its opposite “Change the Name.” Yet a hotel that is already using a new politically correct name on its advertising still has “Robert E. Lee Hotel” astride its front. The Lee hotel goes by the word “Gin” and the old Sheridan Livery has become “Tonic.” (It had been named for Union Gen. Philip H. Sheridan.)
A replica of a 1915 sign in my office says “Help Wanted, No Irish Need Apply.” That illustrates the bigotry my grandparents dealt with when moving to America. Gradually, the Irish won acceptance and years later held good jobs. John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president and Joe Biden is the second.
When many white people, particularly Southerners, see a hotel or statue to Robert E. Lee or Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (who also lived in Lexington and taught at VMI before the Civil War) they think of their ancestors. Were those relatives fighting against black freedom out of malice or hate? Or did they enlist to save their livelihoods or families from damn Yankees?
That service, ideological or not, may have killed long-ago relatives. Their descendants deserve a place where they can gather and honor these soldiers. But should African Americans see all these reminders of a terrible period for blacks? Why should they have to walk down these avenues with their children and explain why flawed men from another century be honored?
A well-publicized incident occurred in Lexington in 2018 when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was denied a meal at an upscale restaurant called the Red Hen. The owners noted that many of her workers are in the LGBTQ community and were upset by the White House press secretary’s presence. Protestors on both sides made this a national issue and viral fast-mover as fast as you can say “Red Hen.”
Can you imagine a story like this making the news before the 1980s? And without the Internet, blogs, and cable news? How about before political polarization run amuck? In civilized days, an experienced owner might work something out such as which servers would be best to serve the celebrity.
The owner might explain that he or she does not agree with then-President Trump’s politics but “please let the couple eat”. Instead, the Red Hen morphed into a red herring; the sick media environment created a weeklong distraction from news that would actually impact and improve people’s lives.
On the final day of this April trip, I had one more visit to make. I walked up a hill at Washington & Lee University and found Lee Chapel. It was closed. I did locate a familiar horse, pictures showed a grey American Saddlebred. Known as Traveller, he lived 14 years and was Lee’s most famous horse during the war.
Signs and photos outside note his strength, loyalty and courage. I myself stayed at the former Sheridan Livery, which is now “Tonic” hotel. It’s possible Traveller and I walked the same ground, only 180 years apart! His remains are just outside the chapel, linking a rider and a horse who loved each other dearly.
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 10 years. firstname.lastname@example.org