Robert E. Lee: Good, Bad and Human

For your consideration:

In Memory of Robert E. Lee Marker

The photo is from a Historical Marker Database entry, by my late friend Mike Stroud.  I might make the case this is more a “monument,” but the opening line says “in Memory of….” so maybe we put it in the memorial column.

Regardless of how we categorize the object, there is a story to tell here.  And it is one of a positive contribution to the community by a historical figure – one Robert E. Lee.

In short, a problem developed in front of St. Louis in the 1830s. A shift to the river channel caused the city’s harbor to silt up.  Unchecked, that would isolate the city from commerce, the Gateway to the West would become just another bypassed river town, and steamboats would ply their trade somewhere else.  City officials used their political clout to secure the services of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who sent a First Lieutenant named Robert E. Lee (along with Second Lieutenant Montgomery C. Meigs, but now I’m name dropping, at the expense of brevity).

The core problem was with Bloody Island, laying opposite St. Louis.  The river was slipping to the east side of that island, leaving more sediment on the Missouri side.  Lee’s solution was to let the river do the bulk of the work. He proposed a series of dikes and revetments that would entice the river to push to the west channel and thus clear out the sand bars deposited in front of St. Louis.

MapNo3StLouisLee(Map source:  Birmingham Public Library, Digital Collections)

Lee’s plan was never completely adopted.  Political influence prevented the dike construction on the north (upstream) end of Bloody Island.  But on the dike on the south end was enough.  The river soon gouged out a deep channel close to the Missouri shoreline.  The City of St. Louis continued to prosper.  And Lee was their hero.

Of course, one great irony here –  Lee had ensured St. Louis would be a thriving center of commerce and industry that would later support the Federal war effort in the west… twenty something years later.

A lesser sidebar, with all those trivial connections we enjoy- Lee’s efforts saved Bloody Island as one of those of those “in between” locations where laws were loosely enforced.  The island remained a favored spot for dueling.  On September 22, 1842, James Shields dueled Abraham Lincoln, with cavalry sabers, there on Bloody Island. It turned out a bloodless duel with both parties agreeing to a truce.

Lee did other work along the Mississippi to improve navigation, but the solution at St. Louis had the most impact.  And that impact was not forgotten.  Moving forward to 1977, the memorial shown above was placed on the waterfront, aptly in front of the Gateway Arch.  Moved a few feet in recent years, the memorial now sits between a bike trail and Leonor K Sullivan Boulevard.

But here we stand today, with a lot of talk lately about Robert E. Lee’s legacy and its place of prominence in our cultural landscape.  There can be no distancing of Lee from the Confederacy.  And by that connection, there should be no quibbling over Lee’s connection to slavery.  We cannot pretend Lee’s hands were not sullied in the matter. He was a direct participant in the system, benefited from the system, and fought to preserve that system.  Regardless of what he may, or may not, have personally felt, Lee served a country, and thereby a cause, that defined slavery as a necessary institution.

Yet, does that become the only factor in assessment of Robert E. Lee? Do we only measure him with the letters R-A-C-I-S-T?

Or, are there other factors to consider in the net assessment of Lee?  We have a preponderance of evidence that says he was a capable military leader.  He was a capable school administrator, at a time when Washington University needed one.  And, with respect to the Mississippi River at St. Louis, we can say he was a good public engineer (I’ve been known to debate his skill as a military engineer, but we shall table that for today).  Beyond that, at the personal level, we have many vignettes that indicate Lee possessed many admirable qualities… at a personal level.  None of which, of course, can, should, or would overshadow the connections Lee had to the system of slavery.   Yet these facets to the man do tell us he was a human being, just like the rest of us.  Maybe even more human than some of us.  (And certainly not the “Marble Man”.)

In his four volume biography of Lee, historian Douglas Southall Freeman closed:

That is all. There is no mystery in the coffin there in front of the windows that look to the sunrise.

Far be it for me to disagree with Freeman, who probably knew more about Lee than anyone save Lee himself. But I must say we cannot close the story of Robert E. Lee, simply looking out the windows.  He’s a complex figure, mixing good with bad, distasteful with the honorable, and repulsive with attractive.  And there’s a lot of mystery left to explore.

Then again, we can well say that about any figure we are apt to meet in history…or out on the street today.

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