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Earlier this year, the Arlington County School Board voted unanimously to rename Washington-Lee High School (mascot: The Generals). Now, I can drive on Lee Highway, through Arlington County (named for the home of Robert E. Lee), to the more virtuously styled Washington-Liberty High School. Surely Lee has enough monuments and memorials to him that we don’t need to worry that history will forget him entirely, but is this trend of erasing disfavored historical figures necessary or helpful?
Specific memorials can be attacked and defended on their individuals merits, but in general, they are an invitation to learn about history. I recently happened to visit the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, VA. It’s a modest building of brick and stone, with a small garden out back. While I knew who Stonewall Jackson was before I took the tour and browsed the museum’s small bookstore, I actually didn’t know much about the man, and I didn’t know what to make of the tour guide’s assertion that Jackson would have preferred a quiet life of obscurity in Lexington. I’ve since picked up a copy of the late James I. Robertson’s biography, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. Reading the first-hand accounts of the man and the times leading up to the Civil War, it’s hard not to acknowledge the complexity of the choices that he made.
Apparently there are proposals to rename Washington and Lee University, just down the road from Jackson’s home. What will our future look like if we continue to bury our past? If we plan to replace Confederate military figures with other historical or modern heroes, who will ever be flawless enough to be worthy?
The true character and actions of men like Lee and Jackson or Grant and Sherman are actually far more interesting than the debate over their memorials, so please feel free to share Civil War trivia or your own stories of interesting museums and monuments.