The legacy of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is at the center of many debates since violent protests erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 11-12. A priest in Virginia who has studied Lee’s legacy for many years finds that puzzling.
“I’ve been very concerned — as a historian, a priest, an American, an alumnus of the University of Virginia — about perception,” said the Rev. R. David Cox, author of The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee, published in April by Eerdmans.
When members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville in a torchlit parade and chanted “Jews will not replace us,” Cox said, “that had nothing to do with Lee.”
“In that sense, I think nobody is paying attention to him and who he was,” Cox said. “We are dealing with a human being, and we’re not treating him as such. “Yes, he was a Confederate general, who opposed slavery and secession, even though he fought for what would perpetuate both. And after the war, he dedicated himself to reunifying the nation and restoring its prosperity.”
Cox’s book is neither hagiography nor denunciation, but a thorough study of what Lee believed, why he believed it, and how it affected his choices regarding slavery, the Civil War, and its aftermath.
Cox documents that Lee, like so many other people of the time and in both North and South, agreed with notions of racial superiority, but he did not believe it should lead to racial suppression. He oversaw slaves inherited from his father-in-law. But he also wrote to Jefferson Davis in 1865, urging that the Confederate States of America free all slaves.
“He really tried to treat people as people, no matter their color, no matter their class, no matter their station in life,” Cox said.
Cox majored in history as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. He was inspired, in part, while sitting through a passionless lecture by a history professor and thinking it was a crime to turn American history into a boring topic.
He was ordained to the priesthood in 1972 and has served in many parishes since then. His interest in Lee became kindled when he served as rector of R.E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, Virginia, from 1987 to 2000. He continues to live in Lexington and is a professor of history at Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista.
He wrote The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee because so few people seemed prepared to devote serious study to the topic. “Everybody who studies history agrees that he was a religious person. The religious people were busy polishing his halo. Secular historians did not have the theological context to make sense of his faith.”
Cox says he is troubled by the impulse to remove every vestige of Confederate leaders from public spaces in America. There is a case for removing some of those sculptures, especially when they were erected in honor of post-Reconstruction racist movements or events, he said.
While stressing that he is not proposing Lee for sainthood, he mentions visiting St. Cuthbert’s Church in Wells, England, and seeing it stripped of every icon and statue marking Christian history.
“I’ve never seen such an example of the destructiveness of the Reformation, when people in good conscience went through ripping out statues and icons,” said Cox, who teaches a course on the Reformation as part of his university work. “From the perspective of 500 years later, did all of them have to go?”
“As Episcopalians, we know how important symbols are,” he said. “By removing statutes, or leaving them in place, what have we done to make people’s lives better, or more prosperous?”
He believes a stained-glass window of Lee in Washington National Cathedral gets it right, because it shows Lee both as a Confederate general and in his post-war role as president of Washington and Lee University, also in Lexington.
“There was more to Robert E. Lee than the Confederate general, and that was where his greatness started to emerge,” Cox said. “After four years of trying to tear the Union apart, he spent five years trying to put it back together.”
“At the close of the Civil War, Lee was the paramount moral authority in the South. And he used that authority to promote peace, prosperity, and reconciliation.”
Rather than widespread removal of monuments or statues, Cox would like to see their message countered with new monuments that tell other sides of the Civil War’s history, and of America’s history since then.
Cox spends part of his time at a small apartment in Richmond, which places him within walking distance of the looming statue of Lee on Monument Avenue. Cox would love to see new tributes along Monument Avenue that honor the city’s civil rights attorney Oliver Hill, educator and businesswoman Maggie Walker, and Elizabeth Van Lew, a prominent member of Richmond society who sent Confederate secrets to the Union and helped escaped slaves reach the Underground Railroad.
“I think we ought to build up rather than tear down.”