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THE BATTLE FLAGS ARE GONE FROM LEE MEMORIAL AT THE WASHINGTON AND LEE UNIVERSITY CHAPEL.....but that happened in the summer of 2014. The flags had flown in the Chapel since 1930.
Where Confederate battle flag replicas once flew at Washington and Lee University in the chapel above Robert E. Lee’s tomb, there are empty stanchions. They were removed in the summer of 2014, a full year before the current controversy.
What will fill them, if anything, has led to an ardent campus wide and alumni discussion.
About half the students and alumni polled by a campus magazine opposed the decision to remove the flags this summer. The university officials who made the call have actually cited the guidance of Lee himself in this.
At Appomattox Lee had counseled his soldiers to furl their battle flags forever and to place them, if they desired to keep them, out of site.
Shortly after surrendering the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865, Lee became president of a small war-torn school known then only as Washington College in November of that year. He served in that role until his death in 1870. He had also been offered the leadership of the Virginia Military Institute which is located immediately adjacent to Washington College in Lexington. His choice to lay aside his military career in its entirety speaks volumes.
The Trustees used his famous name in large-scale fund-raising appeals and Lee transformed Washington College into a leading Southern college expanding its offerings significantly and added programs in commerce, journalism, and integrated the Law School. Lee was well liked by the students, which enabled him to announce an Honor Code like West Point's, explaining "We have but one rule here, and it is that every student be a gentleman." (the school was all male). To speed up national reconciliation Lee recruited students from the North and made certain they were well treated on campus and in town. After his death, the school was renamed Washington and Lee College.
The same day Lee took office, he took an oath to “henceforth” support and defend the U.S. Constitution as a matter of honor. He advised fellow former Confederates to do the same.
There were no Confederate flags of any sort on campus during his relatively short tenure as its leader. Several Confederate flags, including the battle flag, carried by his army during the war arrived in the college chapel decades after Lee’s death.
A centerpiece on the stage of the chapel—where the pulpit would be in a less secular place of worship—is a statue of Lee, in his Confederate uniform, asleep on the battlefield (the "Recumbent Lee"), designed by Edward Valentine and installed in 1875. The flags appeared in the 1930's. They were later replaced with the historically meaningless reproductions that hung until 2014.
Lee is buried with many members of his family in a crypt in the basement of the chapel.
Lee did not want such divisive symbols following him to the grave. At his funeral in 1870, flags were notably absent from the procession. Former Confederate soldiers marching did not don their old military uniforms, and neither did the body they buried. “His Confederate uniform would have been ‘treason’ perhaps!” Lee’s daughter wrote.
So sensitive was Lee during his final years with extinguishing the fiery passions of the Civil War that he opposed erecting monuments on the battlefields where the Southern soldiers under his command had fought against the Union. “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,” he wrote to the Gettysburg Identification Committee.
In this he was joined by the Confederate States' President Jefferson Davis who wrote in his book "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government": “My pride is that that flag shall not set between contending brothers; and that, when it shall no longer be the common flag of the country, it shall be folded up and laid away like a vesture no longer used.”
Lee, as President at Washington, considered authoring a study of the battles fought by the Army of Northern Virginia but worried that his commentary on the past would stir controversy in the present.
“I do not wish to revive any partisan feelings or to incite party criticism against the book or to stir up sectional animosity,” Lee wrote. “I would rather allay such feelings.”
This makes even greater sense when one considers Lee's position regarding secession prior to the war. Lee had scorned secession before the war because, as he put it then, “the framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom and forbearance in its formation to forge this union if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will.” Only after reluctantly resigning his commission in the Union army and following his native state of Virginia into rebellion did Lee attempt to argue that the “the leading men of the country” had always sanctioned secession. In later years he said that the tearing of the nation in two was the "gravest of errors."
To its credit, Washington and Lee University has struck a better balance than its latter namesake. While removing the tacky replicas of the Confederate battle flags from the chapel, it will show the originals on a rotating basis in the place where they belong: a museum exhibit dedicated to remembering a sad chapter in American history.