When I first read the coverage of efforts to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Antietam National Battlefield, I felt unsettled. While there is no question that the Lee statues erected in town squares, decades after the Civil War, as symbols of Jim Crow, should be removed, our battlefields are solemn ground and a more appropriate place to honor those who fought and died in the bloodiest war in American history.

But I could not actually form a strong argument in defense of the statue at Antietam. There is reason to mark the places where Confederate troops lost their lives. They were our fellow countrymen, even if they sought to break that bond.

We can recognize bravery while also embracing a more important truth: Bravery ceases to be virtuous when exercised in an unjust cause. We need not valorize the men who took up arms against the United States in defense of the system of slavery. Of course, Lee did not even perish at Antietam; he served the Confederate Army until his surrender at Appomattox.

As we examine this statue’s appropriateness for the battlefield at Antietam, we must fully consider what both Robert E. Lee and the rhetorical battlefield at Antietam mean.

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Lee’s modern defenders often stress the importance of context and the danger of erasing history. They are correct. But an examination of context will lead us to remove Lee from his pedestal — both literal and figurative.

Just as Lee deserves to be examined through the context of his time, his personal character must be examined through the totality of his actions. His defenders point to his gentlemanly behavior and civility. The plaque on the statue at Antietam refers to Lee’s supposed personal opposition to slavery.

Lee called slavery a “moral & political evil” but deemed it a necessary one. He once wrote, “While we see the Course of the final abolition of human slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who Sees the end.”

Lee left the fate of slavery in God’s hands and scarcely found any means toward abolition “justifiable.” Nearly every action he took — personally, politically, militarily — preserved slavery. When his father-in-law, George Custis, named Lee the executor of his will, Custis included a charge that his slaves be released within five years.

Lee fought in court to extend that deadline and keep 197 men and women in bondage. State courts forced him to comply with the terms of the will.

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When three of those slaves escaped, Lee had them hunted down, returned and whipped. There are many words one can use to describe this behavior. “Gentlemanly” is not among them.

And despite his well-documented conflicted feelings about whether to resign his commission in the U.S. Army, Lee became the Confederate cause’s champion in his own time and its mythical symbol ever since.

The bronze statue of Lee stands near the field of the deadliest day of battle in American history. Lee and his army invaded American territory and might have been able to fundamentally change the direction of the war if they had found success there.

Across the ocean, foreign powers required a Confederate victory to justify recognizing the Confederacy. In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln had drafted and shelved the Emancipation Proclamation. Not wanting the public to view the proclamation as a desperate wartime measure, Lincoln would not sign it until the United States secured one more victory.

We must remember that the majority of Northern soldiers initially took up arms to defend the Union, not to free the slaves. Lincoln’s proclamation would expand the lens of the Union cause; it “elevated the war to a new moral plane.”

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Success at Antietam by Lee would have delayed this action and perhaps denied it altogether.

Refusing to honor Lee at Antietam does not erase history. It recognizes and comes to terms with history. A-historical praise for enemies of the Constitution from generations ago emboldens enemies of that same Constitution today.

Lee deserves a place in our museums and in our libraries. His actions should be examined at our national battlefields and in our classrooms. He even has a pristine resting place at Washington & Lee University, an institution he capably managed during his postwar life. His horse, Traveler, rests nearby.

Let them rest there.

In Sharpsburg, by the Antietam Creek, let the honored dead rest in peace, without the looming presence of a statue honoring the architect of the battle that claimed their lives.

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Let rest, too, the Lost Cause narrative that has lived on for far too long.

Chris Crawford is an avid reader of Civil War history who lives in Silver Spring. His writing has appeared in America Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, and Real Clear Politics.

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