The Unite the Right rally was ostensibly a protest over the removal of the Robert E. Lee sculpture in Charlottesville, Virginia. While I realize that many protesters used this as an excuse for other ends, I want to focus on the statue itself. Some people seem to be very attached to this statue, and I suppose the person of Robert E. Lee. There seemed to be a similar concern over the removal of a statue of Stonewall Jackson.

I want to better understand: what reasons have those that oppose the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee given for opposing its removal? Is it historical interest? An attachment to the Confederate States of America? Something else? Again, I am fully aware that a number of people used this as an excuse to promote other interests, but for those who claim genuine interest in the sculpture's preservation, what are their stated reasons?

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    Comments deleted. Please note that comments are supposed to provide constructive criticism to the question. They are not supposed to answer it and not to state personal opinions about the subject-matter of the question.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 8:51
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    After looking into this issue further, it seems that local Charlottesville citizens have very different perspectives on this topic compared to others who have just read about it online. Some of the responses (including mine) might be improved by separating these differences in perspective between local Charlottesville residents and netizens.
    – Nat
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 17:13

5 Answers 5


Lee was romanticized following the South's bitter defeat

The American Civil War was horrible. Tons of people died (about 3% of the population), and the South was wrecked. Following the Confederacy's loss, the slaves were freed - which both further wrecked the Southern economy and created a new population of black folks that most white Southerners really didn't care for. In short, Southerners had a lot to be bitter and resentful about, from lost loved ones to the destruction of their homes to the humiliation of defeat.

Robert E. Lee was regarded as a larger-than-life figure. Men would go to fight and die on his order, all in the name of honor and service. He was meant to embody an ideal that was larger than any man, including himself. He served as an icon - and in their darkest hours, Southerners needed something to cling to. Lee became a legend.

The statues of Lee aren't of the man. His personal life, his personal beliefs, and his own achievements aren't there. The statues are about the ideal that Lee represents. The larger-than-life mythos that Lee bore on his shoulders hangs over those statues.

The problem with statues that depict mythical figures is that their meaning is in-the-eye-of-the-beholder. To those who wanted to keep the statue, Lee's image wasn't of the man, but of the Southern ideal. About simpler times; about honor; about valor; about chivalry, and all of those other ideals that seem to have fallen from grace since the Civil War era. These were magnified by the South's need for something to be proud of as a culture, as the cruel truth of that time is far less noble.

In Charlottesville, there was a debate about the statue based on how people saw it. For some, Lee represented that mythos; for others, his image represented a man who was willing to fight-and-die to keep them whipped and in chains. Ultimately, I think that reasonable people concluded that the image of Lee was a mixed bag; that some saw him as a Southern ideal while others saw a man who fought for blood and slavery. To this end, they didn't want to destroy the statue for the nobility it represented, but they chose to move it for the evil it reflected.

The rally-goers were just bored people

This discussion was had and worked out in public forum, by more reasonable and cool voices. However, it's important to note that the reasonable people who valued the statue didn't tend to attend the rallies. Those rallies were truly KKK-based events that used the statue as a pretext.

Good people who actually liked the statue didn't attend because they didn't want to mix with the white supremacists. Like the statue or not, who wants to march with extremists?

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    The statue was made in 1924, long after the end of the Civil War (1865) and Lee's death (1870). Many regard Confederate statues as symbolising support for the Jim Crow system of racial discrimination; this was outlawed by civil rights legislation in the 1960s, so is very much still living memory. Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 9:11
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    To those who wanted to keep the statue, Lee's image wasn't of the man, but of the Southern ideal. About simpler times; about honor; about valor; about chivalry, and all of those other ideals that seem to have fallen from grace since the Civil War. And (for many), the ideal of white superiority, of course.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 9:54
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    This doesn't really answer the question. It answers the question of who attended, but not why those reasonable people opposed the statue's removal. I personally opposed it because it's history, in a form which is very visible. The act of taking down a statue like this is essentially re-writing history, like 1984's Ministry of Truth. I don't care about the specific history there, I care about the idea of re-writing any history to serve a political agenda. Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 9:56
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    @PointlessSpike That's the point; it's not history. History's in the textbooks, on Wikipedia, etc.. Nothing about this will change, hide, or rewrite history. The only issue is about if that particular figure is idolized.
    – Nat
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 10:13
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    Ten years ago I was under the impression that MLK and others ended most of the racism in this country, except for specialized pockets of bigotry. Because that's what the history books told me. Then I learned that was all lies and we're still a terribly racist, bigoted country, full of oppression for anyone who is not playing on easy mode like me. One would say that we're correcting perceptions of history here, not re-writing it. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 13:52

There's two general arguments that I've seen tossed around defending the Lee/Confederate statues (at least those not mentioned while chanting with a literal torch in hand)

  1. They're historical landmarks - The Lee statue that sparked the Charlottesville incident has stood since 1924. There's a suggestion that this is an attempt to rewrite history by hiding symbols of the Confedracy. This was the line of reasoning used by Donald Trump

    President Donald Trump invoked such an argument on Tuesday: “This week, it is Robert E. Lee and, this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

    This is, more or less, an extension of the debate started when South Carolina removed Confederate flags after the Dylan Roof racially motivated shooting.

    The concern is that the momentum created by the recent push to remove these monuments will lead activists to simply make new demands to remove other, less controversial monuments. The Daily Wire noted that, in Oct 2016, Columbus Day protesters demanded the removal of a Theordore Roosevelt statue. In Feb 2017, activists were able to get a statue of Christopher Columbus removed. Recently, Al Sharpton (an outspoken activist) suggested the Thomas Jefferson memorial be defunded.

  2. Lee wasn't a racist and/or opposed slavery - This was mentioned by Dinesh D'Souza

    How ignorant of the left to choose Robert E. Lee--who opposed both slavery & secession--to symbolize the evils of slavery & secession

    Many have noted, however, that Lee owned and beat his own slaves, and generally supported slavery

    Lee’s cruelty as a slavemaster was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

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    On the "slippery slope" arguments ("next it will be George Washington"), see washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/08/15/… by Ilya Somin. TL;DR: we celebrate Washington for great achievements that outweigh the negative of slave ownership, but Lee et al have no achievements beyond losing a war that they fought explicitly to preserve the institution of slavery. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 12:58
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    @PaulJohnson There is now a call to defund the Jefferson Memorial. Then there's the removal of a Christopher Columbus status. It's hard to allay fears that this isn't going to stop with just Confederate statues with that going on.
    – Machavity
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 13:19
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    Keep in mind when many of these monuments were erected - during the booming expansion of the Klan, and as pushback against the Civil Rights movement. It kind of casts doubt on the intent as historical. Another litmus test is to apply that logic to non-Confederate monuments. Some have noted the lack of Hitler statues at Holocaust memorials and the absence of an Osama bin Laden statue at the WTC site. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 13:56
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    @Machavity - The Confederate "heroes" were leaders of a movement that aimed to destroy the USA as it was and is known, caused almost as many American deaths as all other wars combined, to protect the institution of slavery. What's there to "honor"? This directly speaks to the claim that it doesn't honor them, it's about history in its full context, so it doesn't matter if what they fought for was evil. I'm talking about seeing if specific arguments hold up when applied to other scenarios, so that one is specific to the "it's about history, good and bad must be included for context." Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 14:22
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    @Machavity - Again, most of these statues and memorials were put up in the 1920s, and 1950s and 60s. They have nothing to do with facilitating repatriation. splcenter.org/20160421/… Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 14:24

My answer ultimately boils down to the same core point as Frank Cedeno's one (give it love and upvotes please), but from a non-US angle.

Revering one's ancertral culture's heroes, especially military leaders, who aren't exactly saintly (and often supported slavery, more to the point) and who may often be outright reviled by outsiders is the norm in human behavior, not an outlier:

  • Mongolia still treats Ghengis Khan as a great man and a great national hero, for all the good reasons. The fact that he as a head of state committed genocidal atrocities and killed off millions of people in his conquests (and as a typical steppe warlord was personally a serial rapist and murderer) is something that generally prevents most Westerners from agreeing with that view.

    Oh, and Ghengis's laws expressly codified slavery of non-Mongols - it was only only prohibited from taking a fellow Mongol as a slave.

  • Mahatma Ghandi is revered not just by Indians but by a large part of modern world. What often gets glossed over and ignored is that he advocated that British should let Nazis win, and Jews should go happily to their deaths, in the name of non-violence.

  • 38% of Russians think that Stalin was the greatest figure in history.

    Yes, that same person who exterminated millions of Soviet citizens, committed outright ethnic cleansing, and put millions of people in Gulag.

    In 2016, a NEW statue of Stalin was erected in Russia.

  • Let's not forget Russian reverence for Tzar Peter the Great - who wholeheartedly supported slavery-like serfdom of Russian peasants and killed off uncounted workers to build St. Petersburg in the middle of the swamp.

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    I think there's a valuable difference between those examples and Robert E Lee: They took power and did some pretty amazing things. Robert E Lee rebelled against his country and lost. He was not only responsible for many of his countrymen's deaths, he didn't actually accomplish anything either.
    – Delioth
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 15:29
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    This is a good answer. It's extremely common that statues and historical figures are symbols that have very little to do with what the people they're supposed to represent actually did.
    – Peter
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 17:07
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    Puting Ghandi amongst the same list as Ghengis Khan, Stalin seems somewhat out of place as well as you give no evidence to back that up. He believed in non-violent resistance - there's nothing about happily dying for nothing in his beliefs. Perhaps instead you should talk about Winston Churchill and how much he opposed the independence of India.
    – icc97
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 9:54
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    Could you provide a citation for the second claim (about Ghandi)? A (quick) internet search reveals that it may be somewhat out-of-context (but I could be missing something).
    – user11249
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 20:33
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    Last I recall Ghengis' legacy was far more interesting than is implied here. Religious toleration was a cornerstone of the empire, and Mongolian women enjoyed more freedom than those in China, Christendom, Islamic world (which all practiced slavery too). At the very least Ghengis united the tribes, ordered the creation of the Mongolian alphabet, legal system, postal network, and trade routes. So it's not unreasonable to say he had great significance beyond bloody military conquests.
    – user8398
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 16:18

I think Machavity has the most concrete answer but I wanted to expand on the human element from the point of view of those that are against the tearing down of confederate statues. Please note, that to me I have no dog in the fight. The statues mean nothing to me since I am a naturalized citizen born in Ecuador.

Consider the statues of Christopher Columbus that was removed at Pepperdine University. The arguments were similar and it was removed. How do you feel about that? Does it matter? Has it erased the history of what the man did or who he was?

In considering this you may see in the articles about the removal that the most vocal opponents were Americans of Italian descent. Perhaps there may have been some racism but at its core the protestation were because those opponents felt a connection to the man in the statue. To them it was an identity that made them feel pride.

There is a lot of this in the states where there are Confederate statues. At the time of their erection, there was a nostalgia of the old grandeur of the southern states by a generation of people that heard stories from their grandparents (For an example please see the Wikipedia article on Margaret Mitchell for as sense of what young "flapper" generation thought about the south at the time). Fast forward to the present and now we are 6 to 7 generations removed but there is still a feeling of connection to the people in the statues by some.

The taint of slavery can never be removed from the military glory of the people depicted in the statues. The conclusion is that some people feel that their identity is tied to those statues. When they are removed, they feel they no longer have anything to tie them to that feeling of glory.


While @Machavity has a well documented and well thought-out answer (kudos and upvotes..) I do believe that there is an additional detail worth noting:

Removing the statue of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate figures is USELESS

Those who support removing such symbols are not ACTUALLY trying to improve race relations (or even revise history), what they are tying to do is stir up trouble, make a scene, and express 'power' in terms of making other people do something they don't really want to do. Left to their own devises these symbols could stand a millennia without garnering the concern of anyone.

Removing these symbols doesn't actually 'do' anything. Those who are offended by them will simply become offended by something else tomorrow, that is the nature of who they are. They have learned that yelling inflammatory remarks like "That's racist!" invokes a response by local and national politicians in the face of media machine that refuses to even consider the truth of such allegations, but are accepted at face value. These statues have stood for a century or more and suddenly NOW they are 'racist' etc.

Those who are trying to fix yesterday will NEVER succeed, you can't unring the bell. Those who are remove the symbols of yesterday are actually doing NOTHING to make tomorrow better.

The removal of these historical monuments actually FIXES nothing. Giving in to the mob simply empowers them for the next time. We have had too many symbolic actions, we actually need to "DO" things...this DOES NOTHING.

Edit: I haven't time right now to address all of the questions and comments posted (I intend to when I do have sufficient time...soon--ish) but some of the comments have caused me to think I need to clarify something.

It is not now, nor has it ever been, my contention that those wishing TO remove statues are trying to 'rewrite history', though others here do make that argument (and it is not without merit, I just don't happen to agree with it). In the present question the motive of those demanding FOR the removal is tangential. OP's question goes to the motives of those opposed, and not necessarily those who planned, organized or attended the events in Charlottesville (on either side).

To those who have offered dissenting opinions in the comments below. I have a simple challenge for you: Even if you are right that such statuary 'is racist' what GOOD does it do to remove them? Are those statues, or the men they represent, actually still oppressing anyone? causing harm? Or are they simply spending the taxpayer's dollars to make a scene that will not ACTUALLY improve the lives of ANYONE?

Additional improvements to my initial answer (supporting docs,etc) will be addressed at a later time.

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    This answer seems to get the mob thing backward. Locally, the town of Charlottesville decided to change a statue in the park. It's the KKK that formed a mob and started screaming. And it's not even surprising; the KKK's entire purpose is to be offended by stuff. Those same protesters will be somewhere else next week annoying someone else; it's their hobby. Literally - it's their actual hobby, as in what they enjoy doing with their free time.
    – Nat
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 15:42
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    This answer seems to hinge largely on the assertion that people thought statues and monuments were ok, and then those same people flipped a switch and decided they were racist. The actual argument made for removal is that statues, monuments, flying the Confederate flag, and other symbols, have >always< been racist.
    – DariM
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 23:27
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    @Nat nope, he has it absolutely correct. The far left wants to rewrite history to fit their narrative and anything that doesn't conform to that narrative has to disappear. They're no different from IS in that regard. The people protesting the removal were in large part people trying to preserve the past, not because they like what happened but as a lesson for the future. The number of "white supremacists" there was miniscule. And oh, the protest was organised by a former Obama campaign adviser...
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 5:57
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    @jwenting: Indeed, some have compared the mob actions to the Taliban blowing up Bhuddist statues. Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 13:08
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    This answer appears to be a personal opinion. Please note that Politics.SE generally doesn't like answers which express personal opinions. To improve the answer and prevent it from getting deleted, try to find sources which prove that it is a widespread opinion among the removal opponents and not just a fringe viewpoint of a sub-faction.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 13:48

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