Back in the day when FDR praised Robert E. Lee as he dedicated a statue of the Confederate general
Three years before the Civil War epic Gone with the Wind, the recently suppressed biggest grossing film of all time,[i] premiered in Atlanta, liberal Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to Dallas to officiate at the unveiling of a giant bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at a city park renamed in Lee's honor. The contrast between what a leading Democrat said — and what most people in the nation thought — then versus now is amazing.
It was exactly 84 years ago yesterday — Friday, June 12, 1936 — when FDR, according to an article in the Dallas Morning News the next day, "Unveils Statue of R.E. Lee in Brief Ceremony." The subheadline of the article is even more interesting: "[President] Pays tribute to American military genius and Christian leader."
General Robert E. Lee is recognized throughout the United States as one of the great American Generals and one of the greatest American Christians, President Roosevelt told the giant crowd Friday afternoon at ceremonies at which the Chief Executive unveiled the bronze equestrian statue of the Southern leader in Robert E. Lee Park, formerly Oak Lawn Park.
"I am very happy to take part in the dedication of this memorial to General Robert E. Lee," Mr. Roosevelt said[.] ...
"All over the United States of America, we regard him as a great leader of men and a great General, but also all over the United States I believe we recognize him as something even more important than that.
"We recognize Robert E. Lee as one of the greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen."
"One of the greatest American Christians." If anything indicates in a small handful of words how things have totally changed since the 20th century, that's it.
The statue of Lee in Dallas is, or was, quite famous and has its own page at Wikipedia. According to A Marmac Guide to Dallas, the larger than life work was commissioned in 1928 by the Dallas Southern Association. The sculptor was Alexander Phemister Proctor, a renowned artist who was paid $50,000 and took four years to complete the project. It was originally intended for Dealey Plaza (the site of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963) but was instead placed in a park in the Oak Lawn section of Dallas that was renamed Robert E. Lee Park.
Equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, astride his horse, Traveler, in Dallas, Texas 2014. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Source: Library of Congress. "Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication."
In recent times, now that so many in the country are newly "woke" (socially aware), the mere thought of Robert E. Lee and his fellow Confederates has become toxic. Over the past several years, statues of Lee and other prominent figures in the Civil War resistance have been removed from their places in various cities and/or defaced by angry mobs. In the past two weeks, statues of Lee have been attacked in the wake of protests following the death of George Floyd on May 25 while in Minneapolis police custody. For example, as CNN reported on June 7:
About 90 miles south of Birmingham, demonstrators tore down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that stood in front of Lee High School in Montgomery on Monday, according to CNN affiliate WSFA.
Meanwhile, a bevy of politicians has either overseen the removal or promised to take down many if not most remaining statues of Confederate military figures that have stood for decades or longer in American cities and towns but that some people today find offensive and intolerable.
Regarding Gen. Lee's status following the end of Civil War hostilities after the Union victory in 1865 and Lee's surrender, Prologue magazine, a publication of the National Archives, noted in a 2005 article:
On a spring day 140 years ago, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee met face to face in the parlor of Wilmer McLean's house in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. On that historic occasion, April 9, 1865, the two generals formalized the surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, thus bringing an end to four years of fighting between North and South.
After agreeing upon terms of the surrender, the generals each selected three officers to oversee the surrender and parole of Lee's army. Later that day, Lee and six of his staff signed a document granting their parole.
On May 29, 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon to persons who had participated in the rebellion against the United States. There were fourteen excepted classes, though, and members of those classes had to make special application to the President.
Lee sent an application to Grant and wrote to President Johnson on June 13, 1865:
"Being excluded from the provisions of amnesty & pardon contained in the proclamation of the 29th Ulto; I hereby apply for the benefits, & full restoration of all rights & privileges extended to those included in its terms. I graduated at the Mil. Academy at West Point in June 1829. Resigned from the U.S. Army April '61. Was a General in the Confederate Army, & included in the surrender of the Army of N. Va. 9 April '65."
On October 2, 1865, the same day that Lee was inaugurated as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, he signed his Amnesty Oath, thereby complying fully with the provision of Johnson's proclamation. But Lee was not pardoned, nor was his citizenship restored. And the fact that he had submitted an amnesty oath at all was soon lost to history.
More than a hundred years later, in 1970, an archivist at the National Archives discovered Lee's Amnesty Oath among State Department records (reported in Prologue, Winter 1970). Apparently Secretary of State William H. Seward had given Lee's application to a friend as a souvenir, and the State Department had pigeonholed the oath.
In 1975, Lee's full rights of citizenship were posthumously restored by a joint congressional resolution effective June 13, 1865.
At the August 5, 1975, signing ceremony, President Gerald R. Ford acknowledged the discovery of Lee's Oath of Allegiance in the National Archives and remarked: "General Lee's character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride." [Emphasis added.]
And what happened to the statue of Robert E. Lee in Dallas that President Franklin Roosevelt had so proudly unveiled and dedicated? It stood in Lee Park for 81 years until 2017, when the Dallas City Council voted 13-1 to remove it and have it stored. Two years later, according to Dmagazine, the statue was auctioned for $1.4 million and shipped to its new home, a golf course named "Black Jack's Crossing near the [Mexican] border, about a dozen miles from Terlingua [a ghost town with a 2010 population of 58], where it was mounted on a pediment in the middle of the golf course's putting green."
Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran journalist who writes about politics, media, popular culture, and health care for American Thinker and other publications. He also appears in the media, including recently as a guest analyst on BBC World News. Peter's website is http://peter.media. For updates on his work, follow Peter on Twitter at @pchowka.
[i] On an inflation-adjusted basis.