Confederates in the basement

I tuck away Robert E. Lee when the liberals come over, explains writer AMY C. BALFOUR


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I hid Robert E. Lee in a basement utility closet. Along with a matching framed print of Stonewall Jackson and a large photo of the Confederate flag.

My writers’ group was on the way over for our monthly meeting, which I’d offered to host last month at my parents’ Shenandoah Valley vacation cabin near Lexington, Virginia. Some hostesses worry about their appetizers, others about the cleanliness of their homes. I worried I’d be branded a garden-variety racist. I didn’t think I could explain away the cabin’s Confederate-lite decor.

“Oh, bless your heart, that’s just a regimental battle flag that meant something to somebody a long time ago. Would you like some hummus and pita chips?”

I’m a Southern-born liberal, which means someone in every political conversation thinks I’m an idiot. I grew up in Richmond, where statues of Confederate generals on majestic horses line leafy Monument Avenue. The mascot at my high school was a sword-wielding rebel. The marching band played “Dixie” at pep rallies. And in the background of my prom photo is a gloomy portrait of Maj. Joseph E. Gillette, my great-great-great-grandfather, who was mortally wounded in the Battle of Brandy Station and now hangs over the living room fireplace in my childhood home.

The five other members of my writers’ group weren’t similarly marinated in the thick, sometimes sour drippings of Southern mythology. They were all raised and educated in New England or the Midwest and transplanted to Virginia. They’re engaging, intelligent and open-minded, but they have no tolerance for Civil War nostalgia.

At our meeting back in May, conversation turned to the controversy that had erupted at nearby Washington and Lee University over the display of Confederate battle flags in Lee Chapel (named in honor of the general, who served as the school’s president after the Civil War). The university announced this month that it would remove the reproduction flags that had framed the chapel’s memorial to Lee and would instead feature the restored originals in the chapel museum, “where they will be given proper educational context.”

I agree with the decision to limit the display of what has become a symbol of oppression and hate. But at that writers’ group meeting, I objected when my colleagues began with the South-bashing. A girl’s gotta stick up for her people, y’all. Or at least ask for a little nuance.

“Robert E. Lee wasn’t all bad,” I said, testing the waters.

“He had the chance to free his father-in-law’s slaves and took forever to do it,” countered one.

“He watched while slaves were mistreated,” said another.

“Yes, but his legacy isn’t all bad,” I reiterated. “And people who admire his good qualities aren’t necessarily bad people. My family has photos of him in our house.”

A pause.

“Well, have you considered the fact that your family is a bunch of bigots?” replied one.

Well, have you considered the fact that it’s going to be unpleasant when I throw this bowl of dip in your face?

As a rule, Southerners do not respond well to criticism and ridicule. Or to know-it-alls. And yes, I realize no one responds well to criticism, ridicule and know-it-alls, but Southerners have a particular sensitivity to being told how to think. It’s an itchy, innate resistance to authority. It can lead to duels, family feuds and wars between the states.

We’re also stubborn, and if we think we’re being criticized or ridiculed, we’ll mouth off, dig in our heels and declare the righteousness of our family’s Robert E. Lee print. Even if we hate the stupid thing.

If I had to, I would defend it on the grounds that Lee is revered by many for his commitment to the chivalric ideals of honor and duty. Problematically (and this is a big problem), he led an army that was fighting for the right of Southerners to continue the institution of slavery — euphemistically called “fighting for states’ rights” by Southerners in denial.

But Lee also accepted the presidency of what was then Washington College because he said he wanted to bring students from the North and South together to forge a new path for the country. He was aware of the propensity of Southerners to stew in their own bitterness and indignation, and he wanted to set a better course. As he told one student, “We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman.”

But I considered my colleagues’ comments, as well as Lee’s, when deciding to hide the Confederate decor before we got together again last month. Discretion is the better part of a tacky Robert E. Lee photo, I figured.

And we had a delightful meeting. After everyone left, I returned the prints and the flag photo to the wall. I forgot about the whole thing until my parents came to the cabin the following week and my mom noticed that Lee and Jackson had switched places. I explained my temporary redecorating.

My parents took it in stride that the people I’d invited to their cabin had no patience for them. As my mother said: “Well, I hope everyone had a nice time.”

Amy C. Balfour is a travel writer based in Lexington, Virginia. She wrote this for The Washington Post.


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