While I was visiting my family in New Orleans, verbal battles raged on social media and in the newspapers about the desirability of removing all monuments to Confederate leaders and renaming streets and squares. The murders in Charleston, inspired by (or at least blamed on) a romantic notion of the Confederacy as some sort of lost glory for the white race, rendered every one of those tributes questionable. Ideas were floated in New Orleans to rename avenues after notable African-American contributors to the city and to dismantle the monument in Lee Circle.

I have been reading a lot lately about World War II: As the end drew near, the Nazis were determined to destroy their own country in a perverse unwillingness to admit defeat. (Fortunately, there were enough people in key positions to thwart Hitler’s “Nero decree”.) I have always seen in Robert E. Lee the exact opposite of that violent tendency to pry every possible ounce of victory from the hands of the conqueror.

Robert E. Lee is the one Confederate leader we ought to recognize with honor. Not because he led an army. Certainly not because he fought for slavery or under the more palatable (and universally acceptable) banner of “states rights.” We need Robert E. Lee as an example of dignity in defeat, just as we need to recognize Ulysses S. Grant not only as a president but as a general who did not demean his adversary or place a crippling burden on the surrendering army. Lee and Grant saw a greater good at stake than the victory of one or the other army: Their war correspondence acknowledges the desire to stem the loss of blood and property on both sides. That was what the surrender at Appomattox sought; that was the only motivation Lee had to put pen to paper.

So many times in social media, the climate really does resemble a battle in which the favored weapon is the ad hominem comment, with the lawsuit running a close second. It is not enough that florists and bakers be ordered to provide a product or service; they must receive crippling fines and sentences to re-education programs and forever bear, in references on social media by the victorious party, the scarlet letter (H for “hater”). They are the losers. They aren’t allowed anything but scorn.

That is why I would prefer to see New Orleans’ Lee Circle remain as it is: not as a monument to the supposed glories of the Old South (New Orleans, unique as it is, never did really fit that “Gone with the Wind” image), but as a reminder of the immense dignity even of the defeated, and an exhortation not to crow over the loser, or heap punishments upon them (history proves that this only creates resentment and leads to new wars). The statue of Robert E. Lee testifies that, even when someone is “on the wrong side of history,” there can still be much about them that deserves honor.

Anne Flanagan

social media consultant

Boston, Massachusetts