Yesterday, I posted a critical tweet about Washington and Lee University removing a plaque referring to the horse of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Traveller is one of the more famous horses in military history, an iconic animal associated with the Civil War. My tweet led to a few people objecting that Traveller had to go due to his association with the confederacy.
For years, a controversy has raged over the removal of historic statues and memorials from figures ranging from Lee to Columbus to Lincoln. Back in 2018, I was part of a discussion at the National Archives on the issue. Yet, there is little tolerance for any debate on campuses or even the suggestion that it is possible to preserve controversial historical pieces while learning from them. The same controversy has raged in other countries. Other universities from University of North Carolina to Notre Dame to Wisconsin have faced protests. The ever lengthening list covers pioneer figures to William McKinley to Mission Bells.
I am not an absolutist on the question and have supported the removal of some statues. However, I admit that my natural default is to preserve controversial memorials with the option of adding material to put the displays in a historical context.
The Board pushed back on the criticism and stated that the “campus is neither a museum nor an appropriate repository for Confederate artifacts.”
Perhaps this small squabble over a marker to a horse can offer an opportunity for a civil and substantive debate. Indeed, it would have been an educational opportunity for Washington & Lee University to hold a discussion or debate with a broader array of voices before ordering the changes.
In this case, the University (which is partially named for Robert E. Lee) removed a plaque to Traveller, who is buried on campus. The plaque read: The last home of Traveller. Through war and peace the faithful, devoted and beloved horse of General Robert Lee. Placed by the Virginia Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy.”
The Civil War is a major part of our history and Washington & Lee University is a prominent part of that history. The preserving of such memorials allows for the public to see the full historical continuum, including the painful chapters in that history.
For the public, and particularly for Civil War buffs, visiting such sites can offer a sense of authenticity and continuity to history. Universities have the added burden to not just preserve as much of this history as possible, but to place that history in a proper context. It can never be forgotten that Lee fought for the South in a struggle against slavery. The stain of slavery in our history is indelible and painful for all of us.
However, we can reflect that contextual history and preserve the history . . . and spare the horse.