The debate over the Confederate battle flag has evoked memories of the early 60's when I was an undergraduate at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
It was a time when old folks still talked about what they had heard of the war from those who had come before them, like the day in 1865 when Robert E. Lee was riding toward town to assume the presidency of what was known then as Washington College.
Riding “Traveller,” Lee was some miles from Lexington when an ex-Confederate stepped from his fenced yard to pay his respects to the general. At the corner of the fence a weathered battle flag drooped from a pole. The man seemed forlorn. He asked Lee what they were supposed to do in the wake of such devastation.
Lee looked at the flag and said: “First we take down that flag.” Then he turned Traveller toward Lexington and rode on.
When Lee appeared at the top of Main Street, the townspeople began to catch sight of the great man and stood silently along each side of the street as he rode by on his famous horse. Finally, he turned west onto a side street and rode toward the columned buildings that stretched along the ridge of a grassy hill; it was the college that would one day bear his name.
In the years he was president of Washington College (which I learned only recently from Jonathan Horn's article entitled, “Even Lee Wanted the Flag Gone”), Lee directed that no Confederate flag or monument be displayed lest, as Lee said, the “sores of war” be kept open.
Better, he said “to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
That solemn request was followed for decades after his death.
During my time at W&L, some 70 years later, cheap replicas of the flag did in fact hang in the nave of the university chapel, under which Lee and his family were entombed. His office was there as well.
Traveller's bones were buried just outside the entrance. Flowers and carrots lay strewn about the horse's burial plaque.
A century and a half later, almost to the day, the current president of Washington and Lee has carried out Lee's last order.
The Confederate flags have been removed forever.
The writer lives in Myrtle Beach.