Some thoughts on Lee-Jackson Day

Posted on January 17, 2009 by


It is fine to both privately and, to a degree, publicly reflect upon the lives of historical persons. It fulfills various needs of the living. Look at a historical person (or persons) and consider the part of the historical person’s character, actions, etc., and consider how one may take meaning from these reflections. For some, these reflections might even translate into incorporating qualities that some find desirable in the historical person into the way they conduct themselves in their own lives. As long as reflection does not become something greater than a source of inspiration, and I suppose, guidance (as long as it is positive), then it seems innocent enough.

Various aspects of the lives of both Lee and Jackson are sources of personal reflection for me. For one, I find different aspects of Robert E. Lee’s character worthy of consideration in relation to the way one conducts himself in life. As a military historian, I find the military brilliance of both Lee and Jackson a source of interest. I’m also intrigued, as a descendant of Confederate soldiers – many who served under Jackson – about what Lee and Jackson meant to them during and after the war. Some, I am sure reflected positively, and some, I am willing to bet because of the circumstances of their service, reflected negatively.

Yet, do people really need a specific day, designated by the government, to have positive reflection?

I would argue that it is not necessary, but then, I am sure that there are those who find satisfaction in the fact that designated days are opportunities to demonstrate to others either how great this historical person was in the past or how great the historical person is – still – in the minds of those who “celebrate” the life of said person. Perhaps it can even be said of these public demonstrations that people who engage in them are engaging in a form of rhetorical expression in order to persuade (with a capital “P”) others that the historical person that they celebrate should be remembered in the public consciousness in the same way that they remember the historical person. Therefore, are the actions of those engaged in public display of “celebration” simply reflective in a manner that could be considered so simple and respectable?

Some may (and do) ask the question, “why can’t you just let these people have their day?” Yet, when public demonstration can be perceived as rhetorical presentation, there is a problem. If it were something as simple as a reflective service at a graveside and a reflective service conducted in a chapel, then I don’t think I could as easily find a problem in it. Ultimately, however, there are greater issues at large in these events. One cannot deny, for example, that there are some (maybe the use of “some” here is not an accurate reflection of the actual number) present at these events who use Confederate remembrance and symbolism as a platform for expression against the very nation and flag that provides them with the opportunity to conduct these very events. Talk about hypocrisy… but perhaps it would be better to address what can be identified, without a doubt, in events such as these. Consider the grand procession/parade at Lee-Jackson Day in Lexington, from the grave of Jackson to the Lee Chapel, with many a Confederate flag floating in the breeze, and many uniformed as “Confederates” marching to the site… is this merely a reflective event?

When does a day of reflection turn into a day of demonstration? Perhaps, more importantly, when is humble and simple reflection not enough, but gaudy exhibitionism more necessary in order to better satisfy the “heritage pangs” of the living?

I find this particularly interesting considering the personalities of the persons honored by these displays. As Lee was one who survived the war and provided a window into his beliefs on the reflection of the war through his postwar words, the entire exhibitionism of the new era Confederate remembrance movement is considerably out of line with the very person who is front and center in the remembrance activities themselves.

The Civil War is something that we should not forget. Many, many men served in gray because of the various ways they interpreted meaning in “cause” (and many served unwillingly with no attachment whatsoever to any “cause”). The manner in which these soldiers in gray served is certainly worthy of reflection, and even remembrance. Yet, in the end, no matter the “cause,” it seems too often, too easily forgotten by some that both the flag and the “nation” went down in defeat. Therefore, as people who reflect on the part their Confederate ancestors played in that war (or, if not a descendant, on the part their favorite Confederates played in the war), should Confederate remembrance come in the form of “celebration” filled with gaudy expression, even exhibitionism, or should remembrance be more reserved and humble. Again, the “cause” and flag were defeated, therefore, the ability to conduct public expressions of remembrance in Confederate remembrance is truly a privilege made possible only through the courtesies extended by the nation that won the war. I think Lee was quite aware of this, and as this man is truly central to Confederate remembrance, this fact, most especially on Lee-Jackson Day, should be made clear as at the top of those things that should not be forgotten.