Living in Lee County

I reside in a place named for an American traitor, an insurrectionist who fought not only to preserve slavery but also to perpetuate it.

He deserted his country’s Army, took up arms and led thousands of men from another army in a brutal war that cost more than 600,000 lives. Their goals all came down to one thing – preserving slavery.

Yes, I reside in Lee County, which is in Southwest Florida. Early settlers here named it Lee County when it was carved out of Monroe County in 1887.

That was only 22 years after the Civil War ended and 24 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Now, 130 years later we still honor this man who led an uprising that tore the country asunder. His name was Robert E. Lee. The rebels’ top general is remembered here with a statue in downtown Fort Myers and a portrait hanging in the county commission chambers. Oh, and an entire county.

I’m not blogging here about either the statue or the portrait. I’m merely trying to understand how and why we honor a traitor. That’s what he was.

No intellectual contortionism can change that fact or defend why the South sought and fought the war. It was about slavery and retaining free labor and subjugating millions of people because of the color of their skin. Any suggestion of any other reason is claptrap.

I’ve always been mystified by this deification of Lee. I suppose he was a fine tactician and brave man respected by his soldiers and he comported himself with dignity when he surrendered to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox in 1865.

But his cause was unjust.

Confederates back then prattled on about state’s right. What nonsense. Those two words were a cover for their quest – the right to continue owning human beings. That was their version of rights.

I recall reading many years ago historian James McPherson’s 1988 “Battle Cry of Freedom,” a narrative history of the Civil War. The battle cry for freedom for the slaves was clear – freedom in the most basic sense, to escape bondage.

Yet, the South was fighting for its own perverse concept of freedom – the right to continue owning human beings.

A Facebook friend of mine named Tracy Jones recently posted a 1914 obituary that was published in the Confederate War Magazine that year of a Sanibel Island resident named Letitia Ashmore Nutt. She was 78 when she died that year.

The obituary referred to her as a “noble woman” and that she was buried next to her brother, who was a Confederate soldier.

“. … may they rest till the angel’s trumpet bid our Dixie heroes rise and in that undefined hereafter obtain glorious victory.”

To most people in 2017 a Dixie victory would have been tragic beyond measure, prolonging slavery and perhaps keeping the nation permanently separated into two nations.

The nonsense espoused by southern apologists in the decades after the Civil War for the Lost Cause was taken up by Hollywood in its early years and likely helped promote this warped version of history.

In 1915, only a year after Letitia Ashmore Nutt’s death, director D. W. Griffith’s epic “The Birth of a Nation” was released. Its original title was “The Clansman,” which might tell you something.

The racism of this movie is startling. The Ku Klux Klan was portrayed as heroes, dashing men on horseback riding to the rescue of white women about to be defiled by black man, portrayed by white actors in black face.

When the film was screened at the White House, president Woodrow Wilson said, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

I imagine when the film played Lee County most residents who watched it agreed with the president’s assessment.

How could they not? They lived in a place named after a hero of the Lost Cause.

Another film epic, “Gone With the Wind,” was released in 1939, a quarter century after Ms. Nutt’s death. It was another film that glorified the South and whitewashed, if you will, what the war was all about.

Now what? Lee County has been called Lee County for 130 years. I’m not suggesting the name be changed. Not now. Not anytime soon.

And what would it be changed to if the residents wanted a new name?

Lincoln County?

Grant County?

Frederick Douglass County?

I don’t have any answers. Just questions. And one question above all.

Why honor a traitor?