9

Robert E. Lee and Hatred

Sometimes I wonder if we learned anything from the Civil War at all:

 

 

On March 9, 2018, a book was pulled from both the Washington and Lee University Bookstore and the Lee Chapel Museum Shop after a W&L professor accused the book of painting a sympathetic picture of the Confederate States of America and the Old South. The book was not The Clansmen, the basis of D.W. Giffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, or the notoriously problematic History of the American People by Woodrow Wilson, but a children’s book written about one of Robert E. Lee’s most beloved companions and most trusted warhorse, Traveller.

The book, entitled My Colt: The Story of Traveller, was written by Margaret Samdahl, who worked at the Lee Chapel Museum for thirteen years. Samdahl says that she decided to write the book to respond to Lee Chapel patron’s demands for a child-friendly book on Traveller. Using the Special Collections archive at Washington and Lee as well as other research materials available at Leyburn Library on W&L’s campus, Mrs. Samdahl embarked on a decade-long effort to bring the story of Traveller to a younger audience. Lee Chapel purchased copies of My Colt on February 27, and the University Bookstore followed suit on March 3. However, after the book and a book signing event at the university were advertised in the daily Campus Notices on March 8, the administration received a complaint from a professor who objected to the content of the book. It was subsequently removed from both the Museum Shop and the University Bookstore, and the book signing event was abruptly cancelled on March 9.

Though the professor’s outrage over the contents of the book was cited as the initial cause of the book’s removal, the university called Mrs. Samdahl two weeks later to explain that the book had been removed because it was self-published and had not been peer-reviewed. This explanation by the university administration does not hold up because the book had already been accepted by the Museum Shop and the University Bookstore, implying that it had already received some sort of review by the managers of those respective venues, and had been for sale in those venues for almost two weeks before it was removed. Meanwhile, both Virginia Military Institute and Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee’s birthplace, reviewed and accepted the book with no problems.

An uproar soon erupted within the Washington and Lee and Lexington community. Don Samdahl, husband of the author as well as a longtime librarian at VMI, sent several letters to President Dudley protesting the removal of his wife’s book. In a letter written to President William Dudley on March 19, Mr. Samdahl accused W&L of ignoring the commitment that it made to free speech on campus in its 2015 “Affirmation of Freedom of Expression at Washington and Lee University” and of attempting to censor the books available for sale in Lee Chapel and the University Bookstore. Soon after Mr. Samdahl’s initial letter on March 19, other members of the community lent their voices to the protest. After three weeks off of the shelves, My Colt was restored to the Lee Chapel Museum Shop and the University Bookstore on April 2. President Dudley explained to Mr. Samdahl in his reply on April 2:

 

Go here to read the rest.  My first impulse was to wonder whether the Professor outraged by a kid’s book about Robert E. Lee’s horse was also outraged that his paycheck comes from an institution named after two men who owned slaves during their lifetimes.  A more positive impulse however recalled these words by Robert E. Lee after the War when  writing to a young mother who expressed animosity towards the North:

Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.

The great truth of the Civil War is that we are one people:  North and South, white and black.  People who try to stir up old hatreds are spitting upon the graves of those who lost their lives seeking to preserve the Union, and the graves of the men on both sides who after the War counseled reconciliation.  Time to recall these other words of Lee after the War:

 

We must forgive our enemies. I can truly say that not a day has passed since the war began that I have not prayed for them.