Marc is a veteran investigative reporter and editor of more than 15 years, including 10 years at The Times, where he is the investigative editor. He is also the founder of the Calumet Region Civil War Preservation Project.

Racial politics haunt GOP in the Trump era

In this photo taken Aug. 14, 2017, the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee still stands in Lee park in Charlottesville, Va.

The Associated Press

Most of us have seen the television clips in which a program host asks questions about our history to random folks on the street, most of whom completely botch the answers.

It's usually part of a late-night comedy program, and live studio audiences chortle loudly at the folks who obviously didn't pay attention in American history class to know Washington wasn't a general in the Civil War and Abe Lincoln didn't chop down the cherry tree.

The problem is our nation's collective lack of understanding and interest in its own history continues contributing to divisions of epic proportions. And it's far from funny.

We're forgetting, or never learning to begin with, that American history is incredibly complex, never cut and dried, and filled with a dichotomy of both the incredibly savory and utterly unsavory.

And when senseless acts of one extreme elicit an overblown response from the other extreme, the truth of our history becomes even less understood and more obscured.

Today's Forum cover details some of the history behind Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and the controversial monuments bearing his name.

Since the senseless racial violence perpetrated in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, we've seen accelerated efforts to topple or remove monuments, mostly in southern states, that commemorate Lee or other Confederate vestiges of the Civil War.

Basic students of history know Lee, himself a slave owner, commanded Confederate forces of southern states during the Civil War that sought to secede from our nation and preserve the repugnant institution of slavery.

It's not hard to understand why some folks in today's society would feel unsettled and push for the removal of Confederate likenesses if we only view Lee's legacy through one lens.

But viewing through a single lens obscures the bigger picture.

Without a doubt, there was plenty of evil to go around in Lee's past, including documented cruelty to slaves in the service of his Arlington, Virginia estate.

However, seeking to blot out all public Lee likenesses attacks, quite literally, the very core of our nation's founding and ignores important history.

Yes, more than 150 years ago Lee was a wealthy slave owner, having married into his wealth by wedding the adopted granddaughter of none other than our nation's first president, George Washington.

Indeed, Lee fought for the same southern "state's rights" that sought to preserve an evil economic practice of mostly wealthy landowners, who were a powerful minority of southerners at the time, holding dominion over other human beings.

None of these negative qualities can or should be ignored.

But neither should the other side of Lee, and in fact many ranking members of the Confederacy, who sought to unite our nation after the northern Union forces won the Civil War.

On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his tattered Confederate forces to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending our nation's bloodiest war.

Upward of 700,000 Americans had lost their lives in this brutal conflict. Slavery was vanquished, and Lee sought to surrender with dignity.

A very wise Grant, under the direction of a wiser President Abraham Lincoln, obliged that dignity.

Lincoln and Grant both understood that our nation's deep wounds would mend far more quickly if defeated southerners were welcomed back into the national fold as citizens — brothers and sisters — rather than as trounced enemies.

Lee responded in kind, urging his troops, and later on all southern citizens, to become productive, respected and optimistic citizens of a reunited nation, embracing that many old ideals were to have died with the war.

Lee sought to unify. He also discouraged the celebration or display of Confederate vestiges, including flags, as they had become counter-intuitive to healing our divisions.

In fact, Lee likely wouldn't have agreed with the raising of many of the Confederate monuments in his honor, most of which followed in the decades after his death.

This alone, in the fabric of our nation's history, may be argument enough for preserving monuments to Lee.

Following one of the greatest times of political and social division our nation has ever known, Lee abandoned all bitterness over his own lost cause and embraced a new order of freedom for all.

Many are arguing Lee's support and overt participation in the institution of slavery are reason enough for his monuments to fall more than a century and a half after the Civil War ended.

A number of these same folks will no doubt push on to the removal or desecration of other historical monuments, including the iconic Washington Monument obelisk in D.C.

After all, why not? Our greatest of Founding Fathers George Washington was a wealthy Virginia slave owner. So were Thomas Jefferson and a number of other founders.

Through a single lens, their actions embodied a great evil. But through multiple lenses, Washington and Jefferson also helped forge the Constitution and fabric of the nation we call home more than two centuries later.

How long before an extreme overreaction also leads to the changing of the name of our nation's capital, blotting out Washington's legacy wherever it exists?

Closer to home, a Chicago pastor would like to rename city parks currently named for slave-owning presidents Washington and Jackson.

The problem is it all begins to smack of revisionist history and an unwillingness to acknowledge that figures in our history, indeed our nation's very foundation, were wrapped in both good and evil.

Removing or desecrating monuments won't change our past. But it absolutely could contribute to a greater collective forgetting of it.

As Americans, we can ill afford to blot out any historical lessons, especially those of a flawed man like Lee, who once sought to preserve a repugnant institution but later pushed for national unity.

Without a pronounced change in thinking and embracing of common American purpose, Lee knew the damage to our nation would continue in a divided, injurious course.

If we fail to see the importance of this lesson to the current divisions in our nation and its communities, we're not just looking at history through the wrong lens.

We're ignoring it all together.

Editorial Page Editor Marc Chase, who also is founder of the South Shore Civil War Memorial Trail and Calumet Region Civil War Preservation Project, can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/marc.chase.9 or Twitter @nwi_MarcChase. The opinions are the writer's.

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