Treason, Reparations, and Other Just Ends

How Arlington Cemetery Came to be and Why Reparations are a Good Idea.

From History.com comes this information about one consequence of the Civil War:

Robert E. Lee’s Virginia estate was confiscated by the Union and turned into a cemetery during the war.
As war descended on Virginia, Lee and his wife Mary fled their 1,100-acre Virginia estate, known as Arlington, which overlooked Washington, D.C. In 1863 the U.S. government confiscated it for nonpayment of $92.07 in taxes. Meanwhile, Lincoln gave permission for a cemetery to be built on the property, including a burial vault on the estate’s former rose garden. The idea was that, should Lee ever return, he would “have to look at these graves and see the carnage that he had created,” according to his biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor. After the war, the Lees quietly looked into reclaiming Arlington but took no action before they died. In 1877 their oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, sued the federal government for confiscating Arlington illegally; the Supreme Court agreed and gave it back to him. But what could the Lee family do with an estate littered with corpses? George Lee sold it back to the government for $150,000. Over time, 250,000 soldiers would be buried in what is now Arlington National Cemetery.

I’m betting most of us have never known this whole story. When coupled with the general knowledge that Lincoln, like Jefferson and Madison and others, thought that freed slaves should be sent back to Africa, or, in Lincoln’s case, perhaps to a colony in South America funded by the federal government, it prompts some thought.

What is revenge and what is mercy, and how are they connected?

A view of Robert E. Lee’s statue being removed from public view in Charlottesville, VA in 2019. Photo by NBC News.


I have no tears for Robert E. Lee. His own diary entries show that he knew he was committing treason and would be punished. The fact that he did not try to regain his plantation shows, perhaps, that he accepted the punishment of confiscation. Also, I would imagine that a man who knew the full weight of treason and exactly how he led so many troops to slaughter by dastardly attacks could not face the prospect of looking at the graves of men who died as a consequence of his actions.

As to sending freed African Americans to another continent, one has only to think of the limits to empathy of even brave and intelligent men. Why did they never think to ask the people what they wanted? Why, if the government could fund a colony, did they not think of confiscating more plantations and redistributing the land to those who had built the plantations and worked them? Not even minimal reparation payments?

What this shows me is that the trouble we have with punishing treason may be our wish to wipe away the guilt so that we don’t have to punish people with whom we otherwise agree. Also, that our empathy may still lie with those who commit the act rather than with those who are its victims. Do we empathize with those whose feelings we can fathom rather than with those we see as fundamentally different from us, having survived almost unimaginable horrors?

This past week included Holocaust Remembrance Day. The German government paid reparations for Nazis confiscations and murders to many Jewish families who suffered. It took that same government several decades after the war to admit that Roma and Sinti were also targeted for genocide rather than being the ”asocials” the general society considered them to be, people who perhaps deserved what they got. Roma and Sinti still have not received reparations for Nazi acts during the war. Could it be that White Germans still cannot empathize with an Indic people whose history was impacted greatly by past and present acts of oppression?

I have no trouble with severely punishing those who committed violent acts on January 6, and giving punishments severe enough to cause second thoughts in those who “only” trespassed into the Capitol. Even though they had to have seen violent acts committed to give them entry, they weren’t caught participating in any. Maybe they were there for show, enjoying the drama. Maybe they thought their side would prevail and there would be no consequences. A good story to tell your kids on the porch some summer day—“I was there when the rebellion began.”

What about the officers and their families who suffered from the violence of January 6? Do they not deserve some compensation for the bravery that prevented the mob from overrunning our Capitol?

We trivialize treason and cruelty at our peril. We can see this in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the potential political power and prosperity of many freed slaves was wiped out for generations by Klan acts of barbarity that backed up the Jim Crow laws, and in continued hatred aimed at Black people. I can see it today in the casual acts of racism I witness often in my home state of South Carolina. A place that could be so beautiful, a paradise, but it won’t. At least, not for those who weren’t born into opportunity.

I believe in reparations for horrible systems that citizens allow to exist. I believe that treason should be punished as much because we don’t want future monuments to the perpetrators as because they threatened our safety and wellbeing. And I believe that mercy should go only to those who truly repent, the bulk of our empathy going to those who suffered unjustly.

Punishing traitors and making reparations often go hand in hand.

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4 Comments

  1. Linda

     /  February 1, 2022

    What a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I hope we as a society can revisit the reparations issue, and soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. I agree. I don’t understand those who don’t see the right of it. Rationalization is an iron curtain.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Have you read the Washington Post’s articles (There’s one today, February 16) about enslavers who served in Congress? It’s fascinating how the public is helping them identify both the enslavers and the enslaved persons. Today’s includes a wonderful audio file from a blues singer, Esther Prentiss Scott, who was descended from men enslaved by a Mississippi senator, and a great sidebar article on Rebecca Lattimore Feldner,t eh first woman to serve in the Senate (although for only a day; it was 1922), who also was an enslaver.

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  4. That’s February 15–Sorry!

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