Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 
Washington and Lee University has desecrated Robert E. Lee’s grave, but can remedy its error by restoring the Confederate battle flags and separating the chapel from university politics, the commander of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans said.
The Lexington-based Stonewall Brigade plans Saturday to battle the removal of replica flags from Lee Chapel with a downtown flag vigil starting at noon. That will be followed by an open forum at 4 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Express to discuss how to respond to what it terms "grave robbery." "We feel that what they did is a desecration of Robert E. Lee’s memorial and gravesite," said commander Brandon Dorsey. "It is borderline illegal, and the flags should be returned. No military servicemen should have the flags for which they fought removed from their gravesite."

W&L declined to respond to the allegations. "We don’t wish to get into any back-and-forth; so consistent with our position all along, we are allowing President [Kenneth] Ruscio’s detailed statements to speak for themselves," said Brian Eckert, executive director of communications.
Ruscio earlier this month issued a lengthy statement explaining that the replica flags were not presented in an educational manner, which would be in keeping with the university’s mission, and has fielded some questions in an online response. The removal was in response to one of the concerns raised by a group of W&L law school students who said the flags glorified the Confederacy and were offensive and hurtful to minority students.

In explaining his decision, Ruscio wrote, "The reproductions are not genuinely historic, nor are they displayed with any information or background about what they are. The absence of such explanation allows those who either ‘oppose’ or ‘support’ them to assert their own subjective and frequently incorrect interpretations."

Instead, original flags on loan from the American Civil War Museum in Richmond will be displayed on a rotating basis in the Lee Chapel Museum.

Dorsey called Ruscio’s explanation "bogus," and said the university in accepting the memorial had an obligation to preserve it as intended."By their own admission, Robert E. Lee does not belong exclusively to them. His legacy goes beyond the doors and windows of Washington and Lee," Dorsey said.

Lee became president of then Washington College following the Civil War. At his request, the university began construction in 1867 on what would come to be called Lee Chapel. His office was housed on the lower level, and when he died in 1870, his body was buried beneath the chapel and his office mostly preserved.

The following year, the Virginia legislature incorporated The Lee Memorial Association to build a monument to his memory. After the school changed its named to Washington and Lee University, the association worked with the university to design the monument. A mausoleum was attached to the chapel "where his remains should be deposited in a vault, to be surmounted by a recumbent figure in marble, representing our great chieftain at rest — it being part of the plan to provide vaults also in the same Mausoleum for the immediate members of his family," former Gen. Jubal Early said during the June 28, 1883 inauguration of the mausoleum.

Dorsey said that in removing the battle flags, Washington and Lee may have violated state law by desecrating a memorial for a war veteran. He called for the flags to be returned. W&L maintains that the reproductions were hung near The Recumbent Lee statue that people often mistake for his tomb. The statue depicts Lee sleeping on a battlefield. His remains are buried in a crypt on the lower level of the chapel, along with his family. And his horse, Traveller, is buried outside.

Dorsey maintains, "At this point, the best scenario is for Washington & Lee to place it [the memorial] in a separate nonprofit entity and make the chapel separate." That way, he said, the university would no longer be burdened with dealing with Lee Chapel and any embarrassment it causes students.
"Our chief concern is primarily seeing that Robert E. Lee’s gravesite and memorial are maintained in the manner they were originally conceived to be," Dorsey said, adding the politics of donors, faculty and students should not influence the memorial.

The Stonewall Brigade announced its plans for Saturday’s rally last week in an advertisement in the News-Gazette. Dorsey said he anticipates W&L alumni will come but that the administration was not invited nor expected. He said his group was rebuked in the spring when it contacted the university after the law students’ demands were made public.

"We’re so diametrically opposed. We don’t think there is any hope for dialogues," he said. "We wanted the university to allow public debate. We wanted historical experts to talk about the relevance of Lee in this era. It was a flat rejection."

The Stonewall Brigade earlier this year surrendered its legal challenge against Lexington when it was unable to afford to continue an appeal of the city’s ban on the flying of nongovernmental flags from its poles. Members can and do carry the flag on city streets, primarily during the celebration of      Lee-Jackson Day.

At least one flag-bearing vigilante has been noted since Ruscio’s announcement. "I have observed a man carrying a large Confederate flag on the public sidewalks adjacent to campus. Other university employees tell me he has simply greeted passersby. The Office of Admission tells me that no one has been following tours on campus," Eckert said.

Ruscio’s statement has drawn a number of letters to the editors, op-eds and online comments in The Roanoke Times and in other newspapers, and to Eckert’s office. Ruscio, in his earlier statement, anticipated an on going dialogue concerning the university and its history and relationship to African-Americans.

Dorsey said W&L has rebuffed his group’s voice.