The Confederate Flag at Washington and Lee


For the past few months, students at Washington and Lee University have been petitioning the University Administration to remove the Confederate Flags that are hung next to a statue of Robert E. Lee and also in Lee Chapel on the grounds of the University.  (After the Civil War, Robert E Lee became President of the University and after his tenure the name of the University was changed from Washington University to Washington and Lee.)

I fully understand the reason behind the petition to remove the flags but at the same time I feel that the flags should remain right where they are.  Institutions of Higher Education are supposed to be places where the leaders and thinkers of tomorrow are taught how to debate difficult issues and I do not think there is a more difficult and complex issue than slavery to be discussed.  Ignorance of our history can lead us down the same path.  We cannot gloss over or whitewash the history of our country, good or bad.

I recently engaged in a discussion about the founding of our nation and whether or not America was founded as a Christian Nation.  I hold to the premise that America was found on Judeo-Christian principles but that America was founded a place for people of all religions.  For that I was called a revisionist and chastised by fellow Christians for that thinking.  Well sometimes history needs to be revised as more information comes to light and sometimes that revision flies in the face of what we were taught and what we believe.

As I mentioned, universities need to be places were all sides of issues are debates and discussed not simply passed on information.  We have lost the ability to debate in this country and that is a shame.  The founding fathers debated the issues of Independence from Great Britain and some agreed and some did not, but they debated the issues with passion and listened to all sides of the issues.

I am not an African American nor do I come from a family that owned slaves but I believe that those flags need to stay right where they are as a constant reminder of what we, as a people, have gone through and what we still go through as a nation.  We cannot be blind to the past, no matter how upsetting it may be for if we turn a blind eye to the past we will be ignorant of the future.

Race relations in America have been, and probably always will be, very complex and history can teach us a lot about where we need to go in the future.  In order to chart a course forward was sometimes have to look back to see where we have come from.  The flag is a symbol of a dark period of our history but it is our history and we can never forget it.


  1. Fr. Preble,

    Thank you for your well thought out and compassionate article. I must correct you on a small point, that the students only numbered 7, and the method was not via petition, but by demands under threat of civil disobedience and unrest by a deadline of September 1st 2014.

    It is disingenuous of Washington and Lee University and the media to not give a full accounting as to why the flags were there to begin with. The flag display was created in 1930 as a “Memorial to General Robert E Lee” and originally it had 6 flags on each side of the chamber wherein the “Recumbent Lee” statue was, inside the Lee Chapel. This memorial survived thru 84 years and 2 contractual agreements (1930 and 1997) – only to have been illegally removed under duress (See Virginia Law 15.2-1812)

    Worship and religion was very important to Robert E Lee, and that is why he had the Chapel built. Honor was the main rule instituted at WLU under President Lee and remains today, although what the 7 demanded thru their actions and behaviors are very disrespectful and the whole sad affair by WLU is most dishonorable.

  2. Well said, Father! These flags serve as historical reminders where they are; they are not flown from atop buildings (to my knowledge) but are basically designated to places where they can be museum pieces (as, indeed, those flags should be).

  3. The flags are replicas of the original battle flags removed several years ago because of exposure to elements, much like with the flag that flew over FT McHenry when Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner. The originals are preserved now in the Confederate museum in Richmond, VA. The president of W&L stated that the flags are basically not authentic and therefore hold no historical significance and thus they have no business there. The Sons of Confederate Veterans representatives proposed a debate with W&L Administration, but behind closed doors W&L refused open discourse. If academics refuse to openly discuss issues, then where will our future leaders turn? This was a disgrace to the University, to the Lee family, to all those who look to history as our moral compass. To disgrace the memory of the Confederacy is also a disgrace to those who fought and died for the Union Armies. Right or wrong, both sides had deep convictions that their actions were justified. It was never an issue about slavery. It was about Constitutional Rights of States. Read again the Declaration of Independence. If a government no longer acts in the interest of the governed, then it is the governed’s sworn duty to abolish that government and form a new one which is of the people, by the people, and for the people. For if a government no longer abides by the rule of law, then we succumb to that of a tyranny and we are right back where we started, subjects of the English crown. Have we not learned anything in the last 248 years?

  4. keeping those flags incl. Confederate one does not remind us in an edifying way (causing remorse), but rather, it GLORIFIES all that stuff. A flag is a thing of honor, held up to honor, a call to consolidatirty with whatever it represents, and the Confederate flag represents the defunct Confederacy.

    It has no business there. Socially it represents a shameful mix of events and attitudes. Politically it glorifies an illegal rebellion.

  5. Touché Fr. Preble. The flag of the US is a flag of terrorists and hooligans who described themselves as patriots. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and company, they were the original rebels. But you are forgetting, the US flag has survived a 3rd war, the War of 1812, when the British crown tried unsuccessfully to bring us back in their fold. 🙂

Comments are closed.

error: Content is protected !!