Richard Cohen penned a provocative piece in the Washington Post this week asking us to get over Robert E. Lee already. He’s “swaddled in myth, kitsch and racism,” Cohen writes; a good general fighting for an evil cause.* The historian Brooks D. Simpson has a typically thoughtful reaction to the essay, tying in much of the week’s Civil War–related Internet chatter, but I just want to call your attention to this, from Cohen:
But in that exotic place called the antebellum South, there were plenty of people who recognized the evil of slavery or, if nothing else, the folly of secession. Lee was not one of them.
No, but Moncure Daniel Conway was. From our entry:
Born into a prominent Virginia slaveholding family, he nevertheless became an outspoken critic of the South’s “peculiar institution,” anguishing over how to reconcile his background with his antislavery convictions in his younger years. He first openly allied himself with abolitionists in July 1854 in the wake of the capture in Boston, Massachusetts, of fugitive slave Anthony Burns, whom Conway claimed to have known in Virginia. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Conway accompanied thirty-one of his father’s slaves, all of whom had escaped to Washington, D.C., on a harrowing train ride to freedom in southwestern Ohio. There he established what came to be known as the Conway Colony; many African Americans continue to live in the area and identify their ancestors as Virginia slaves.
He was, the historian John d’Entremont tells us, “the most thoroughgoing white male radical produced by the antebellum South.” And he is worthy of your attention. His is a remarkable story.
* Our entry on Lee in popular memory is a work-in-progress.
IMAGE: Moncure D. Conway, Eustace Conway, Moncure Daniel Conway: Addresses and Reprints, 1850–1907, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909, ii.