I inherited very little from my deceased father besides a love of newspapers and a simmering distrust of authority.
But there are three sentimental items that I do hang onto: an American flag that draped his coffin (Dad was a Korean War combat veteran); an old wooden icebox from his childhood home in Maury County, Tennessee; and a small tattered book, a family heirloom that I keep locked away in a safe-deposit box at the bank.
The book was known in our family as the "Lee Book." It wasn't a book at all, really, but more like a thick pamphlet containing an extended Lee family tree. By the time I was old enough to be allowed to touch and turn the pages of the Lee Book, it had become fragile. The pages were off-white, and the binding had started to pull apart. In fact, someone had wrapped it in aluminum foil like a prized pork chop.
It was considered a family treasure because it established my father's family's blood relationship to the Civil War general Robert E. Lee — albeit as a distant cousin. As a kid, I remember feeling like it was a sacred text that somehow connected our family to Southern royalty.
I remember first seeing the Lee Book in the home of a great-aunt and great-uncle. My great-uncle had fought in World War I, so he must have been born around the turn of the last century and was really only one generation removed from the Civil War. All things related to the War Between the States were much more vivid to folks of my great uncle's generation. It would be like Baby Boomers today talking about World War II and Korea and feeling personally invested in the aftermath.
To my forebears of Scots Irish descent who populated a part of Middle Tennessee, the Civil War period was a clear and tangible time that could be revived in the family letters and Bibles of the 19th century. Some fought in the war. Some may have even owned slaves.
As a child, to the extent I thought about this kinship to Gen. Robert E. Lee, I thought of it as a source of notoriety. As a kid, I remember boasting about it to friends. But most of them didn't believe me or, more likely, simply didn't care.
I've tried telling the Lee story to our two sons but never got more than a noncommittal, "Hmm," as a response. "I don't know much about the Silver War," I remember our older son telling me dismissively when he was about 10 years old.
Well, I don't know much about the Silver War either. Despite my youthful interest in the Lee connection, I've never been much of a consumer of Civil War history. I've read some about Gen. Lee, of course, but not enough to have a completely informed opinion about his core morality. At the end of a day, my overall opinion about Lee could fit on the back of a business card: He was a complicated man on the wrong side of a historic war.
My opinion abut the Civil War is also succinct: Slavery was an abomination. War is awful, but sometimes necessary. My stomach convulses at the thought of 35,000 casualties in 72 hours in the Battle of Chickamauga. I also get sick thinking about the horrors of centuries of slave trade.
Lately, people seem to be focusing on taking down Civil War statues and renaming military bases in hopes such actions will right old wrongs. This impulse will run its course, I imagine, and history with judge its merits.
I've always thought building statues is always risky business — please see the Ten Commandments advisory on idolatry. Humans were not meant to be cast in bronze. On the other hand, some symbols are worth preserving. I would put the Christian cross and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the worthy category.
I guess this is a moment in time that we are all required to have a clear, unambiguous opinion of the Old South. Under these rules, I have two choices on how to approach my Lee family lineage: shame or pride.
I choose neither.
There is a rule of writing that says: show, don't tell. When it comes to human behavior, the corollary is "actions speak louder that words."
My father, who hung a picture of Robert E. Lee in his home, was also fiercely anti-war and pro civil rights. Our son, who didn't know much about the "Silver War," has volunteered to be an unpaid dishwasher at a Christian summer camp serving disadvantaged kids during a pandemic.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that people should "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Neither should a person be judged — or praised — for a famous cousin, two centuries removed.
Email Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.