Dispatches from the Potomac#23 | President Trump and American North/South History

Starting with this edition, essays will be from Yoichi Mineo Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation.

This is a translation of an article originally written in December 2017 for publication in the January 2018 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

The Charlottesville Incident

In August of last year, in the town of Charlottesville, Virginia, which is adjacent to Washington D.C, there was a clash between white supremacists who were trying to block the removal of a bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and an opposition group. During the clash, a female member of the opposition group was killed and many others were injured. At a press conference several days after the incident, President Trump created controversy by condemning not only the white supremacists but also the opposition group.

Many of these statues, that the President called the “history and culture (of the South) ” at that same controversial press conference, were actually built after the Civil War. Many were erected during the 1910s and 20s, when the “Jim Crow” laws, which were designed to enforce racial segregation, were established; many were also built in the era of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s when the Jim Crow laws were abolished. This is the reason for many of the theories stating that the bronze statues are not actually symbols of southern culture, but were in fact built for the purpose of legitimizing white supremacy and suppressing black people. Meanwhile, there are still those in the southern states who subscribe to a different theory; they do not accept the defeat of the south in the Civil War, and adhere to the concept of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” (the idea that the Confederate States fought an honorable battle to preserve their independence, but were defeated only because the North had greater resources and more soldiers). Some people argue that from that viewpoint, the statues are images which symbolize southern history and should therefore not be removed.

The movement to remove the bronze statues began spreading as a result of shootings by white supremacist youths which claimed the lives of nine black people in South Carolina in 2015. The Charlottesville Incident has also spurred this movement.

I visited Charlottesville three months after the incident. The bronze statue is in a small park in a quiet residential area, where is it hard to imagine such an incident occurring. Since the clash in August, the city has decided to cover the bronze statue with a black plastic sheet. The actual removal of the statue remains blocked by a court injunction

The Lees and the Trumps

The main figure of the statue, General Robert E. Lee, was from a venerable family. The founder of the American Lee family was Richard Lee, who emigrated from England in the first half of the 17th century. At the time of his death he was one of Virginia's leading investors. The Lee family produced many prominent members, including the 12th President of the US, Zachary Taylor. General Lee’s father, Henry Lee III, served as a Congressional Representative and also as the Governor of Virginia. General Lee's wife, Mary Custis, was the great-granddaughter of the first US President, George Washington.

The couple lived in a house (Arlington House) that was inherited by Mary Custis. Today, it stands in the Arlington cemetery which is located on the outskirts of Washington D.C. Of course, it was not originally built in the middle of a graveyard. Immediately after the start of the Civil War, the family evacuated, and the Union Army occupied the vast house and its grounds. It was later confiscated on the pretext of unpaid taxes; and then, to ensure that the Lee family could not return, the gardens were cleared, and turned into a cemetery for soldiers killed in the war. It is said that when Mary Custis returned and saw the changes made to the mansion after the war, she was rendered speechless with shock and left almost immediately.

On the other hand we have Friedrich Trump who was the grandfather of current US President Donald Trump (the same Donald Trump who said that the statue of General Lee is a part of Southern history). Friedrich was 17 when he emigrated from Germany to the US in 1885, 20 years after the end of the American Civil War. He enjoyed great success running restaurants and hotels during the mining boom in the state of Washington in the northwest of the US, and used the money to start a real estate business in New York. Friedrich’s wife and oldest son, Fred Trump, inherited the business and expanded it, building the fortunes of the current Trump family. Fred’s second son, Donald, the third generation since the original Trump came to the US, has risen to the position of president of the country.

Arlington House 150 Years Later

I recently visited Arlington House for the first time in 18 years. People come to visit Arlington Cemetery from early in the morning, but there were very few people around the Arlington House. The building was also being restored and the inside was cluttered. It reminded me of when I first came to the US and mentioned that I planned to visit Arlington Cemetery. An American friend living in Virginia said, with a serious face, “The Union army harassed General Lee, and they surrounded his home with a graveyard.” More than 150 years have passed since the Civil War ended in 1865. Even so, it may take a little more time for the division between the North and South brought on by the Civil War to disappear completely.