The greatest and most undeserved tragedy to befall the commander is taking place now, more than 140 years after his death.
Robert E. Lee’s rejection of the offer to lead the Federal Army at the beginning of the American Civil War was a defining moment within a pivotal point in American history. Over the next four years, Lee commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and cemented his legacy as one of the most daring and capable military leaders the nation has since seen. Almost always outnumbered, Lee dazzled his opponents and inspired his troops, defeating and often humiliating several Union generals in the defense of Richmond before finally surrendering to future U.S. president Ulysses Grant after a year-long campaign of attrition. Lee’s legacy as the chivalrous Southern knight lasted decades after his death.
“[He was] a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward.” ~ Post-war Senator from Georgia, Benjamin Hill
Lee had also gained respect in the North and abroad; he was considered an American hero for decades after the war. The general is something of a tragic hero, though, a man who went to battle reluctantly and fought with great skill, but ultimately succumbed to overwhelming manpower. The greatest and most undeserved tragedy to befall the commander, however, is taking place now, more than 140 years after his death.
A new campaign has formed against General Lee in the form of a revisionist wrath. Earlier this year, the city of New Orleans removed a statue of Lee in front of a cheering crowd. A similar effort has been made in Richmond, a city Lee spent years defending. Even students at Washington and Lee University, the institution over which Lee presided and which bears his name, have urged their administration to denounce Lee for “racist and dishonorable conduct.” New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landeau, justified the revisionist effort, saying that the historical markers “celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and ignoring the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these monuments were part of that terrorism as much as burning a cross on someone’s lawn.” Mayor Landeau can no doubt sleep soundly comforted by his heroic virtue, which is just odious enough to drown out his total ignorance of Robert E. Lee’s legacy.
Unfortunately, stooges like Landeau may not be the most sinister threat facing Lee’s legacy, as it seems his most vocal supporters are doing considerably more damage. The Ku Klux Klan and like-minded hate groups seem to be the only ones defending these historical landmarks. It is truly tragic to see a reverent man like Robert E. Lee defended and represented by the KKK, as their presence does nothing but give revisionist media false ammunition against Lee and the heroic actions that immortalize him. Mayor Landeau, similar revisionists, and white supremacists alike would do well to educate themselves on General Lee.
The most frequent and false derision of Lee’s life would likely be his affiliation with and support of slavery. However, so much as a glance into Lee’s life before and during the war reveal that he was not actually in favor of slavery, white supremacy or even secession. In a pre-war letter, Lee mused, “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” Before the war began, Lee’s stance on slavery was idle. While he expressed his distaste for slavery and occasionally praised abolitionist efforts to phase it out, he concurrently saw slavery as an institution permitted by God, to be phased out by his grace in due time. During the war, Lee’s position shifted more to the abolitionist line of thought. He supported and funded efforts by his wife, Mary Custis’s efforts to liberate and secretly (indeed, illegally) educate slaves owned by her father at Lee’s Arlington plantation. Later in the war, he petitioned the Confederate government to allow slaves to volunteer for service with emancipation as a reward (much like the British army during the Revolutionary War). Despite Mayor Landeau and the Klan’s efforts to persuade the public otherwise, history shows with relative clarity that preserving slavery was not in Robert E. Lee’s interest when he made the decision to fight for the South.
To understand his true reasoning, one must first understand national attitudes during the antebellum period. Citizens identified themselves much more with their respective states than with the nation, partially due to the steep divide between the urbanized, industrial North and the sprawled, agricultural South. Virginia’s secession imminent, Lee’s choice to defend his home state became easy to understand, however difficult it may have been. Even though Lee was openly opposed to secession, he was even more opposed to President Lincoln’s decision to forcefully bring the new Confederacy to heel. However, the revisionist camp constantly and intentionally overlooks factors, such as social values, that were obviously quite different 150 years ago. The same goes for the average Confederate foot soldier, commonly portrayed in courthouse monuments throughout the South. The rank and file of the Confederate army did not fight to preserve an institution that benefited the elite, they fought to defend their homes from invaders, and many of their worst fears materialized when U.S. soldiers sacked towns and killed innocents throughout the South.
The U.S. war effort should not be unfairly portrayed as unnecessarily violent and barbaric, as the fog of war, especially a total war of attrition, always condemns some civilians to the crosshairs. This effort also resulted in the emancipation of an entire race of Americans and led to advanced prosperity the likes of which the nation had not seen. The so-called “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” mindset—one that irresponsibly diminishes slavery as a principle cause for secession—should also not be promoted. However, revisionists who would like to see all traces of heroism and honor from the old South erased on the altar of social justice and misplaced virtue, and have history’s defenders painted as a violent manifestation of racism, should be checked. The groups whose voices we now need are historical societies: the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Society of Civil War Historians, among others. The legacy of Robert E. Lee requires people who understand why history should be accurately remembered and justly celebrated, but also understand that the Civil War has been over for more than 150 years, and that fighting to preserve some antiquated society is ultimately misguided.
Civil War historian and blogger Kevin Levin says the debate about the Civil War’s causes has always been as much about contemporary politics and power as it has been about history. He said this after Republican congressman Tommy Benton was removed from two committees after distributing an article that challenged the belief that the war was caused by slavery. While the majority of historians agree that slavery was at the root of the cause for war, it seems that challenging the particulars of this belief is now some form of wrong-think. Loosely quoting George Orwell, Levin says, “All of this is about how we think about history. Who controls history also controls the present. It’s about who we are today and who gets to control what.” While the Lost Cause narrative tends to be willfully ignorant of slavery’s effect at times, it would be folly to ignore the fact that many of the ideas surrounding it resonate with many southerners who don’t want their ancestors demonized by a watered-down version of history.
The American Civil War was far more complicated than an ethical and emancipating crusade against a group of belligerent, racist traitors. In a great many ways, the only difference between Lee’s men and the rebels of the American Revolution is that the former lost, and history is always written by the winner. In fact, the Civil War is not even technically a civil war (two or more factions fighting for control of one government), but again, the victors were understandably uneasy about calling it a war of subjugation or a failed attempt at revolution. Even a basic study of history serves to demolish Mayor Landeau’s accusation that a statue of Robert E. Lee stood for enslavement and terror. The same basic study also wrecks the Klan’s narrative that Lee was some sort of flag bearer of white supremacy. The mayor is right in saying that the Confederacy was not sanitized, but its greatest general was. General Lee stayed strong in his convictions and held duty close to his heart until the day he died, and he deserves better than to have the scoundrels of modern America drag his name through the mud. We can learn from Lee’s character, but only if we endeavor to present it clearly.
—J. Thomas Perdue is Associate Editor at The Arch Conservative.