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Can Someone Explain How Robert E. Lee Became An American Icon?

Thomas J. Whalen: A proliferation of books about the Civil War conveniently gloss over the fact that the Confederate general was a domestic terrorist who advocated the enslavement of millions. In this photo, Robert E. Lee poses in his uniform during the American Civil War, 1861-65. (AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Thomas J. Whalen: A proliferation of books about the Civil War conveniently gloss over the fact that the Confederate general was a domestic terrorist who advocated the enslavement of millions. In this photo, Robert E. Lee poses in his uniform during the American Civil War, 1861-65. (AP)

As we mark the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s passing this month, someone needs to explain why so many people in this country still celebrate, dare I say, even venerate the memory of his greatest enemy.

No, I’m not talking about George McClellan, the egotistical — if surprisingly timid — Union general who squandered several battlefield opportunities to crush the Confederacy in the early stages of the American Civil War. The “Little Napoleon” once uncharitably compared Lincoln to “a well meaning baboon” and unsuccessfully ran against him as the Democratic nominee in the 1864 presidential election.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Lee, who turned down an offer by Lincoln to command the Union army before the actual shooting started, was by definition a traitor and a terrorist.

I am referring instead to Robert E. Lee, the erstwhile commander of the Army of Northern Virginia around whom a cottage industry of flattering biographies, films and television documentaries have arisen in recent years. “He sought, always, to do his duty, to guide others into doing the same, and to submit humbly to God’s will,” writes Michael Korda in his 2014 critically acclaimed "Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee."

It doesn’t seem to matter that Lee, who turned down an offer by Lincoln to command the Union army before the actual shooting started, was by definition a traitor and a terrorist. Indeed, he is responsible for more American deaths than any foreign or domestic enemy in our entire collective past, including Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden combined. A little too harsh an assessment, do you think? Not really when all the relevant facts are examined.

Despite having sworn an oath of allegiance to defend our nation and Constitution against all threats, Lee unceremoniously decided to resign his commission from the U.S. Army in 1861. He then proceeded to take up arms with the Confederacy, a loose collection of rebellious Southern states who were committed to preserving the enslavement of millions of African-Americans.

Of slavery, Lee was far from the progressive racial thinker many of his apologists have painted him to be. While acknowledging the barbaric practice was “a moral & political evil” destined to be eradicated, Lee, an unapologetic white supremacist, was in no great hurry to expedite that day of reckoning. After all, his family owned several slaves and he had a sizable financial stake in maintaining the “peculiar institution.” Nor was he averse to having slaves whipped for attempting to run away from his cruel and often dehumanizing treatment of them. “The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare  & lead them to better things,” he wrote his wife in 1856.

Lee attempted to lead his Confederate army to “better things” by waging a bloody and ultimately doomed insurgency against the federal government. Hundreds of thousands on both sides died as a result, including an astonishing 51,000 casualties during the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Still, sympathetic biographers dismiss such casualty figures as mere inconvenient truths. To them all that matters is that Lee was a military genius and a man of believed deep religious and moral conviction. As the noted historian Jay Winik has written, Lee “was a testament to sweet humor and loyalty and duty and the ultimate virtue of action.”

Yet how morally upstanding can someone truly be, insisting as Lee did in the final desultory days of the war in 1865, that his bedraggled and starving army fight on in the face of insurmountable military odds. “We have yet too many bold men to think of laying down our arms,” Lee claimed. “The enemy do not fight with our spirit, while our boys still do.”

You’d expect such dogged fanaticism from modern day members of ISIS, not from a supposedly sainted figure like Lee. The lives of his own soldiers evidently mattered less to him than his own degenerate belief in Confederate honor. “I would rather die a thousand deaths [than surrender],” he candidly confessed.

The lives of his own soldiers evidently mattered less to him than his own degenerate belief in Confederate honor.

Alas, Lee was never held accountable for these regrettable command judgments after the war. Thanks to the magnanimous peace terms offered by the victorious Union general and future U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant, he was allowed to reenter civilian life and become president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University of Virginia. There, he spent his remaining days defending the “Lost Cause” and decrying legislative efforts to give blacks the right to vote. “My own opinion is that, at this time, they cannot vote intelligently,” he told a federal congressional committee in 1866.

In the end, the great historian and man of letters Henry Adams may have come closest to the truth when he observed the following about the defeated Confederate icon: “I think that Lee should have been hanged … it is always the good men who do the most harm in the world.”

He certainly got the first part right.

Related:

Thomas J. Whalen Cognoscenti contributor
Thomas J. Whalen is an associate professor of social science at Boston University, and author of "Kennedy versus Lodge: The 1952 Massachusetts Senate Race."

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