Guelzo on Robert E. Lee: “To Err on the Side of Absorbing Society’s Defaulters”

Guelzo on Robert E. Lee: “To Err on the Side of Absorbing Society’s Defaulters”

Allen C. Guel­zo, Robert E. Lee: A Life (New York: Knopf, 2021), 608 pages, illus., $35, Kin­dle $15.99. First pub­lished in The Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor, 9 Novem­ber 2021. Please con­sid­er sub­scrib­ing (if you don’t already), to this ad-free web­site. You will receive reg­u­lar notices of new arti­cles as pub­lished. Just fill in your email in the right-hand pan­el under “sub­scribe & fol­low.” Your email address is giv­en to no one and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

“Who’s that man on the horse?”…

Guelzo…I asked my father at a young age. “That’s Lee—he led a South­ern army in the Civ­il War.” He gave me a book I still have, Illus­trat­ed Minute Biogra­phies, by William DeWitt. Pub­lished 1953, it is utter­ly non-judg­men­tal. Oppo­site the page on Lee (“Leader of a Lost Cause”) is a page on Lenin (“Father of the Russ­ian Revolution.”)

Among DeWitt’s 150 per­son­al­i­ties, Lee fas­ci­nat­ed. I’ve always had a soft spot for under­dogs. The moral injus­tice which the Civ­il War end­ed didn’t ini­tial­ly reg­is­ter. Nor did the enor­mi­ty of Lee’s deci­sion over which side to sup­port. Civ­il War themes were pop­u­lar. We kids wore repli­ca Yan­kee and rebel soldier’s caps, not real­ly know­ing much about why they fought.

But the New York City pub­lic school sys­tem taught seri­ous his­to­ry in those days, and soon cor­rect­ed our igno­rance. Our teach­ers intro­duced us to the great wrongs of slav­ery and seces­sion. They showed us the genius of Lin­coln; the skill of Grant; the valiant, bril­liant resis­tance of Lee.

As a child of that time I was sad­dened over the recent rush to pull down memo­ri­als to him—“less about under­stand­ing the past than a con­test to divide us,” as Dan McLaugh­lin wrote. A bet­ter response is to erect more stat­ues, as Hills­dale Col­lege did for Fred­er­ick Dou­glass—reply­ing to his­to­ry with more history.

Allen Guelzo’s new Lee biog­ra­phy is unmatched as an exam­ple of his­to­ry taught with bal­ance and under­stand­ing, as it was when I went to school. George Will thinks its tim­ing couldn’t be bet­ter: “In today’s bliz­zard of facile, over­heat­ed, and grand­stand­ing judg­ments about the past, this unsen­ti­men­tal biog­ra­phy illus­trates the intel­lec­tu­al respon­si­bil­i­ty that the present owes to the past.”

Woke villain

Of course the first ques­tion one asks is: Why Lee? Espe­cial­ly now, when he’s a lead­ing vil­lain of the Woke Move­ment? Dr. Guel­zo explained in an illu­mi­nat­ing pod­cast with for­mer Speak­er Newt Gin­grich. He actu­al­ly began in 2014, before the advent of nation­al dis­tem­per. Fired up, he had just pub­lished a best-sell­er on Gettysburg.

He focused on Lee because, com­pared to giants like Lin­coln, Grant and Sher­man, he was rel­a­tive­ly under­writ­ten. True, there were ear­ly hagiogra­phies, and a Pulitzer-win­ning four vol­umes by Dou­glas Southall Free­man in the 1930s. But oth­er­wise the field was rel­a­tive­ly open.

Admit­ted­ly, it’s a chal­lenge to write about some­one many con­sid­er a trai­tor. Guel­zo, a “north­ern Yan­kee,” defines the job as “dif­fi­cult biog­ra­phy, like writ­ing about Neville Cham­ber­lain.” That is part of the fas­ci­na­tion of his book—amplified by his skill in expos­ing Lee’s true char­ac­ter, the great impuls­es that drove him, and the deci­sions which placed him athwart the nation he loved and had sworn to pro­tect and defend.

Truant Virginian

It takes 200 pages to get to that point, and the build-up is any­thing but dull. Lee last saw his father at the age of six. Washington’s famous cav­al­ry gen­er­al, Light-Horse Har­ry Lee, one­time Vir­ginia gov­er­nor, went through sev­er­al for­tunes and ruined him­self, spend­ing his last years in the West Indies. That left Robert with two pow­er­ful com­pul­sions: per­fec­tion, to make up for his father’s short­com­ings; and secu­ri­ty, which his father’s profli­ga­cy had denied him.

Only in his last five years, as the unlike­ly pres­i­dent of a small col­lege in Lex­ing­ton, did Lee achieve those goals; remark­ably, he was as effec­tive a fundrais­er as a mil­i­tary strate­gist. He raised what became Wash­ing­ton and Lee Uni­ver­si­ty from bank­rupt­cy to prominence.

Lee com­mand­ed no troops in the field until he served under Win­field Scott in the Mex­i­can War (1846-48). He was edu­cat­ed at West Point, America’s pre­mier engi­neer­ing school before the Civ­il War. He returned lat­er as super­in­ten­dent (1852-55), hat­ing every minute of it, for he despised paper­work and inter­fer­ing politicians.

The work he most enjoyed was build­ing things: Savannah’s Fort Pulas­ki and improve­ments at oth­er Army instal­la­tions. In 1839 he changed the course of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er and rebuilt the St. Louis waterfront.

Iron­i­cal­ly, between West Point and Brooklyn’s Fort Hamil­ton, Lee spent more ear­ly adult years in New York than in Vir­ginia. Arling­ton House in Alexan­dria Coun­ty, the Lee home for 30 years, was part of the Dis­trict of Colum­bia until 1846, and Lee nev­er even owned it. Yet it was Vir­ginia which com­mand­ed his loy­al­ty in 1861.

The hinge of fate

Lee’s fate­ful deci­sions were three­fold. In Feb­ru­ary 1861, sev­en states seced­ed to form the Con­fed­er­a­cy. On 18 April Lee turned down Lincoln’s offer to com­mand the Union Army. “If I owned the four mil­lions of slaves in the South,” Lee exclaimed, “I would sac­ri­fice them all to the Union: but how can I draw my sword upon Vir­ginia, my native State?”

Scott and Lin­coln assured him there was no chance of this, but the next day Vir­ginia seced­ed and joined the Con­fed­er­a­cy. Tear­ful­ly Scott begged: “For God’s sake, don’t resign.” “I am com­pelled to,” Lee cried. “I can’t con­sult my feel­ings in this matter.”

“There is no glimpse of Lee think­ing his way through the con­tra­dic­tion slav­ery posed to the Amer­i­can found­ing or the nat­ur­al rights of the enslaved,” Guel­zo writes. Though he freed Arlington’s slaves, to Lee they were “per­son­al­ly invis­i­ble, despite their pres­ence all around.” Late in the war, he favored offer­ing free­dom to slaves who would fight with his army, and some did. The reac­tion of the army was “at best ambivalent.”

Lee’s think­ing began with fam­i­ly: All his chil­dren pos­sessed lay in Vir­ginia. “They will be ruined if they do not go with their State. I can­not raise my hand against my chil­dren.” If he had, the state mili­tia might have seized Arling­ton (in the event, the Union did). But remain­ing neu­tral would have made him a trai­tor in the eyes of both sides. So Lee could only hope that Vir­ginia would not secede. “Save in her defense there will be one sol­dier less in the world than now.”

Save in her defense…. A day lat­er found Lee in Rich­mond, where he hoped to medi­ate a peace­ful set­tle­ment. There was none, and on 22 April he placed him­self “at the ser­vice of my native state.”

Strategist and tactician

“The Stone Bridges,” Bat­tle of Anti­etam, 17 Sep­tem­ber 1862. (Paint­ing by B. McClel­lan, Library of Con­gress, pub­lic domain)

The accounts of Lee’s cam­paigns are brisk and rev­e­la­to­ry with­out dun­ning us with detail. (Unfor­tu­nate­ly, detail is some­times lack­ing in the accom­pa­ny­ing maps.) Twice tak­ing the war to Union ter­ri­to­ry was the right strat­e­gy, Guel­zo says.

We see the agate points at which, had things gone oth­er­wise, Lee might have forced an armistice. Guel­zo dis­counts the rumor that Lee and McClel­lan, nei­ther defeat­ed after Anti­etam, con­sid­ered march­ing joint­ly on Wash­ing­ton, con­fronting Lin­coln and com­pelling a settlement.

McClel­lan didn’t have that much imag­i­na­tion. He failed to press Lee at Anti­etam, as Lee had antic­i­pat­ed. “Some day,” Lee cracked, they’re going to have a gen­er­al I don’t under­stand.” (Some day they did.)

Lee was over­ly roman­ti­cized after the war, but con­trary to recent crit­i­cisms, we see an auda­cious strate­gist whose attacks when he was expect­ed to retreat won bat­tle after bat­tle. Tac­tics he usu­al­ly left to sub­or­di­nates, who were not always of the first cal­iber. When they were, the results were astonishing.

Nor­man Schwarzkopf, says the author, over­whelmed Sad­dam Hussein’s Repub­li­can Guard in the 1991 Gulf War with the same sweep­ing flank­ing move­ment of Chan­cel­lorsville, where Lee allowed Stonewall Jack­son to attack with his whole corps, risk­ing everything—and ulti­mate­ly los­ing Jack­son himself.

Even at Get­tys­burg, Guel­zo sug­gests, Lee’s strat­e­gy on day three was not all wrong. Union Gen­er­al Meade, broad­ly beat­en the first two days, was actu­al­ly prepar­ing to retreat when George Pick­ett charged Ceme­tery Ridge. The rebels failed through the val­or of Union troops who, though bad­ly mauled ear­li­er were deter­mined not to yield. Pick­ett was asked lat­er why he failed. “The Yan­kees fought,” he drawled.

Was Lee a traitor?

At Hamp­ton Roads in Jan­u­ary 1865, Lin­coln met with Con­fed­er­ate plenipo­ten­tiaries inquir­ing about an armistice. There would be none, he declared, short of reestab­lish­ing “our one com­mon coun­try” and abol­ish­ing slav­ery. One asked whether that meant “we of the South have com­mit­ted trea­son.” Lin­coln replied, “You have stat­ed the propo­si­tion bet­ter than I did.”

Dr. Guel­zo is thought­ful on this ques­tion as applied to Lee. He meets the con­sti­tu­tion­al def­i­n­i­tion: “levy­ing war against [the Unit­ed States] or in adher­ing to their ene­mies, giv­ing them aid and com­fort.” At the same time the author cites seri­ous con­sti­tu­tion­al obsta­cles to con­vict­ing Lee (he was indict­ed, but nev­er tried).

First, Grant had paroled Lee and his top offi­cers at Appo­mat­tox, and a paroled pris­on­er-of-war can­not be clas­si­fied legal­ly as a trai­tor. Even Lin­coln insist­ed that the Con­fed­er­a­cy had no stand­ing as a nation. It was an ene­my, but not a for­eign ene­my. America’s great­est con­vul­sion was a fam­i­ly affair—a war not only between states, but between house­holds, kins­men, brethren.

Con­scious of his parole, Lee gave no encour­age­ment to his indic­tors. He dis­cour­aged Jubal Ear­ly from a guer­ril­la move­ment which would “pro­long bit­ter feel­ing and post­pone the peri­od when rea­son and char­i­ty may resume their sway.” He opposed a mon­u­ment to Con­fed­er­ate war dead, which “would have the effect of retard­ing, instead of accel­er­at­ing,” peace­ful recovery.

Well, Dr. Guel­zo says, he didn’t say that mon­u­ment might not be deserved; and he took “no pos­i­tive steps to coop­er­ate with Recon­struc­tion.” Giv­en Lee’s devo­tion to his troops, for him to say no mon­u­ment was deserved was incon­ceiv­able. And his last five years at Wash­ing­ton Col­lege were recon­struc­tive. He nev­er spoke at die-hard ral­lies, or gave encour­age­ment to bit­ter-enders. But per­haps doing noth­ing is not enough.

“Absorbing society’s defaulters”

The nation-state with all its faults, Guel­zo con­cludes, pro­vides “a frail but work­able insur­ance against the kinds of inces­sant dynas­tic, eth­nic and reli­gious war­fare that used to be the com­mon lot of the human race…. To wave away trea­son as a crime is to put in jeop­ardy many of the ben­e­fits the nation-state has conferred.”

That is a valid obser­va­tion, but the author con­tin­ues: “…per­haps the reluc­tance to pin [trea­son on Lee] is a token of an instinct, run­ning back to the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Con­ven­tion, to err on the side of absorb­ing society’s default­ers, rather than arch­ing them to the scaf­fold.” He quotes the abo­li­tion­ist Wen­dell Phillips: “We can­not cov­er the con­ti­nent with gib­bets. We can­not sick­en the 19th cen­tu­ry with such a sight.”

No, or the 21st cen­tu­ry likewise.

Most of Lee’s class owned slaves, yet he told Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis that slav­ery was a curse that must go. But he didn’t think about when and how—nor did quite a few peo­ple, North and South. A cen­tu­ry hence, if there are still his­to­ri­ans, will they mar­vel over some of our slip­shod think­ing today?

Mod­ern scolds may be out­raged that Allen Guel­zo has writ­ten this majes­tic biog­ra­phy. He will be called names for his trou­ble. But Dr. Guel­zo quotes the lit­er­ary crit­ic John Gard­ner: “No true com­pas­sion with­out will, no true will with­out com­pas­sion.” The two have to meet, he says. “Mal­ice toward none; char­i­ty for all.” In their inter­view, Speak­er Gin­grich observes that Lin­coln has affect­ed him. “Yes,” says our author, “I believe so.”

Further reading

Churchill’s Fan­ta­sy: If Lee Had Not Won the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg

Robert E. Lee and the Fash­ion­able Urge to Hide from His­to­ry

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