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

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

Youthful encounter

Robert E. Lee on Trav­eller, by Fred­er­ick William Siev­ers, Get­tys­burg Nation­al Battlefield.

“Who’s that man on the horse?” I asked my father at the age of about sev­en. “That’s Lee, ” my dad said; “he led the South­ern army in the Civ­il War.”

He gave me a book which I still have. Illus­trat­ed Minute Biogra­phies: 150 Fas­ci­nat­ing Life-sto­ries of Famous Peo­ple, from the Dawn of Civ­i­liza­tion to the Present Day, Dra­ma­tized with Por­traits and Scenes from Their Lives, by Willam A. DeWitt. It’s still avail­able and inex­pen­sive. It’s far out of date now, but still a fine read for the young.

I scoured that book—an equal-oppor­tu­ni­ty edu­ca­tion. (Oppo­site Lee’s page is a page on Lenin.) It was very bal­anced biog­ra­phy for 1953—completely non-judg­men­tal. There was no rote crit­i­cism of vil­lains, no wor­ship of heroes. Lee was “Leader of a Lost Cause.” Lenin was “Father of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion.” I think it gave me the expe­ri­ence Churchill described, when as a young man he read every­thing he could lay hands on:

It was a curi­ous edu­ca­tion. First because I approached it with an emp­ty, hun­gry mind, and with fair­ly strong jaws; and what I got I bit; sec­ond­ly because I had no one to tell me: “This is dis­cred­it­ed.” “You should read the answer to that by so and so; the two togeth­er will give you the gist of the argu­ment.” “There is a much bet­ter book on that sub­ject,” and so forth.

Learning about Lee

“Illus­trat­ed Minute Biogra­phies” is an equal-oppor­tu­ni­ty edu­ca­tor: oppo­site Lee is Vladimir Lenin (inex­plic­a­bly “Niko­lai” in the title).

Ear­ly on, the vast moral wrong which the Civ­il War cor­rect­ed didn’t reg­is­ter. Civ­il War themes were pop­u­lar. I remem­ber us kids wear­ing repli­ca Union and Rebel soldier’s caps, not real­ly know­ing much about why they fought. The New York City pub­lic school sys­tem fixed all that. In those days, pub­lic schools taught Amer­i­can his­to­ry to a fare-thee-well.

Our teach­ers intro­duced us to the War’s great issues of slav­ery and seces­sion. They showed us the genius of Abra­ham Lin­coln; the skill of Ulysses S. Grant; the stub­born, valiant, bril­liant, fore­doomed resis­tance of Lee. I’ve always had a soft spot for under­dogs. Before I ran into Win­ston Churchill, Lee was my hero. That’s why I was dum­found­ed and sad­dened, over the mad rush to pull down stat­ues and memo­ri­als to him in an effort to deny us our aware­ness of history.

I hold no brief for John C. Cal­houn, who argued for slav­ery as “the greater good,” or Jef­fer­son Davis, the Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent. But I wouldn’t pull down their stat­ues. Instead I’d put up oppo­site a stat­ue of, say, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass (whose bronze image is on the cam­pus of Hills­dale Col­lege). The British have this sen­si­ble approach in some places. In Par­lia­ment Square, along with Jan Chris­t­ian Smuts, there’s now a stat­ue of Nel­son Man­dela. And Mohan­das Gand­hi is there now, with Win­ston Churchill—silent tes­ti­mo­ny to the fact that they end­ed up admir­ing each oth­er.

Why remember Lee?

Kevin M. Levin offers a thought­ful account of Lee’s sur­ren­der, review­ing anoth­er famous paint­ing by Jean L.G. Fer­ris. He points us to why Lee and Lee’s char­ac­ter are wor­thy of reflec­tion, and even emulation—save that one big mistake.
What was that? Why, it was Lee plac­ing his loy­al­ty to Vir­ginia ahead of his loy­al­ty to the Union. That was the oath he took at West Point. Does that make Lee wor­thy of being writ­ten out of his­to­ry? No. It is vague­ly Bol­shy to be tear­ing down stat­ues, toss­ing reminders of the past down what Orwell called the “Mem­o­ry Hole.”
Mr. Levin quotes Robert Moore, who address­es the prob­lem squarely:
It is fine both pri­vate­ly and, to a degree, pub­licly, to reflect upon the lives of his­tor­i­cal per­sons. It ful­fills var­i­ous needs of the liv­ing. Look at a his­tor­i­cal per­son (or per­sons) and con­sid­er the part of the his­tor­i­cal person’s char­ac­ter, actions, etc.. Con­sid­er how one may take mean­ing from these reflec­tions. For some, these reflec­tions might even trans­late into incor­po­rat­ing qual­i­ties that some find desir­able into the way they con­duct them­selves in their own lives. As long as reflec­tion does not become some­thing greater than a source of inspi­ra­tion, and I sup­pose, guid­ance (as long as it is pos­i­tive), then it seems inno­cent enough.

“The Great Compromise”

Shel­by Foote, a lit­er­ate and read­able Civ­il War his­to­ri­an, offered wor­thy and fine words on what he called “The Great Com­pro­mise,” in place in Amer­i­ca at least since the 1913 Get­tys­burg reunion, and cer­tain­ly at the final encamp­ment in 1938:

It con­sists of South­ern­ers admit­ting, freely, that it was best that the Union wasn’t divid­ed. And the North admits, rather freely, that the South fought brave­ly for a cause in which it believed. That is the Great Com­pro­mise, and we live with that, and it works for us. We are now able to look at the War with some cool­ness, which we couldn’t do 100 years ago…. All that’s over now. The Great Com­pro­mise obtains.

This is a far more sen­si­tive and car­ing point of view than that of the Woke Cul­ture. It would be regres­sive to replace that coolness—which took a cen­tu­ry to develop—with the old wel­ter of griev­ances that fol­lowed the Civ­il War.

On the tear­ing down of stat­ues and sym­bols, Foote cit­ed a state sen­a­tor, who got her fel­low sen­a­tors to dis­al­low the use of a Con­fed­er­ate symbol—not the Bat­tle Flag—by the Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­a­cy. “I don’t under­stand that,” he said. “It’s a vio­la­tion of the Com­pro­mise. It’s an arousal of bit­ter­ness. Now she, along with a great many oth­ers, do not want to be remind­ed. She has every right to want to hide from his­to­ry if she wants to. But it seems to me that she’s try­ing to hide his­to­ry from us—and that’s a mistake.”


Ceme­tery Ridge, Get­tys­burg, July 1913.

Who knows but it may be giv­en to us after this life to meet again in the old quar­ters, to play chess and draughts, to get up soon to answer the morn­ing roll call, to fall in at the tap of the drum for drill and dress parade, and again hasti­ly to don our war gear while the monot­o­nous pat­ter of the Long Roll sum­mons us to battle. 

Who knows but again the old flags, ragged and torn, snap­ping in the wind, may face each oth­er and flut­ter, pur­su­ing and pur­sued, while the cries of vic­to­ry fill a sum­mer day? And after the bat­tle, then the slain and wound­ed will arise. All will meet togeth­er under the two flags, all sound and well. And there will be talk­ing and laugh­ter and cheers. And all will say: Did it not seem real? Was it not as in the old days?

—Berry Ben­son (1843-1923), Com­pa­ny H, 1st South Car­oli­na Reg­i­ment, Hill’s Divi­sion, Army of North­ern Virginia

2 thoughts on “Robert E. Lee and the Fashionable Urge to Hide from History

  1. Regard­ing the “white­wash­ing” of murals in San Fran­cis­co, you can­not erase his­to­ry. It is lazy and cow­ard­ly even to try. The murals (which I have seen) along with those in Coit Tow­er, are won­der­ful. They tell us how artists felt in the 1930s amidst the Gt. Depres­sion — they cared about oth­ers, not just them­selves. As most have said, this is an edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ty. Young chil­dren are not affect­ed (grossed out) by what both­ers adults when an empa­thet­ic teacher explains things. Trust the teach­ers. Give them a chance. Don’t steal our her­itage. There can be mon­u­ments (e.g. the Civ­il War) which the local pop­u­la­tion finds egre­gious­ly insult­ing and/or were erect­ed for just that pur­pose. Each case should be decid­ed on its mer­its, or lack there­of. But be care­ful. The city fathers in Paris, France, when chal­lenged that there was no memo­r­i­al to Albert Drey­fus, secret­ed one away in a qui­et obscure cor­ner. When a larg­er one was com­mis­sioned the ‘Ecole Mil­i­taire refused to place it on the grounds of the school. It’s been a mov­ing tar­get ever since.

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