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

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

Youthful encounter

Civil
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 Robert E. Lee,” my Dad said.

“Who was he?” … “He led the South in the Civ­il War.”

He gave me a book for young peo­ple 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 It’s far out of date now, but still a fine read for the young.

Lee
“Illus­trat­ed Minute Biogra­phies.”

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

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 Robert E. 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 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—including Lee’s one big mis­take.
What was that? Why, it was plac­ing his loy­al­ty to Vir­ginia ahead of his loy­al­ty to the Union. That was the oath Lee 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 and eras­ing oth­er reminders of the past in a vain effort at pub­lic newspeak.
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 prob­a­bly 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 a 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 cites 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 in Rich­mond. “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.”

Brothers

Lee
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

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