How the Cult of Robert E. Lee Was Born

How the Cult of Robert E. Lee Was Born

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The reason the South fought the American Civil War has been contested ever since the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. An odd turn of events, considering that when 11 Southern states seceded from the Union at the war’s outset, they were very clear about why they were doing it.

In declaration after declaration, Confederate states explicitly said that they had seceded in order to preserve slavery.

South Carolina, the first to secede, cited “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” in its declaration of secession. Mississippi’s declaration argued “There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.”

It was only after the war that many former Confederates changed course, creating an alternative narrative that historians refer to as the “Lost Cause.”

“It began right at the end of the Civil War as Southerners tried to explain their own defeat to themselves,” says David W. Blight, an American history professor at Yale and author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Writers, journalists, and former soldiers began “to fashion this series of ideas, one of which was their belief that they were never truly defeated on the battlefield; that they were only overwhelmed.”

They also argued, in direct contradiction to their secession statements, that the war was never about slavery.

Lost Causers argued “they had only fought for state sovereignty, states’ rights, national independence,” Blight says. “They also fashioned a set of ideas and arguments that they were fighting to hold back the massive industrialization of America, they were trying to preserve rural agrarian civilization.”

In addition, they gave the cause a hero. When Robert E. Lee died five years after the war ended, many of his former officers “created a kind of a Lee legend and a Lee cult,” he says. It promoted the “idea that Robert E. Lee was the ultimate Christian soldier,” who fought to preserve his home state rather than the institution of slavery—which is false.

“Make no mistake, Lee fought for the Confederacy, and he knew that the Confederacy existed to preserve slavery—there is no question about that,” Blight says.

To further bolster their hero, the Lost Causers also gave Lee a villain: Former Confederate General James Longstreet, who was already a “scalawag” for joining the northern Republican party and deploying black and white officers to defend New Orleans against the militant White League during Reconstruction. According to this new hero-villain narrative, Lee had lost the Battle of Gettysburg because Longstreet betrayed him. (Blight says this “does not hold up historically”).

Over time, the narrative morphed as more people—including former President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis—wrote about and memorialized the war.

“By the 1890s, the Lost Cause arguments had become really a racial ideology, they had become a set of arguments for white supremacy,” he says. The idea that slavery had been a gentle institution that benefitted both masters and slaves, and that freedmen could not handle their emancipation, was a foundation upon which Jim Crow laws were built.

And as the South began to beat back Reconstruction policies with these Jim Crow laws, the narrative actually stopped being about loss.

It became “a victory narrative,” Blight says. “And the victory they’re telling is the victory over Reconstruction: That they had defeated the North’s effort to reconstruct the South, that they had defeated black rights and black suffrage.”

Confederate veterans and Southern organizations worked to make sure that school textbooks portrayed the Confederacy’s goal as righteous and Lee as a noble hero, effectively changing the way that the war and its causes were understood. This strategy worked so well that it influences education today. In recent years, Texas has adopted school textbooks and lesson plans that incorrectly teach students that slavery was not a major cause of the war.

“It’s endlessly necessary in this country to keep explaining the Civil War,” Blight says. “There’s a great distance between public memory and the scholarly history that historians write. And we just have to keep trying to make that distance shorter.”

Robert E. Lee Wasn't a Hero, He Was a Traitor

Michael McLean is a PhD candidate in history at Boston College.

There&rsquos a fabled moment from the Battle of Fredericksburg, a gruesome Civil War battle that extinguished several thousand lives, when the commander of a rebel army looked down upon the carnage and said, &ldquoIt is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.&rdquo That commander, of course, was Robert Lee.

The moment is the stuff of legend. It captures Lee&rsquos humility (he won the battle), compassion, and thoughtfulness. It casts Lee as a reluctant leader who had no choice but to serve his people, and who might have had second thoughts about doing so given the conflict&rsquos tremendous amount of violence and bloodshed. The quote, however, is misleading. Lee was no hero. He was neither noble nor wise. Lee was a traitor who killed United States soldiers, fought for human enslavement, vastly increased the bloodshed of the Civil War, and made embarrassing tactical mistakes.

1) Lee was a traitor

Robert Lee was the nation&rsquos most notable traitor since Benedict Arnold. Like Arnold, Robert Lee had an exceptional record of military service before his downfall. Lee was a hero of the Mexican-American War and played a crucial role in its final, decisive campaign to take Mexico City. But when he was called on to serve again&mdashthis time against violent rebels who were occupying and attacking federal forts&mdashLee failed to honor his oath to defend the Constitution. He resigned from the United States Army and quickly accepted a commission in a rebel army based in Virginia. Lee could have chosen to abstain from the conflict&mdashit was reasonable to have qualms about leading United States soldiers against American citizens&mdashbut he did not abstain. He turned against his nation and took up arms against it. How could Lee, a lifelong soldier of the United States, so quickly betray it?

2) Lee fought for slavery

Robert Lee understood as well as any other contemporary the issue that ignited the secession crisis. Wealthy white plantation owners in the South had spent the better part of a century slowly taking over the United States government. With each new political victory, they expanded human enslavement further and further until the oligarchs of the Cotton South were the wealthiest single group of people on the planet. It was a kind of power and wealth they were willing to kill and die to protect.

According to Northwest Ordinance of 1787, new lands and territories in the West were supposed to be free while largescale human enslavement remained in the South. In 1820, however, Southerners amended that rule by dividing new lands between a free North and slave South. In the 1830s, Southerners used their inflated representation in Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act, an obvious and ultimately successful effort to take fertile Indian land and transform it into productive slave plantations. The Compromise of 1850 forced Northern states to enforce fugitive slave laws, a blatant assault on the rights of Northern states to legislate against human enslavement. In 1854, Southerners moved the goal posts again and decided that residents in new states and territories could decide the slave question for themselves. Violent clashes between pro- and anti-slavery forces soon followed in Kansas.

The South&rsquos plans to expand slavery reached a crescendo in 1857 with the Dred Scott Decision. In the decision, the Supreme Court ruled that since the Constitution protected property and enslaved humans were considered property, territories could not make laws against slavery.

The details are less important than the overall trend: in the seventy years after the Constitution was written, a small group of Southerner oligarchs took over the government and transformed the United States into a pro-slavery nation. As one young politician put it, &ldquoWe shall lie pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.&rdquo

The ensuing fury over the expansion of slave power in the federal government prompted a historic backlash. Previously divided Americans rallied behind a new political party and the young, brilliant politician quoted above. Abraham Lincoln presented a clear message: should he be elected, the federal government would no longer legislate in favor of enslavement, and would work to stop its expansion into the West.

Lincoln&rsquos election in 1860 was not simply a single political loss for slaveholding Southerners. It represented a collapse of their minority political dominance of the federal government, without which they could not maintain and expand slavery to full extent of their desires. Foiled by democracy, Southern oligarchs disavowed it and declared independence from the United States.

Their rebel organization&mdashthe &ldquoConfederate States of America,&rdquo a cheap imitation of the United States government stripped of its language of equality, freedom, and justice&mdashdid not care much for states&rsquo rights. States in the Confederacy forfeited both the right to secede from it and the right to limit or eliminate slavery. What really motivated the new CSA was not only obvious, but repeatedly declared. In their articles of secession, which explained their motivations for violent insurrection, rebel leaders in the South cited slavery. Georgia cited slavery. Mississippi cited slavery. South Carolina cited the &ldquoincreasing hostility&hellip to the institution of slavery.&rdquo Texas cited slavery. Virginia cited the &ldquooppression of&hellip Southern slaveholding.&rdquo Alexander Stephens, the second in command of the rebel cabal, declared in his Cornerstone Speech that they had launched the entire enterprise because the Founding Fathers had made a mistake in declaring that all people are made equal. &ldquoOur new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,&rdquo he said. People of African descent were supposed to be enslaved.

Despite making a few cryptic comments about how he refused to fight his fellow Virginians, Lee would have understood exactly what the war was about and how it served wealthy white men like him. Lee was a slave-holding aristocrat with ties to George Washington. He was the face of Southern gentry, a kind of pseudo royalty in a land that had theoretically extinguished it. The triumph of the South would have meant the triumph not only of Lee, but everything he represented: that tiny, self-defined perfect portion at the top of a violently unequal pyramid.

Yet even if Lee disavowed slavery and fought only for some vague notion of states&rsquo rights, would that have made a difference? War is a political tool that serves a political purpose. If the purpose of the rebellion was to create a powerful, endless slave empire (it was), then do the opinions of its soldiers and commanders really matter? Each victory of Lee&rsquos, each rebel bullet that felled a United States soldier, advanced the political cause of the CSA. Had Lee somehow defeated the United States Army, marched to the capital, killed the President, and won independence for the South, the result would have been the preservation of slavery in North America. There would have been no Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln would not have overseen the emancipation of four million people, the largest single emancipation event in human history. Lee&rsquos successes were the successes of the Slave South, personal feelings be damned.

If you need more evidence of Lee&rsquos personal feelings on enslavement, however, note that when his rebel forces marched into Pennsylvania, they kidnapped black people and sold them into bondage. Contemporaries referred to these kidnappings as &ldquoslave hunts.&rdquo

3) Lee was not a military genius

Despite a mythology around Lee being the Napoleon of America, Lee blundered his way to a surrender. To be fair to Lee, his early victories were impressive. Lee earned command of the largest rebel army in 1862 and quickly put his experience to work. His interventions at the end of the Peninsula Campaign and his aggressive flanking movements at the Battle of Second Manassas ensured that the United States Army could not achieve a quick victory over rebel forces. At Fredericksburg, Lee also demonstrated a keen understanding of how to establish a strong defensive position, and foiled another US offensive. Lee&rsquos shining moment came later at Chancellorsville, when he again maneuvered his smaller but more mobile force to flank and rout the US Army. Yet Lee&rsquos broader strategy was deeply flawed, and ended with his most infamous blunder.

Lee should have recognized that the objective of his army was not to defeat the larger United States forces that he faced. Rather, he needed to simply prevent those armies from taking Richmond, the city that housed the rebel government, until the United States government lost support for the war and sued for peace. New military technology that greatly favored defenders would have bolstered this strategy. But Lee opted for a different strategy, taking his army and striking northward into areas that the United States government still controlled.

It&rsquos tempting to think that Lee&rsquos strategy was sound and could have delivered a decisive blow, but it&rsquos far more likely that he was starting to believe that his men truly were superior and that his army was essentially unstoppable, as many supporters in the South were openly speculating. Even the Battle of Antietam, an aggressive invasion that ended in a terrible rebel loss, did not dissuade Lee from this thinking. After Chancellorsville, Lee marched his army into Pennsylvania where he ran into the United States Army at the town of Gettysburg. After a few days of fighting into a stalemate, Lee decided against withdrawing as he had done at Antietam. Instead, he doubled down on his aggressive strategy and ordered a direct assault over open terrain straight into the heart of the US Army&rsquos lines. The result&mdashseveral thousand casualties&mdashwas devastating. It was a crushing blow and a terrible military decision from which Lee and his men never fully recovered. The loss also bolstered support for the war effort and Lincoln in the North, almost guaranteeing that the United States would not stop short of a total victory.

4) Lee, not Grant, was responsible for the staggering losses of the Civil War

The Civil War dragged on even after Lee&rsquos horrific loss at Gettysburg. Even after it was clear that the rebels were in trouble, with white women in the South rioting for bread, conscripted men deserting, and thousands of enslaved people self-emancipating, Lee and his men dug in and continued to fight. Only after going back on the defensive&mdashthat is, digging in on hills and building massive networks of trenches and fortifications&mdashdid Lee start to achieve lopsided results again. Civil War enthusiasts often point to the resulting carnage as evidence that Ulysses S. Grant, the new General of the entire United States Army, did not care about the terrible losses and should be criticized for how he threw wave after wave of men at entrenched rebel positions. In reality, however, the situation was completely of Lee&rsquos making.

As Grant doggedly pursued Lee&rsquos forces, he did his best to flush Lee into an open field for a decisive battle, like at Antietam or Gettysburg. Lee refused to accept, however, knowing that a crushing loss likely awaited him. Lee also could have abandoned the area around the rebel capital and allowed the United States to achieve a moral and political victory. Both of these options would have drastically reduced the loss of life on both sides and ended the war earlier. Lee chose neither option. Rather, he maneuvered his forces in such a way that they always had a secure, defensive position, daring Grant to sacrifice more men. When Grant did this and overran the rebel positions, Lee pulled back and repeated the process. The result was the most gruesome period of the war. It was not uncommon for dead bodies to be stacked upon each other after waves of attacks and counterattacks clashed at the same position. At the Wilderness, the forest caught fire, trapping wounded men from both sides in the inferno. Their comrades listened helplessly to the screams as the men in the forest burned alive.

To his credit, when the war was truly lost&mdashthe rebel capital sacked (burned by retreating rebel soldiers), the infrastructure of the South in ruins, and Lee&rsquos army chased one hundred miles into the west&mdashLee chose not to engage in guerrilla warfare and surrendered, though the decision was likely based on image more than a concern for human life. He showed up to Grant&rsquos camp, after all, dressed in a new uniform and riding a white horse. So ended the military career of Robert Lee, a man responsible for the death of more United States soldiers than any single commander in history.

So why, after all of this, do some Americans still celebrate Lee? Well, many white Southerners refused to accept the outcome of the Civil War. After years of terrorism, local political coups, wholesale massacres, and lynchings, white Southerners were able to retake power in the South. While they erected monuments to war criminals like Nathan Bedford Forrest to send a clear message to would-be civil rights activists, white southerners also needed someone who represented the &ldquogreatness&rdquo of the Old South, someone of whom they could be proud. They turned to Robert Lee.

But Lee was not great. In fact, he represented the very worst of the Old South, a man willing to betray his republic and slaughter his countrymen to preserve a violent, unfree society that elevated him and just a handful of others like him. He was the gentle face of a brutal system. And for all his acclaim, Lee was not a military genius. He was a flawed aristocrat who fell in love with the mythology of his own invincibility.

After the war, Robert Lee lived out the remainder of his days. He was neither arrested nor hanged. But it is up to us how we remember him. Memory is often the trial that evil men never received. Perhaps we should take a page from the United States Army of the Civil War, which needed to decide what to do with the slave plantation it seized from the Lee family. Ultimately, the Army decided to use Lee&rsquos land as a cemetery, transforming the land from a site of human enslavement to a final resting place for United States soldiers who died to make men free. You can visit that cemetery today. After all, who hasn&rsquot heard of Arlington Cemetery?

How Did Robert E. Lee Become an American Icon?

After President Dwight D. Eisenhower revealed on national television that one of the four “great Americans” whose pictures hung in his office was none other than Robert E. Lee, a thoroughly perplexed New York dentist reminded him that Lee had devoted “his best efforts to the destruction of the United States government” and confessed that since he could not see “how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me.” Eisenhower replied personally and without hesitation, explaining that Lee was, “in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. . . . selfless almost to a fault . . . noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities . . . we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.”

Eisenhower was not the first president of the United States to express such reverence for Lee, nor would he be the last. Needless to say, the story of how anyone becomes a heroic role model to a nation that he has made war upon is likely to be a bit complicated, but in this case it is well worth telling simply for what it says about the extraordinary elasticity of historical symbols when they can be bent to the aims of a cohesive, purposeful set of interests in the present.

Postbellum white southerners borrowed the term “Lost Cause” from Sir Walter Scott’s romantic depiction of the failed struggle for Scottish independence in 1746. For them, however, memorializing their recent and bitter defeat at the hands of the Yankees was no mere flight into escapist fantasy. Rather, it was part of a willful strategy, aimed at both restoring white supremacy in the South and regaining the economic and political power needed to insulate white southerners from any future northern interference in their racial affairs. If this could be achieved, insisted Lost Cause advocate Edward A. Pollard, the South might yet triumph “in the true cause of the war, with respect to all its fundamental and vital issues.” Accordingly, the carefully constructed Lost Cause legend justified secession as a courageously principled act, glorified the society that badly outmanned white southerners had gone to war to preserve, and even transformed their defeat on the battlefield into a source of moral elevation. Lost Cause proponents presented slavery as a benign and civilizing institution and insisted that it certainly was not the reason behind secession. Although he had declared forthrightly in 1861 that slavery was the very “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, its former vice president, Alexander Stephens, was equally adamant by 1868 that the Civil War had not been fought over “that peculiar institution” but was “a strife between the principles of states’ rights and centralism.”

Jefferson Davis, meanwhile, became a moving force within the Southern Historical Society (SHS), composed primarily of prominent former Confederates intent on amassing a formidable arsenal of historical documentation “from which the defenders of our cause may draw any desired weapon.” Sensing that these historical weapons might be deployed not simply to exalt the Lost Cause but perhaps even to regain some of its objectives, Davis marshaled the resources of the SHS to ensure that the Confederacy and his leadership thereof would be presented in the most favorable light.

Davis’s SHS compatriot, Robert L. Dabney, also saw the potential to spin history into propaganda that would stir the emotions of succeeding generations of white southerners and, it was hoped, secure the sympathies of white northerners as well. To that end, as Dabney saw it, what the South really needed was “a book of ‘Acts and Monuments of Confederate Martyrs.’” The most obvious martyr-in-waiting was none other than Jefferson Davis himself. Davis’s presidency had seen its share of conflict, but his two years in prison and unwavering insistence that the South’s cause had been both just and noble soon transformed him into an emotional symbol of Confederate suffering. Even Atlanta journalist Henry Grady, the champion of a “New South” built around business and industry, would exalt Davis as “the uncrowned king of our people.”

General Robert E. Lee astride Traveller, after the Civil War.

In reality, however, Davis’s repeated declarations that even knowing “all that has come to pass . . . I would do it all over again” made him a less than ideal spiritual monarch for Grady’s New South, whose economic fortunes depended on securing the good graces of wealthy northeastern investors. Clearly, this was an enterprise in which no one dubbed “the chief of traitors” by the New York Times stood to be much of an asset.

Davis’s beloved Southern Historical Society would nonetheless prove critical to sacralizing the historical and personal reputation of the man who would actually become not just an embodiment of the highest ideals of the Lost Cause, but one whom succeeding generations of northern and southern whites alike found both admirable and inspiring. As the son of a Revolutionary War hero whose thirty-two years of exemplary military service had actually earned him an invitation to lead the Union Army in suppressing the southern rebellion, Robert Edward Lee had known his own very personal Gethsemane before respectfully declining this offer, explaining that he could not bring himself to take up arms against his native state. In his role as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee had quickly earned the respect of comrades and foes alike, and when it had finally become inescapably apparent that nothing was to be gained from fighting further, he had respectfully rejected Jefferson Davis’s call for continued resistance through guerilla tactics that would reduce his men to “mere bands of marauders” and serve only to inflict further suffering on the civilian population. In stark contrast to Davis’s unbridled bitterness, Lee had advised his fellow southerners to “unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of the war” and endeavor to “promote harmony and good feeling.” Finally, instead of launching an undignified and divisive campaign for personal vindication, Lee had humbly sequestered himself in relative obscurity as president of little Washington College until his death in 1870.

Lee’s death at age sixty-three actually left his would-be canonizers free both to invoke him as they pleased and to ensure that his reputation remained immaculate by dispelling the lingering questions about his leadership at Gettysburg. Former subordinates like Generals Jubal A. Early and John B. Gordon (who was also something of a front man for Grady’s New South campaign) deftly mobilized the Southern Historical Society’s formidable “spin machine” to lay blame for the defeat squarely at the feet of General James Longstreet.

Regardless of whether Longstreet’s failure to advance in the timely fashion that Lee apparently ordered had actually sealed the Confederates’ fate at Gettysburg, absolving Lee at his expense gave Lost Cause propagandists full license to cultivate the legend of Lee’s infallibility as “a public officer without vices [and] a private citizen without wrong.”

In a Gilded Age America rife with scandal and greed, such a selfless and incorruptible hero was not a hard sell. The New York Herald had already declared upon Lee’s death that “here in the North we . . . have claimed him as one of ourselves” and “extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us.” Frustrated and perplexed by such eulogies, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass complained bitterly that he could scarcely find a northern newspaper “that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee,” whose military accomplishments in the name of a “bad cause” seemed somehow to entitle him “to the highest place in heaven.” Twenty years later, a crowd estimated at 100,000 to 150,000 showed up in Richmond for the unveiling of a massive statue of Lee astride his beloved mount, Traveller. Even a writer for the Minneapolis Tribune who took exception to white southerners’ insistence on anointing Lee “as a man of finer and better mold than his famous antagonists” was forced to admit that the “Lee cult is much in vogue, even at the North, in these days.”

Although it had denounced Jefferson Davis as a traitor on more than one occasion, in 1903 the New York Times charged that the Kansas congressional delegation had simply been “waving the bloody shirt” of sectional bitterness when they opposed efforts to place Lee’s statue in the U.S. Capitol. Journalists were hardly alone in helping to nationalize Lee’s appeal. Popular historian James Ford Rhodes, an Ohioan, praised him unstintingly, as did no less a proper Bostonian than Charles Francis Adams II, who felt Lee’s courage, wisdom, and strength could only “reflect honor on our American manhood.” No one put greater stock in American manhood than Theodore Roosevelt, who, with characteristic restraint, pronounced Lee “the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth” and declared that his dignified acceptance of defeat helped “build the wonderful and mighty triumph of our national life, in which all his countrymen, north and south, share.” A generation later, as readers devoured Douglas Southall Freeman’s adoring four-volume biography of Lee, another President Roosevelt would simply laud him “as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”

White Americans’ overwhelmingly uncritical embrace of Lee actually was central to the story of how, in historian David W. Blight’s terms, the campaign for national “reconciliation” thoroughly trumped the old “emancipationist” vision of the abolitionists and Radical Republicans during the first half century or so after Appomattox. In addition to New South propagandizing about the reciprocal benefits of northern investment in southern economic revitalization, the racial practices and attitudes of white southerners seemed far less troubling amid the frustrations of dealing with the nonwhite peoples brought under American supervision by the imperialist ventures of the 1890s. Further discouragement against meddling in southern race relations came not only from Rhodes and Adams, but a new generation of southerners who earned their doctorates at Columbia under Professor William A. Dunning and did their part as academic historians to portray the Reconstruction experiment as both ill-advised and unduly harsh on defeated and struggling white southerners.

Union veterans of the war, meanwhile, were encouraged to forget the bitter antagonisms that had fueled the conflict itself and to respect, even embrace, their former enemies who had battled so courageously for a cause effectively ennobled simply by their steadfast dedication to it. In short, what mattered now was not why each side had fought, but simply that each had fought honorably and well, a fact that should inspire feelings not of resentment but of brotherhood, regardless of who wore the blue and who the gray. When more than 53,000 of these old soldiers came together for the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1913, it was not, as Virginia governor William Hodges Mann admonished the group, “to discuss what caused the war of 1861–65,” but simply “to talk over the events of the battle here as man to man.”

In 1913 fifty years after some of the fiercest fighting of the Civil War, veterans from opposing sides met again at Gettysburg.

Woodrow Wilson, the first southern-born president since the Civil War (and also an ardent admirer of Lee), praised the gathering as the ideal opportunity “to celebrate . . . the end of all strife between the sections.” In the wake of the affair, the National Tribune, a Union veterans’ organ, eagerly hailed the “death of sectionalism” and the “obliterating of Mason and Dixon’s line.”

More than two generations later, Walker Percy, who had been thoroughly catechized in the Reconciliationist gospel as a youth, found it alive and pervasive as the nation began its official observance of the Civil War centennial. Contemporary writing about the war, Percy noted, “commemorates mainly the fighting. . . . Yet it is all very good-natured. . . . In the popular media the war is so friendly that the fighting is made to appear as a kind of sacrament of fire by which one side expresses its affection for the other.” Compared with politics, certainly, there was “an innocence about combat,” and the centennial’s narrow focus on the military aspects of the war virtually assured that Robert E. Lee would garner even more attention than Abraham Lincoln, especially given “Lee’s very great personal qualities,” not to mention “the American preference for good guys and underdogs, and especially underdog good guys.”

The almost ostentatious magnanimity shown the Confederates during the centennial was especially striking because a century after emancipation, as Percy noted, “the embarrassing fact that the Negro is not treated as a man in the North or the South” was effectively “a ghost at the [centennial] feast.” Sit-ins and freedom rides had already marked a more confrontational turn in the civil rights movement, and centennial officials hoped to avoid having their activities drawn into this conflict, either by segregationist demagogues invoking the idealized states’ rights rhetoric of the Confederates or by black leaders likening their crusade to the struggle for emancipation. On the latter point, as one of them explained, “We’re not emphasizing Emancipation. You see, there’s a bigger theme—the beginning of a new America.”

As the nation entered what would become the most acutely dangerous years of the Cold War, national unity and morale clearly took precedence over the divisive issue of racial equality. All the more reason to use this occasion, as a Georgia centennial pamphlet put it, to “discern from our history what has made us the most powerful and united [nation] on the face of the earth.” Naturally, if facing up to Cold War realities required a renewal of faith in American virtue, a Virginia centennial spokesman could think of no finer example than Robert E. Lee, “a man largely without hate, without fear and without pride, greed or selfish ambition.” Regarded by North and South as easily the war’s greatest general and rivaled only by Lincoln as its greatest man, Lee, as historian Thomas L. Connelly saw it, “emerged from the Centennial more than ever adored by the nation.”

As centennial activities wound down with an April 1965 reenactment of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Congress was considering an aggressive new voting rights bill that would profoundly alter the dynamic of both southern and ultimately national politics. In addition to the sweeping changes in the political and economic status of many African Americans that have marked the last half century, scholars have effectively toppled the historical pillars that once supported the old Reconciliationist temple, showing, for example, that slavery was not only the root cause of the Civil War but an incredibly brutal rather than benign institution. Moreover, contrary to Reconciliation lore, enslaved blacks had readily abandoned their old masters in great numbers as the Yankees approached and thus had played a critical role in their own emancipation, not to mention the outcome of the war.

Fifty years ago, African Americans gained little traction in protesting their virtual exclusion both from the planning process for the Civil War centennial and from the core narrative that centennial officials were pushing. Suffice it to say, the sesquicentennial observance promises to be different. Not only are blacks themselves far better positioned politically and economically to influence the tone and content of the various activities, but in an era of heightened racial sensitivity, a great many whites are less inclined to allow for ambiguity in Confederate symbols, human and otherwise. Over the last generation, we have seen heated conflicts about the Confederate battle flag in Georgia and several other states. Statues and paintings could be just as divisive. Blacks and whites squabbled in 1995 over placing a statue of Richmond’s own Arthur Ashe, a tennis legend and widely celebrated humanitarian, near the likenesses of Lee, Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and other Confederate stalwarts adorning the city’s Monument Avenue. A veritable firestorm erupted a few years later when a black councilman compared displaying Lee’s picture in his inner-city district to hanging Adolf Hitler’s portrait in a public square in Israel and threatened a boycott if a mural featuring Lee were not pulled from an exhibition of paintings featuring historically prominent Virginians that adorned Richmond’s Canal Walk. Not surprisingly, perhaps, sensitivity to historical symbolism has been slow to subside in the former Confederate capital, where in April 2011 vandals spray-painted “No Hero” on statues of both Lee and Jefferson Davis.

Elsewhere in the South, African-American activists demanded the removal of monuments or the renaming of public streets, parks, buildings, and schools commemorating Confederate leaders or prominent slaveholders. In New Orleans, for example, the majority black school board voted to change Robert E. Lee Elementary School to Ronald E. McNair Elementary in honor of the first black astronaut, who was also a victim of the Challenger disaster.

For many black southerners, the widespread assault on Confederate icons and symbols went hand in hand with celebrating the crusade to free the South from the racial system constructed on the ruins of the Confederate legacy. Civil rights museums and memorials became prominent attractions in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Memphis to name but a few, and by 1996 the cities and towns of the old Confederacy accounted for 77 percent of the nation’s streets named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

One of the greatest breakthroughs accompanying the destruction of Jim Crow was registered in opinion surveys, which since the late 1960s have consistently shown blacks about as likely as whites to identify themselves as southerners. This does not mean, however, that the two always agree on how that identity should be represented. Championing efforts to remove the Confederate insignia from the Georgia state flag, Atlanta journalist John Head made it clear in 1993 that “the South is my home [and] I am a Southerner,” but he would not accept “the Confederate battle flag as an emblem in which all Georgians can take pride.” Some fifteen years later, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey sounded much like Head when she insisted, “There are other Souths beyond the white Confederate South. . . . My South didn’t lose the war. We won.”

Trethewey’s dichotomy might be just as applicable to the civil rights movement, of course, and Lee’s decision to choose the wrong side of one of America’s greatest moral crusades ultimately consigned him, by default at least, to the wrong side of the other. Ulysses S. Grant could respect his vanquished counterpart “who had . . . suffered so much for a cause,” even though he felt constrained to add, “that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Not surprisingly, separating man and cause is far trickier today than it was in 1865. Defenders who are quick to point out Lee’s dislike of slavery are not always so swift to note that he actually described it as “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race” or that he believed “the painful discipline” inflicted on the slaves was “necessary for their instruction as a race.” Such a view may have distinguished him but little from the majority of northern whites at the time, but it was Lee, after all, who commanded a massive military effort that, if successful, would surely have extended the life span of slavery regardless of the broad moral or economic currents that had already begun to cut against it. Nor is there any gainsaying that Lee’s installation in first the southern then the national pantheon owes much to the efforts of those who were also bent on restoring and preserving white supremacy in the postbellum South, or that he has been the namesake of many a klavern of Kluxers, or that, of all his contemporary champions, none sing his praises more lustily than the belligerent representatives of neo-Confederate secessionist groups.

Yet, for all these associations with unsavory actors and hurtful causes, not to mention the determined efforts of a bevy of historians obsessed with finding fault, a 1996 survey indicating that he was still admired by 64 percent of respondents in the South and 60 percent of those outside it suggests that, for many Americans, Robert E. Lee remains something of a Teflon icon. Even a reviewer who criticized an NEH-supported January 2011 PBS documentary on Lee for taking it too easy on “a slavery apologist” whose “Old Dominion snobbery and sense of honor” had led him to “back the wrong side for the wrong reasons” had to admit the subject of the film himself was “a whole lotta man.” Not everyone, of course, is willing to grant Lee such benefit of the doubt, particularly African Americans troubled by Lee’s actual and figurative connections with the persecution of their forebears. Understandably, they would prefer to see other, more affirmative icons front and center in a hotly contested public memory that frequently tells us less about a broadly defined past than the aims and sensibilities of those who seem to hold sway in the present. Denying that whites held sole claim to what “the South” means, Natasha Trethewey explained, “I don’t want to take it away from anyone. I just want them to recognize that it’s mine, too.”

Such recognition is also essential if the South’s (and thus, the nation’s) history is to be presented both accurately and comprehensively. However, when Trethewey insists that “my South didn’t lose the war,” she points not to the separate pasts of blacks and whites so much as to the way in which, at critical times, they simply experienced a common past quite differently. Doing full justice to such a past makes stark juxtapositions and contrasts inevitable. It is not necessarily a bad thing that the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site shares top billing as an Atlanta tourist attraction with the massive images of Lee, Davis, and Stonewall Jackson carved into nearby Stone Mountain, or even that Virginia celebrates Lee-Jackson Day on the Friday preceding the Monday observance of Rev. King’s birthday. After all, “We Shall Overcome” never seems more stirring and powerful than when it is performed in places like Birmingham or Selma, where it is still very easy to remember what actually had to be overcome.

Finally, there is surely polarization enough over the far more substantive and urgent concerns of a needful present without incessant quarreling over how the past is represented. When an Annapolis councilman called for the former slave port to issue an official apology for the “perpetual pain, distrust and bitterness” that slavery inflicted on black people, a constituent allowed that she would “prefer that the aldermen have a resolution to atone for the lack of a decent middle school curriculum in Anne Arundel County.”

For all his apparent personal virtues, there is no denying Robert E. Lee’s direct connection with the cause of slavery or his symbolic appropriation by those who succeeded in replacing slavery with Jim Crow. Unfortunately, although it might make for good political melodrama and perhaps even gladden the departed soul of Frederick Douglass, stripping Lee’s name from a school is unlikely to reduce overcrowding in its classrooms, upgrade its computer or science labs, or end drug trafficking in its corridors. If it would, ironically enough, Lee—at least the one Dwight Eisenhower saw in the portrait on his wall—would likely be the first to join Douglass in endorsing the move.

Historian James C. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia and the author of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity. His work on the book was supported by a $40,000 grant from NEH.

The Making and the Breaking of the Legend of Robert E. Lee

In the Band’s popular song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” an ex-Confederate soldier refers to Robert E. Lee as “the very best.” It is difficult to think of another song that mentions a general by name. But Lee has always occupied a unique place in the national imagination. The ups and downs of his reputation reflect changes in key elements of Americans’ historical consciousness — how we understand race relations, the causes and consequences of the Civil War and the nature of the good society.

Born in 1807, Lee was a product of the Virginia gentry — his father a Revolutionary War hero and governor of the state, his wife the daughter of George Washington’s adopted son. Lee always prided himself on following the strict moral code of a gentleman. He managed to graduate from West Point with no disciplinary demerits, an almost impossible feat considering the complex maze of rules that governed the conduct of cadets.

While opposed to disunion, when the Civil War broke out and Virginia seceded, Lee went with his state. He won military renown for defeating (until Gettysburg) a succession of larger Union forces. Eventually, he met his match in Ulysses S. Grant and was forced to surrender his army in April 1865. At Appomattox he urged his soldiers to accept the war’s outcome and return to their homes, rejecting talk of carrying on the struggle in guerrilla fashion. He died in 1870, at the height of Reconstruction, when biracial governments had come to power throughout the South.

But, of course, what interests people who debate Lee today is his connection with slavery and his views about race. During his lifetime, Lee owned a small number of slaves. He considered himself a paternalistic master but could also impose severe punishments, especially on those who attempted to run away. Lee said almost nothing in public about the institution. His most extended comment, quoted by all biographers, came in a letter to his wife in 1856. Here he described slavery as an evil, but one that had more deleterious effects on whites than blacks. He felt that the “painful discipline” to which they were subjected benefited blacks by elevating them from barbarism to civilization and introducing them to Christianity. The end of slavery would come in God’s good time, but this might take quite a while, since to God a thousand years was just a moment. Meanwhile, the greatest danger to the “liberty” of white Southerners was the “evil course” pursued by the abolitionists, who stirred up sectional hatred. In 1860, Lee voted for John C. Breckinridge, the extreme pro-slavery candidate. (A more moderate Southerner, John Bell, carried Virginia that year.)

Lee’s code of gentlemanly conduct did not seem to apply to blacks. During the Gettysburg campaign, he did nothing to stop soldiers in his army from kidnapping free black farmers for sale into slavery. In Reconstruction, Lee made it clear that he opposed political rights for the former slaves. Referring to blacks (30 percent of Virginia’s population), he told a Congressional committee that he hoped the state could be “rid of them.” Urged to condemn the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorist violence, Lee remained silent.

By the time the Civil War ended, with the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, deeply unpopular, Lee had become the embodiment of the Southern cause. A generation later, he was a national hero. The 1890s and early 20th century witnessed the consolidation of white supremacy in the post-Reconstruction South and widespread acceptance in the North of Southern racial attitudes. A revised view of history accompanied these developments, including the triumph of what David Blight, in his influential book “Race and Reunion” (2001), calls a “reconciliationist” memory of the Civil War. The war came to be seen as a conflict in which both sides consisted of brave men fighting for noble principles — union in the case of the North, self-determination on the part of the South. This vision was reinforced by the “cult of Lincoln and Lee,” each representing the noblest features of his society, each a figure Americans of all regions could look back on with pride. The memory of Lee, this newspaper wrote in 1890, was “the possession of the American people.”

Reconciliation excised slavery from a central role in the story, and the struggle for emancipation was now seen as a minor feature of the war. The Lost Cause, a romanticized vision of the Old South and Confederacy, gained adherents throughout the country. And who symbolized the Lost Cause more fully than Lee?

This outlook was also taken up by the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers who idealized the slave South as a bastion of manly virtue in contrast to the commercialism and individualism of the industrial North. At a time when traditional values appeared to be in retreat, character trumped political outlook, and character Lee had in spades. Frank Owsley, the most prominent historian among the Agrarians, called Lee “the soldier who walked with God.” (Many early biographies directly compared Lee and Christ.) Moreover, with the influx of millions of Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe alarming many Americans, Lee seemed to stand for a society where people of Anglo-Saxon stock controlled affairs.

Historians in the first decades of the 20th century offered scholarly legitimacy to this interpretation of the past, which justified the abrogation of the constitutional rights of Southern black citizens. At Columbia University, William A. Dunning and his students portrayed the granting of black suffrage during Reconstruction as a tragic mistake. The Progressive historians — Charles Beard and his disciples — taught that politics reflected the clash of class interests, not ideological differences. The Civil War, Beard wrote, should be understood as a transfer of national power from an agricultural ruling class in the South to the industrial bourgeoisie of the North he could tell the entire story without mentioning slavery except in a footnote. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of mostly Southern historians known as the revisionists went further, insisting that slavery was a benign institution that would have died out peacefully. A “blundering generation” of politicians had stumbled into a needless war. But the true villains, as in Lee’s 1856 letter, were the abolitionists, whose reckless agitation poisoned sectional relations. This interpretation dominated teaching throughout the country, and reached a mass audience through films like “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Klan, and “Gone With the Wind,” with its romantic depiction of slavery. The South, observers quipped, had lost the war but won the battle over its history.

As far as Lee was concerned, the culmination of these trends came in the publication in the 1930s of a four-volume biography by Douglas Southall Freeman, a Virginia-born journalist and historian. For decades, Freeman’s hagiography would be considered the definitive account of Lee’s life. Freeman warned readers that they should not search for ambiguity, complexity or inconsistency in Lee, for there was none — he was simply a paragon of virtue. Freeman displayed little interest in Lee’s relationship to slavery. The index to his four volumes contained 22 entries for “devotion to duty,” 19 for “kindness,” 53 for Lee’s celebrated horse, Traveller. But “slavery,” “slave emancipation” and “slave insurrection” together received five. Freeman observed, without offering details, that slavery in Virginia represented the system “at its best.” He ignored the postwar testimony of Lee’s former slave Wesley Norris about the brutal treatment to which he had been subjected. In 1935 Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography.

That same year, however, W. E. B. Du Bois published “Black Reconstruction in America,” a powerful challenge to the mythologies about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction that historians had been purveying. Du Bois identified slavery as the fundamental cause of the war and emancipation as its most profound outcome. He portrayed the abolitionists as idealistic precursors of the 20th-century struggle for racial justice, and Reconstruction as a remarkable democratic experiment — the tragedy was not that it was attempted but that it failed. Most of all, Du Bois made clear that blacks were active participants in the era’s history, not simply a problem confronting white society. Ignored at the time by mainstream scholars, “Black Reconstruction” pointed the way to an enormous change in historical interpretation, rooted in the egalitarianism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and underpinned by the documentary record of the black experience ignored by earlier scholars. Today, Du Bois’s insights are taken for granted by most historians, although they have not fully penetrated the national culture.

Inevitably, this revised view of the Civil War era led to a reassessment of Lee, who, Du Bois wrote elsewhere, possessed physical courage but not “the moral courage to stand up for justice to the Negro.” Even Lee’s military career, previously viewed as nearly flawless, underwent critical scrutiny. In “The Marble Man” (1977), Thomas Connelly charged that “a cult of Virginia authors” had disparaged other Confederate commanders in an effort to hide Lee’s errors on the battlefield. James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” since its publication in 1988 the standard history of the Civil War, compared Lee’s single-minded focus on the war in Virginia unfavorably with Grant’s strategic grasp of the interconnections between the eastern and western theaters.

Lee’s most recent biographer, Michael Korda, does not deny his subject’s admirable qualities. But he makes clear that when it came to black Americans, Lee never changed. Lee was well informed enough to know that, as the Confederate vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, declared, slavery and “the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man” formed the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy he chose to take up arms in defense of a slaveholders’ republic. After the war, he could not envision an alternative to white supremacy.

What Korda calls Lee’s “legend” needs to be retired. And whatever the fate of his statues and memorials, so long as the legacy of slavery continues to bedevil American society, it seems unlikely that historians will return Lee, metaphorically speaking, to his pedestal.

Is It Wrong to Display a Picture of Robert E. Lee? My Response

Back before I went on this extended hiatus (finishing up this new book), I received a question from a reader about whether it was ethical and neighbor-loving to display a picture of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. You can read his query here, along with comments from other readers about what he should do. Below are my thoughts on the situation.

As I write this, I can see on my wall the flag of my home state of Mississippi, and I’m deeply conflicted about it. The flag represents home for me. I love Christ, church, and family more than Mississippi, but that’s about it. Still, the flag makes me wince because emblazoned on it is the Confederate Battle Flag, which was used so often in my home state, and elsewhere, as an emblem of backlash in support of the ugly epoch of Jim Crow. I supported a referendum changing the flag in 2001, but the voters of the state kept the old flag design by a vote of 65 to 35 percent. The more I think of it, the more I believe my conflicted feelings about that flag aren’t all that unusual for a Christian.

When it comes to Robert E. Lee, I can’t agree with those who would equate this picture with one of Adolf Hitler. Virtually every biography, by his contemporaries and future historians, would commend the General for his personal character and his sacrificial leadership. As biographer Roy Blount Jr. demonstrates Lee’s views on race were, in some ways, much more progressive than those of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and other Northerners.

Lee, like many in the army he led, saw himself as fighting, not for slavery, but for home. This doesn’t mean they were right, but it does mean that an easy caricature isn’t possible. Based on Lee’s own writings, he sounds much like an antiwar American who, nonetheless, when drafted, fights for his country.

The question is complicated more by the home for which Lee was fighting. As a localist Agrarian-leaning political type, I agree with a good bit the Vanderbilt scholars of I’ll Take My Stand found commendable in some isolated economic/cultural aspects of the antebellum South, especially compared to the whirl of the industrial rootlessness that came after. But the agrarians, right as they were on so much, were still too close, I think, to the Civil War to see the moral enormity of the slavery question.

But the Confederate States of America was constitutionally committed to the continuation, with protections in law, of a great evil.

The idea of a human being attempting to “own” another human being is abhorrent in a Christian view of humanity. That hardly needs to be said these days, thankfully, but we ought to remember just what was at stake. In the Scriptures, humanity is given dominion over created things but he is not given dominion over his fellow image-bearing humans (Gen. 1:27-30). The southern system of chattel slavery was built off of things the Scripture condemns as wicked: “man-stealing” (1 Tim. 1:10), the theft of another’s labor, the destroying of family ties, and on and on and on.

In order to prop up this system, a system that benefited the Mammonism mostly of wealthy planters, Southern religion had to carefully weave a counter-biblical theology that could justify it (the spurious “curse of Ham” concept, for instance). The abolitionists were right.

So what should a pro-civil rights son of the Confederacy do with the memory of those who fought for a Lost (in more ways than one) Cause?

Several comments on the original post pointed out how tainted virtually all history is. Yes, Lee fought for slavery, but so did the American Founders, in writing in allowances for it into the American Constitution. Does the picture of Thomas Jefferson I have in my study endorse his theological liberalism and his slave-holding or does it recognize his far-sighted commitments to human dignity and religious liberty? Does the bust of Theodore Roosevelt endorse his Darwnism or his awful views on eugenics?

The problem with a simple view of history is that it leads to a totemic use of historical figures. Some have romanticized, for instance, the American Founders in a way that doesn’t allow an honest conversation about the real problems there. Fourth of July sermons that treat Jefferson and Franklin and Adams as exemplars of evangelical Christianity aren’t really defending the gospel, nor are they honoring those founders. They are simply not treating persons as persons, turning them into slogan-supporting icons instead. The same thing is true with the cult of the Confederacy that has emerged in the last century, except often in much more malevolent forms. The Confederate dead have become a kind of cultural short-hand for white supremacy and racial resentment. It is a long drop indeed from Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to George Wallace and David Duke.

The fetishistic use of historical figures is precisely what leads to the kind of “absolute good vs. absolute evil” characterizations we often see among Christians in the way they view current leaders. Why did so many evangelicals send around email forwards with the urban myth that the then-President of the United States had led a little girl to pray to receive Christ on a rope line? It’s because so many wanted to think of this political leader as a spiritual leader too.

That’s the kind of hagiography that led to George Washington’s cherry tree inability to tell a lie. Well, George Washington was a great man, but he was also a liar. And so am I, and so are you. Unless there was a star shining over Washington’s birthplace (and there wasn’t), then Romans 3:10-19 applies to him as well as to all of us.

But this messy historical ambiguity ought not to surprise those who are being shaped by the Bible. Think of the brutal honesty with which the Scriptures give us the sins and foibles of our fathers in the faith, while honoring them just the same. Think of the very sinful, conniving picture we get of Jacob in Genesis and then think of the fact that he is commended in Hebrews 11 as a man of faith. Think of the genealogy of our Lord Jesus, filled as it is with scoundrels. And we know they were scoundrels because the Bible tells us so.

The Christian isn’t called to a rootless, ahistorical existence. We are commanded to show honor to our fathers and mothers (Exod. 20:12). That doesn’t mean hagiography. Jesus pointed out that his fathers had died in the folly in the wilderness (Jn. 6:49). Peter pointed out that the revered David was now just a pile of bones, and thus at least one sin short of a Messiah (Acts 2:29-35). This means we have a skeptical honor that recognizes both the good graces God has given to sinful men and women, and the fact that even the best among us is a sinner.

Should you keep up that picture of Lee, with his quote about what it means to be a gentleman? I don’t know. I can’t tell you one way or the other because what’s more important than a single picture is the general ethos of a home. Years ago, I had an African-American civil rights activist friend with a portrait of Lee in his home, and I never questioned whether he might be a Klansman. I have a portrait in my office of Fannie Lou Hamer, who supported the Equal Rights Amendment (I think), but I don’t think anyone sees that picture as an apologetic for feminism.

The issue is love of neighbor and the mission of Christ. That’s why the Apostle Paul refuses to lay down simple rules about eating vegetables or eating meat (Rom. 14:1-23). If that picture would hinder your being able to show hospitality and love with your brothers and sisters of every background and race, take it down.

But, if you keep it up on the wall, let it be, like every historical portrait, a warning.

I’d like to think that if I’d been born in 1841 Mississippi instead of 1971 Mississippi that I’d have been leading slave escapes. I’d like to think that if I’d been born in 1941 Mississippi that I’d have been singing “We Shall Overcome” at the 1963 March on Washington. And maybe I would have.

But a gentleman as devoted to character as Robert E. Lee, who had thought long and hard about the evils of slavery, was so conditioned by his time that he couldn’t see past his blind spot. So what makes me think that I could have escaped a similar blind spot? And what is so common in our culture right now that we can’t even see it, as we think we’re serving the Lord?

Jesus addresses something of this when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrite! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets'” (Matt. 23:29). Those are chilling words for one whose bloodline has come down from the slave-holding South through the Jim Crow oppression to the present day.

As I look at that Mississippi flag, I can’t demonize it. I’m grateful for the people, the family, the place it represents. But I wince at the symbol that was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night.

All that ought not to prompt a pretending that you come from somewhere other than where you’ve come. That would be ingratitude. It ought instead simply to lead you to say, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I come from a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5).

None of us is free from a sketchy background, and none of our backgrounds are wholly evil. The blood of Jesus has ransomed us all “from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Pet. 1:18), whether your forefathers were Yankees, Rebels, Vikings, or whatever. The gospel also then frees us to give honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7), without the pretense that any human being is without sin or dishonor.

Robert E. Lee was a complicated figure, a sinful rebel (in more ways than one) who bore the image of God. And so are we. Lee was gifted in commendable ways even as he used those gifts sometimes in ways that ought to horrify. So do we. We ought to be honest, in both directions, about Lee and about our neighbors and ourselves. And that ought to cause us to search out our own lives for that hidden sin, that secret hatred, that conforming to the pattern of this age that we don’t see and don’t think to ask about. Ultimately, no matter how we seek to whitewash our heritage or our personal stories, we’ll only conquer it all at the resurrection from the dead. Until then, we watch our hearts, pray for wisdom, work for justice, and love our neighbor.

Robert E. Lee was born on March 31, 1912, in Chicago to a family of Irish immigrants. He had at least one sibling, a brother Edward. In the 1920s, He attended St. Vincent's Grammar School. In 1935, he graduated from DePaul University's College of Commerce and Law. [1] [2] [5]

In 1932, while still a student, Lee began his career as a night clerk and auditor at the Congress Hotel in Chicago. In 1933, he had become assistant auditor at the Great Northern Hotel in Chicago. In 1935, he became auditor of the Roosevelt Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. Later that year, he became auditor of the American Bond and Mortgage Company Bondholders Protective Committee. [1] [2]

In 1938 through 1941, Lee served as a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and worked in Washington, Newark, New York City, and Chicago. From 1941 to 1946, he became a chief FBI clerk and then administrative assistant to J. Edgar Hoover. [1] [2] [3]

In 1946 through 1953, Lee became director of Surveys and Investigations on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee. [1] [2] [3]

Lee List Edit

The Dixie Mission (July 22, 1944 – March 11, 1947), was the first U.S. effort to establish official relations with the Communist Party of China. Domestic suspicion about China Hands undermined mission members such as State Department official John S. Service (who, in an August 3, 1944, report The Communist Policy Towards the Kuomintang stated "impressive personal qualities of the Communist leaders, their seeming sincerity, and the coherence and logical nature of their program leads me, at least, toward general acceptance of the first explanation – that the Communists base their policy toward the Kuomintang on a real desire for democracy in China under which there can be orderly economic growth through a stage of private enterprise to eventual socialism without the need of violent social upheaval and revolution."). [6] [7] Service was implicated in the "Amerasia Affair" espionage investigations of 1945–1946. In November 1944, U.S. General Joseph Stilwell was recalled from China amidst controversy about American support for nationalist and communist Chinese forces that made the cover of TIME magazine. [8] In 1946, a House Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Rep. Samuel F. Hobbs (followed in 1950 by the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Investigation of Loyalty of State Department Employees, commonly known as the Tydings Committee) investigated the Amerasia case. "Thus, by 1946, "members of both parties and both houses were focused on the security shop at Satate, albeit from different angles, by the latter part of 1946." [5] Fueling debate was the best-selling book Thunder Out of China by former TIME magazine correspondent Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby. [9] During 1946, Congress attached a "McCarran Rider" to appropriations for the State Department: it empowered the U.S. Secretary of State to fire summarily anyone deemed "necessary or advisable in the interests of the United States." [10]

In the Fall of 1947, Lee (a Republican now working in the Republican-dominated 80th United States Congress) discovered and examined security files for 108 suspect cases, which resulted in the "Lee List" used by a congressional subcommittee. (Historian John Earl Haynes has stated, "Robert E. Lee was the committee's lead investigator and supervised preparation of the list." Haynes has also compiled a comparison between the Lee and other lists of communists used by McCarthy, available online. [11] ) During a congressional hearing on March 10, 1948, Assistant Secretary of State John E. Peurifoy claimed the number had dropped from 108 to 57 names. [5] [12] On February 9, 1950, McCarthy gave a Lincoln Day "Enemies Within" speech to the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. His words in the speech are a matter of some debate, as no audio recording was saved. However, it is generally agreed that he produced a piece of paper that he claimed contained a list of known Communists working for the State Department. McCarthy is usually quoted to have said: "The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department." [13] [14] There is some dispute about whether or not McCarthy actually gave the number of people on the list as being "205" or "57". In a later telegram to President Truman, and when entering the speech into the Congressional Record, he used the number "57." [15]

FCC commissioner Edit

In 1953, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Lee commission to the new Federal Communications Commission, where he served for nearly 28 years to 1981. Lee was a personal friend of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and so faced some opposition in the American press when Eisenhower appointed him FCC commissioner. Subsequent presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan re-appointed him. In his final year, he served briefly as Interim Chairman (February 5, 1981 – April 12, 1981) and Chairman (April 13, 1981 – May 18, 1981). [1] [2] [3] [4]

While in office, he served as vice chairman or chairman on a number of U.S. delegations to Geneva: Space Conference (1971), Telephone and Telegraph Conference (1973), World Administrative Radio Conference (1974), World Administrative Radio Conference for Broadcast Satellites (1977). In October 1979, he was a U.S. delegate to an International Conference on Satellite Communication in Dublin, Ireland. In March 1980, he chaired a U.S. delegation, Inter-American Telecommunication Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. [1] [2]

In the 1980s, Lee served as consultant on telecommunications for law firm of Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, which specialized in telecommunications. In 1983, he was a delegate to the Geneva World Administrative Conference on Broadcast Satellites. [1] [2]

In July 1936, Lee married Wilma "Rex" Rector she died in 1971. On September 27, 1974, he married Rose Anne Bente. Lee had three children: Patricia Lee, Robert Edward Lee, and Michael Lee. [1] [2]

Lee died age 81 on April 5, 1993, of liver cancer in Arlington, Virginia. [16] [1] At time of death, he was the longest-serving FCC commissioner. [2] [3]

Lee championed ultrahigh-frequency television (UHF), RCA Corporation's system for color broadcasting, educational television, pay or subscription television, and expanding FM radio. [2]

Lee's autobiography, "In the Public Interest", co-authored with John Shosky, was published in 1996. [17]

His papers were donated by his widow to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in 1998.

Comparing Grant and Lee: A Study In Contrasts

From the earliest postwar days, Robert E. Lee was praised as a military genius. Typical is this statement by Lee’s Adjutant-General Walter H. Taylor: “It is well to bear in mind the great inequality between the two contending armies, in order that one may have a proper appreciation of the difficulties which beset General Lee in the task of thwarting the designs of so formidable an adversary, and realize the extent to which his brilliant genius made amends for paucity of numbers, and proved more than a match for brute force, as illustrated in the hammering policy of General Grant.” Taylor typified the denigration of Grant that accompanied the deification of Lee. The cult of Lee worshipers began with former Civil War generals who had fought ineffectively under him. They sought to polish their own tarnished reputations and restore Southern pride by deliberately distorting the historical record and creating the myth of the flawless Robert E. Lee.2 More recently, Richard McMurry wrote, “[Lee] stands as the colossus of Confederate military history—the only Southern army commander to enjoy any degree of success.”

Although Lee was generally worshipped for the first hundred years after the Civil War, there were exceptions. In 1929 and 1933, British Major General J. F. C. Fuller criticized Lee while praising Grant. He described Lee as “in several respects . . . one of the most incapable Generals-in-Chief in history,” and criticized him for his narrow Eastern perspective and his over-aggressiveness in several campaigns. The works of T. Harry Williams and Thomas L. Connelly (especially his The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society [1977]) tied Lee to the Myth of the Lost Cause, explained deliberate pro-Lee distortions of the historical record, and further questioned Lee’s strategy and tactics. A classic reevaluation of Lee was Alan T. Nolan’s Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (1991). Currently, the reappraisal of Lee continues, and, as J. F. C. Fuller said, “The truth is, the more we inquire into the generalship of Lee, the more we discover that Lee, or rather the popular conception of him, is a myth. . . .”

On the other hand, Grant’s often-tarred reputation has ascended while Lee’s has declined. In his memoirs, Grant noted the impact of those Southern historians who were creating the Myth of “The Lost Cause”:

With us, now twenty years after the close of the most stupendous war ever known, we have writers—who profess devotion to the nation—engaged in trying to prove that the Union forces were not victorious practically, they say, we were slashed around from Donelson to Vicksburg and to Chattanooga and in the East from Gettysburg to Appomattox, when the physical rebellion gave out from sheer exhaustion.

In fact, several pro-Confederate writers attacked Grant as soon as the shooting stopped. One of those was Richmond newspaperman Edward Pollard, who, in The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (1866), said that Grant “contained no spark of military genius his idea of war was to the last degree rude— no strategy, the mere application of the vis inertia he had none of that quick perception on the field of action which decides it by sudden strokes he had no conception of battle beyond the momentum of numbers.”

Even Northern historians criticized Grant. In 1866, New York Times war correspondent William Swinton wrote in his Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac that Grant relied “exclusively on the application of brute masses, in rapid and remorseless blows.” John C. Ropes told the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts that
Grant suffered from a “burning, persistent desire to fight, to attack, in season and out of season, against intrenchments, natural obstacles, what not.”

Mediocre Confederate General Jubal Early led the way, along with incompetent Confederate General William Nelson Pendleton, in creating the Myth of the Lost Cause. In doing so, they felt compelled to belittle the accomplishments of Grant. In 1872, in a speech on Lee’s birthday, Early said, “Shall I compare General Lee to his successful antagonist? As well compare the great pyramid which rears it majestic proportions in the Valley of the Nile, to a pygmy perched on Mount Atlas.” At least, he admitted that Grant was successful.

Historian Gary Gallagher fairly recently criticized the selectiveness and merits of Early’s (and others’) criticisms of Grant:

Absent from Early’s work, as well as that of other writers who portrayed Grant as a butcher, was any detailed treatment of Grant’s brilliant campaign against Vicksburg, his decisive success at Chattanooga, or his other western operations. Moreover, critics failed to grasp that Grant’s tactics in 18 6 4 went against his preferred style of campaigning. He fought Lee at every turn primarily because he wished to deny Jefferson Davis the option of shifting Confederate troops from Virginia to Georgia where they might slow Sherman’s progress.

In 1881, Jefferson Davis joined the parade of Grant critics when he launched this criticism of Grierson’s effective 1863 raid (which barely affected civilians in Davis’s native Mississippi): “Among the expeditions for pillage and arson [Grierson’s raid] stands prominent for savage outrages against defenseless women and children, constituting a record alike unworthy a soldier and a gentleman.” The 1880s publication of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, containing the recollections of the war’s participants, provided former Confederates with an opportunity to impugn Grant. For example, Lieutenant General Evander M. Law wrote, “What a part at least of his own men thought about General Grant’s methods was shown by the fact that many of the prisoners taken during the [Overland] campaign complained bitterly of the ‘useless butchery’ to which they were subjected.”

Easterners, who controlled most of the newspapers and publishing houses, did not like Grant, “whom they saw as an uncouth westerner.” In the wake of the numerous scandals in which his presidential appointees were involved, Grant’s continuing support for the rights of African Americans and Native Americans during his years as president, and intellectuals’ revulsion at the materialism of the Industrial Age, many Northerners joined Southerners in glorifying Lee and his army and in attacking Grant as a butcher. It is difficult to overestimate the damage to Grant that these writings caused and the virtual indelibility of the image they created of Grant the Butcher.

In fact, it was another Richmond newspaper reporter-turned historian, Douglas Southall Freeman, who placed Lee on a pedestal at Grant’s expense. In his four-volume treatise, R. E. Lee, Freeman idolized Lee in describing all the details of his generalship. Freeman criticized Grant for hammering Lee’s forces instead of maneuvering more, but even Freeman did concede that Grant’s efforts had not been in vain: “Lee did not lose the battles but he did not win the campaign. He delayed the fulfillment of Grant’s mission, but he could not discharge his own. Lee found few opportunities of attacking the enemy in detail or on the march. . . . And in some subtle fashion General Grant infused into his well-seasoned troops a confidence they had never previously possessed.”

A pro-Lee disciple of Freeman’s, Clifford Dowdey, was harder on Grant than Freeman was. In his 1960 Lee’s Last Campaign: The Story of Lee and His Men Against Grant, Dowdey described Grant as a “boring-in type of attacker, who usually scorned finesse.” The anti- Grant tradition is not dead. It has been recently continued in Paul D. Casdorph’s 1992 Lee and Jackson: Confederate Chieftains and Ernest B. Furgurson’s 2000 Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864. Casdorph grossly overestimated Grant’s Cold Harbor casualties as including 13,000 killed (“dead or dying”) and referred to “union hordes” and the “Yankee Goliath.”

Grant and Lee: A Study In Contrasts-Praises to Grant

Significant praise for Grant, other than from his subordinates and fellow officers, first came from overseas. British military historian and Major-General J. F. C. Fuller strongly endorsed the greatness of Grant in “The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant in 1929” and then in “Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship” in 1932. Fuller concluded that Grant was a superior strategist, possessed common sense, recognized what needed to be done to win the war, and deserved the major credit for doing so. He compared Grant quite favorably to Lee, found that Lee consistently throughout the war lost a higher percentage of his troops than Grant or other adversaries he faced, and that Lee much more than Grant—and for no good reason—sacrificed his troops in frontal assaults and continued to do so until he had no more to sacrifice.

Another British military historian, John Keegan, also found cause to praise Grant. He did so in The Mask of Command (1987). There he discussed Grant in a chapter entitled “Grant and Unheroic Leadership.” He praised Grant’s fighting skills and concluded, “But in retrospect, great though Grant’s generalship is seen to be, it is his comprehension of the nature of the war, and of what could and could not be done by a general within its defining conditions, that seems the more remarkable.”

The most comprehensive sympathetic treatment of Grant came with the works of Bruce Catton. He first wrote of Grant in the second and third volumes of the famous Civil War trilogy, Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951), Glory Road (1952), and the Pulitzer Prizewinning A Stillness at Appomattox (1953). Having come to admire Grant above other Civil War generals, Catton then proceeded to write U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition (1954) (the bulk of which is entitled “The Great Commander”), This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side in the Civil War (1956), Grant Moves South (1960) (describing Grant’s Civil War career through Vicksburg in glowing terms), and Grant Takes Command (1968) (taking him through the end of the war). The prolific Catton also produced The Coming Fury: The Centennial History of the Civil War (1961), Terrible Swift Sword (1963), and Never Call Retreat (1965). Like Grant himself, said Stephen W. Sears, Catton was “quiet and unassuming and unpretentious and business-like.”

A contemporary of Catton’s, T. Harry Williams, was a renowned Civil War scholar and a strong proponent of Grant. Williams found him superior to Lee and others in Lincoln and His Generals (1952) and to his fellow Union generals in McClellan, Sherman, and Grant (1962). In the former book, Williams succinctly stated, “Grant was, by modern standards, the greatest general of the Civil War.”

In their exhaustive 1983 study of the war, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War, Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones concluded that Grant was responsible for recognizing the North’s need to effectively use its superiority. Although they disclaimed the significance of turning points, they concluded that Grant’s seizure of Fort s Henry and Donelson and his approval of Sherman’s March to the Sea were decisive events.

Although he relied on Bruce Catton’s work, William S. McFeely treated Grant with much less sympathy in his 1981 Grant: A Biography. McFeely’s Grant seemed uncaring about the death around him. This first “modern” biography of Grant reinforced earlier negative impressions with such characterizations of Grant as “a man of limited though by no means inconsequential talents to apply to whatever truly engaged his attention.” McFeely made it appear that Grant’s second-day offensive at Shiloh was a spur-of-the-moment idea conceived only that morning, and he then criticized Grant for failing to pursue the Rebels with his exhausted army. He claimed it was Grant’s rivalry with McClernand that got him focused on Vicksburg. McFeely asserted that “Grant’s strategy was to make sure more Southerners than Northerners were killed. It was a matter of simple arithmetic. . . .” Of the Overland Campaign, he said, “In May 1864 Ulysses Grant began a vast campaign that was a hideous disaster in every respect save one—it worked. He led his troops into the Wilderness and there produced a nightmare of inhumanity and inept military strategy that ranks with the worst such episodes in the history of warfare.” Jean Edward Smith later cited McFeely’s work as a biography written by an academic historian who was influenced by the Vietnam War and denigrated Grant’s critical role in Union victory.

A return to the Catton sympathetic approach marked the 1997 Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President written by Geoffrey Perret and the 2000 Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822–1865 by Brooks D. Simpson. Perret praised Grant’s “military genius” and credited him with creating two concepts that the U.S. Army has been using ever since: the use of converging columns (Grant’s 1864–5 national strategy) and the wide envelopment (Grant’s sweeping around Lee’s flank throughout 1864 and 1865). Simpson described a non-idealized Grant and praised his common sense, imagination, and perseverance. On the issue of Grant’s tactics,
Simpson concluded:

He was less successful at shaking the perception that he was a ham-handed tactician who freely wasted the lives of his own men. This reputation was largely based on the pervasive impression of his generalship left by the 1864 campaign in Virginia. That during the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns combined, Grant’s forces suffered fewer losses than did Lee’s troops at Gettysburg escaped most people’s notice that he was far more frugal with human life than his leading Confederate counterpart .. . is recognized by only a few. He preferred to take prisoners than to slay foes he emphasized movement and logistics over slugging it out. Even his campaigns in
Virginia shows a general who . . . shifted units and probed for weaknesses, mixing assaults with marches, constantly seeking new approaches.

Jean Edward Smith’s 2001 book entitled simply Grant is an excellent, sympathetic biography of Grant. He pointed to Grant’s decisiveness at Fort Donelson, his Vicksburg campaign’s amphibious crossing, his moving forward after the Wilderness, and his surreptitious crossing of the James River as examples of Grant’s greatness. He contended that Grant was the strategic master of his Confederate counterparts, had a lower casualty rate than Lee, and demonstrated his strategic skills by focusing on enemy armies rather than on mere geographic goals. Smith not only described the greatness of Grant as a Civil War general but also the many overlooked positive aspects of his eight-year presidency. Smith detailed President Grant’s efforts to protect Negroes’ rights in the postwar South and Indians’ rights in the West and said that “mainstream historians, unsympathetic to black equality, brutalized Grant’s presidency.”

In the past several years, Grant’s conduct of the Overland Campaign has received exhaustive and generally positive treatment at the hands of Gordon C. Rhea. His four books were The Battle of the Wilderness (1994), The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern (1997), To the North Anna River (2000), and Cold Harbor (2002). In those volumes and a series of contemporaneous articles, Rhea contended that Grant had been unfairly labeled a “butcher,” that his casualties were proportionately less than Lee’s, and that Grant was an innovative and effective general who focused on and achieved his strategic objectives.

In summary, Ulysses Grant got off to a bad start among postwar historians, but his military accomplishments have received increasing, if erratic, recognition since about 1930. Serious historical reestablishment of his multi-theater, war-winning record continues. With this historical perspective as background, we can now undertake a comparative analysis of Grant and Lee.

Those two generals shared many characteristics, but in many ways, they were quite different. An examination of Grant and Lee’s general military skills, military management skills, and personal attributes reveals why Grant won and Lee lost the war.

How Charlottesville Got that Robert E. Lee Statue

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is a historian in Albany, NY. SUNY Press published his book The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, in 2015.

Media reports on the tragic events in Charolottesville, Virginia, on August 12 have overlooked the story of how the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee got there in the first place.

The statue was commissioned, paid for, and presented to the city by wealthy Charlottesville philanthropist Paul G. McIntire (1860-1952). He had a direct connection to the Civil War: his father, George M. McIntire, was the Mayor of Charolttesville who surrendered the city to Union forces on March 3, 1865. Paul McIntire grew up in Charlottesville but left to pursue a career in Chicago and New York City as an investor in the stock market. He made a fortune, retired to his native Charlottesville in 1918, and spent much of the rest of his life there as a philanthropist.

Paul McIntire: Charlottesville Benefactor

Two movements of the era influenced McIntire's philanthropic spending. One was the City Beautiful movement, which advocated tree-lined boulevards, classical buildings, and urban parks.

The second was the movement sparked by the National Sculpture Society, organized in 1896, to encourage placement of American sculpture in public buildings, parks and squares. Monuments to public figures could perform a valuable function by teaching history and inspiring patriotism.

McIntire's philanthropic efforts included a public library for his native city, endowment of schools of business (now the McIntire School of Commerce), art and architecture and music at the University of Virginia and five city parks: Lee (where he paid for the erection of the statue of Lee), Jackson (where he paid for a statue to Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson), Belmont, Washington (in honor of prominent black educator Booker T. Washington, and intended primarily for blacks at a time of segregation when other parks were closed to them), and McIntire (named by the city in his honor). He also contributed generously to local schools and local arts organizations.

McIntire also paid for a statue in his city of Revolutionary War General George Rogers Clark (born in Charlottesville) and another statue of western explorers Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacajawea (Lewis was born near Charlottesville).

McIntire commissioned Henry Shrady, a prominent leader of the National Sculpture Society, to develop the Lee monument in 1917. It was delayed for many years because, ironically, Shrady gave priority to another project, a statue of Lee's great rival, U.S. General and later President Ulysses S. Grant. That statue, completed in 1922, stands near the U.S. Capitol.

Shrady completed a small model of the Lee statue but died in 1922 before he could finish the full-scale version. McIntire turned to another architect, Leo Lentilli, an Italian immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen. Lentilli used Shrady's model to design the final statue.

Ironically, the demonstrators at the August 12 rally to save the Lee statue, including some who were virulently anti-immigration, were inadvertently defending a monument whose final design was made by an immigrant.

McIntire was not a proponent of racial animosity or particularly interested in commemorating the Confederacy. One of his motives was that Richmond had been erecting more statues than Charlottesville and he did not want his city to fall behind. He saw Lee and Jackson (both born in Virginia) as notable leaders from his state. Erecting their statues in the parks he had donated to the city in their names seemed to him like an appropriate civic gesture.

The Dedication of the Lee Statue: Monument to the "Lost Cause"

But McIntire chose the local chapters of three ardent defenders of the Confederacy – the Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy – to plan and manage the unveiling ceremony of the Lee statue.

Those groups scheduled the dedication ceremony to take place at a gala Confederate reunion in Charlottesville on May 21, 1924. They made the ceremony into a tribute to the "lost cause" interpretation of the Civil War – the view that describes the Confederate cause as a heroic struggle against northern threats to the Southern way of life and that minimizes and denies or minimizes the central role of slavery.

Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute paraded through the center of the city, which was decorated with Confederate colors. The sculpture was presented to the City on behalf of McIntire by Dr. Henry L. Smith, President of Washington and Lee University, where Lee had served as president from 1865 to his death in 1870 and where he was buried in Lee Chapel. Three-year-old Mary Walker Lee, Robert E. Lee's great-grand-daughter, then pulled the Confederate flag draped over the sculpture away, and the crowd cheered loudly. University of Virginia President Edwin A. Alderman accepted the statue for the city of Charlottesville.

The Commander of the Virginia Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans, C.B. Linney, gave the main dedication speech. He passionately extolled the valor of the Confederate cause. "I thank God that we have lost nothing of our love for the Cause by the lapse of time, which has wisely served to intensify our devotion. My comrades, ours is a rich heritage, oh, how rich!" The statue reminds us of "the glory, honor and immortality of the Confederate soldier." The statue should inspire us to "catch fresh courage for the battle of the morrow and swear eternal allegiance to the Cause and undying devotion to the memory of the one that is gone."

The festivities concluded with a benediction and then the crowd dispersed to celebrate at a number of parties and balls.

McIntire was and still is recognized for his civic contributions to his native city. Beginning in 1942 and continuing for many years, the city celebrated Paul Goodloe McIntire Day annually. The Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce awards the Paul Goodloe McIntire Citizenship Award annually for outstanding citizenship and civic affairs. In 2010, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, the Virginia state legislature passed a resolution recalling his work and his many recognitions and awards.

Robert E. Lee's reputation has been more erratic. In 1924, when the Charlottesville statue was unveiled, it was high. "It seldom happens that one man comes not only to embody but to glorify a lost cause," wrote Michael Korda in his 2014 book Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee. "It is hard to think of any other general who had fought against his own country being so completely reintegrated into national life, or becoming so universally admired even by those who have little or no sympathy toward the cause for which he fought."

In the years after the war, Lee urged his fellow southerners to accept federal authority, expressed hope about the possibility of amicable future race relations, and successfully petitioned President Andrew Johnson for amnesty and signed an amnesty oath promising to support the Constitution. (He received a full presidential pardon, posthumously, in 1975.) In death, Lee was transformed in the public mind from a treasonous traitor to something approaching a southern gentleman and military genius with a strong sense of duty, particularly to his state. There are dozens of monuments, sculptures, buildings, roads, and counties, mostly in the south, named after Lee.

More recently, Lee has been recognized as a traitor, defender of slavery and symbol of racism and white supremacy.

He is less likely to be defended as a noble leader of resistance to federal authority and more seen as a symbol of division and hate, like other Confederate leaders. The "lost cause" view of the Civil War is contributing to the white supremacy movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are more than 1500 monuments to Confederate leaders, mostly in the south. Monuments to Lee and other Confederate leaders and the Confederate flag, are now viewed as symbols of hatred and division that need to be removed. This led the Charlottesville city council earlier this year to vote to change the name of Lee Park to Emancipation Park and Jackson Park to Justice Park and to take down the statues of Lee and Jackson.

Many other communities are moving in the same direction, taking down Confederate memorials and banning the display of Confederate flags. Others are moving statues and monuments into museums where their historical significance and symbolism can be interpreted and explained. But as debate and action continues, it is useful to bring more historical perspective and insight into the discussion, including recalling and explaining why the monuments were erected in the first place.

Ghost of the Confederacy

Robert E. Lee occupies a remarkable place in the pantheon of American history, combining in the minds of many, Michael Korda writes in this admiring and briskly written biography, “a strange combination of martyr, secular saint, Southern gentleman and perfect warrior.” Indeed, Korda aptly adds, “It is hard to think of any other general who had fought against his own country being so completely reintegrated into national life.”

Lee has been a popular subject of biography virtually from his death in 1870, at the age of 63, through the four magisterial volumes of Douglas Southall Freeman in the 1930s to Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s intimate 2007 study of Lee and his letters, “Reading the Man.” Korda, the author of earlier biographies of Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, aspires to pry the marble lid off the Lee legend to reveal the human being beneath.

He draws a generally sympathetic portrait of a master strategist who was as physically fearless on the battlefield as he was reserved in personal relations. He was, Korda writes, “a perfectionist, obsessed by duty,” but also “charming, funny and flirtatious,” an animal lover, a talented cartographer and a devoted parent, as well as “a noble, tragic figure, indeed one whose bearing and dignity conferred nobility on the cause for which he fought and still does confer it in the minds of many people.”

Graduating second in his class at West Point, Lee was commissioned into the engineers, then the most prestigious branch of the Army. He spent several unremarkable decades directing the construction of coastal fortifications, including Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, and somewhat more memorably, diverting the course of the Mississippi River at St. Louis. The Lee legend was born during the Mexican War, when he won the highest praise from the commander of the invading American army, Winfield Scott, for his bold reconnaissance behind enemy lines, during which he participated in three battles and crossed enemy territory three separate times in 36 hours — “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage” of the campaign, in Scott’s words. In 1859, when Scott was the overall commander of the United States Army, Lee was tapped to lead the company of Marines that captured John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Two years later, as state after state seceded from the Union, Lincoln offered Lee the command of the federal forces. He of course declined, and took his talents south.

Korda portrays the Lee of 1861 as a man tragically torn between loyalty to his nation and his native state. That Lee agonized over his decision is certainly true. However, Korda does not consider the fact that Lee was also heir to an antifederalist tradition embedded deep in the political circuitry of the Virginia elite, and of his own family: 70 years earlier, in 1790, Robert’s father, the Revolutionary War hero Henry Lee, declared in response to what he considered a slighting of Southern interests, “I had rather myself submit to all the hazards of war and risk the loss of everything dear to me in life, than to live under the rule of a fixed insolent Northern majority.” Many other Southern-born officers remained unshaken in their loyalty to the Union.

Korda provides crisp and concise, if conventional, accounts of Lee’s major engagements. We rarely hear from ordinary soldiers or feel the terror of battle amid the fog of war, but Korda is good at explaining Lee’s strategic thinking, the maneuvering of armies and the sometimes crippling limitations imposed by logistics, bad maps and worse roads.

Lee was not infallible. Although Korda generally gives him the benefit of the doubt, he admits that Lee was “not always an effective commander,” too often leaving it to his subordinates to guess at what he intended. He is too generous in his assessment of Lee’s disastrous frontal attacks at the Battle of Malvern Hill that capped the Seven Days campaign, and his equally futile assault — now famous as Pickett’s Charge — on another impregnable federal position at Gettysburg, in 1863. To Lee’s credit, as Pickett’s shattered survivors straggled back to their lines, Lee leaned from his horse to shake their hands, telling them, “All this has been my fault.” Yet without Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia would most likely have been defeated long before Appomattox.

Korda acknowledges that it is impossible to consider Lee without facing the problem of slavery. Lee owned slaves himself, and he arguably did more than any other man to try to create a country founded on slavery. Korda asserts that Lee was at least “moderate” on slavery, writing that he “was never, by any stretch of the imagination, an enthusiast for slavery.” That said, Lee did nothing to bring slavery to an end, and regarded abolitionists as troublemakers and revolutionaries. Korda quotes a revealing letter that Lee wrote to his wife, Mary, in which he described slavery as “a moral and political evil,” but went on to say, “I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race. . . . The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race.” How long their “subjugation” would be necessary, Lee complacently concluded, “is known and ordered by a wise and Merciful Providence.” As Allen Guelzo noted in “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion,” Lee’s army systematically kidnapped both former fugitive slaves and free blacks in Pennsylvania, dragging scores, perhaps hundreds, of them back to slavery in Virginia. Lee may not have approved of this atrocity, but he did little or nothing to stop it.

“Clouds of Glory” is unfortunately marred by more than a few annoying errors of fact. Northern politicians with Southern leanings were called “doughfaces,” not “doughboys” — a 20th-century term for American soldiers in World War I. At the time of the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, the enslaved population of the United States was about two million, not four million. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, not 1845.

More troubling is a footnote in which Korda likens the burning of Atlanta in “1865” (actually 1864) and William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea to the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. “Britain’s bomber command . . . simply had more sophisticated technology than Sherman did, but the intention was the same,” Korda writes. He uncritically asserts that “Sherman introduced what a later generation would call total war, involving the burning of cities, homes and farms on a wide scale.” Although Sherman’s march was destructive of property, it was far less extensive than Lost Cause mythology claims, and was carried out with remarkably little loss of life: Perhaps fewer than 2,500 Confederate soldiers were killed in open battle, and very few civilians died. The bombing of Dresden took tens of thousands of lives, virtually all civilians. The worst war crimes of the Civil War were perpetrated by Confederates, in the savage massacres of black federal soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tenn., and by Lee’s own troops at the Crater at Petersburg, in 1864.

“Clouds of Glory” will satisfy readers who wish to be reassured that Lee was a splendid and courageous soldier, as well as the fine-mannered epitome of antebellum aristocracy. Those who might regard him as a reactionary who betrayed his country, and whose skillful generalship prolonged an unwinnable war on behalf of a cause that Grant called “one of the worst for which a people ever fought,” may find Korda’s enthusiasm less persuasive.

Race and Reconstruction

After the war, Lee remained adamant that the war had been fought by the Confederates not for slavery but “for the Constitution and the Union established by our forefathers.” When, in the autumn of 1865, he took up the presidency of the struggling Washington College , he was careful to restrain rambunctious students (a number of whom were Confederate army veterans) from harassing Black schools and churches and personally expelled a student involved in a harassment incident . When called to testify before the congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction in 1866, Lee averred that “every one with whom I associate expresses kind feelings towards the freedmen. They wish to see them get on in the world, and particularly to take up some occupation for a living and to turn their hands to some work.” However, while he expressed support for the education of Black people, when questioned he said that he did not believe that Black people were “as capable of acquiring knowledge as the white man is” and that as a rule they were “not disposed to work, or rather not disposed to any continuous engagement to work, but just very short jobs, to provide them with the immediate means of subsistence.”

Furthermore, Lee told Congress that he had no desire to see Washington College become an instrument of free Blacks “acquiring knowledge” by becoming racially integrated, and he was adamant in his personal opposition to proposals for equal civil rights for the freedpeople in the new Virginia state constitution. “The idea that the Southern people are hostile to the negroes, and would oppress them if it were in their power to do so, is entirely unfounded,” Lee protested, but he opposed “any system of laws which would place the political power of the country in the hands of the negro race” because “the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.” In a letter to his nephew Edward Lee Childe, he wrote that he dreaded the prospect of “the South” being “placed under the dominion of the negroes,” and, in a letter to a cousin on February 22, 1867, he was so contemptuous of the “farce” of Reconstruction that he said he expected that “all decent white people” would be forced to leave Washington.

Lee was never an enthusiast for chattel slavery. He had only a small legal involvement of his own in the institution and generally tolerated it as part of the give and take of the prewar southern landscape. When it became apparent that Confederate survival depended on jettisoning slavery, he was willing to do so. And although he was never reconciled entirely to the war’s outcome and never promoted any form of racial egalitarianism, his attitude toward the freed slaves did not embrace the manic and violent hostility manifested by the Ku Klux Klan . Lee preferred to think of the postwar racial geography in terms of separate spheres, in which Black and white people went their separate and politically unequal ways. “You will never prosper with the blacks,” he warned his youngest son in 1868. “I wish them no evil in the world—on the contrary, will do them every good in my power.” But it remained “abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those” whom Lee would always suspect of “plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours.”


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