In the 1980’s and 1990’s I was periodically given a catalog for Troll Associates, which published children’s books. Among them were various history books. In the library I had already checked books from the World at War series, the first being The Battle of Stalingrad. Troll though did not have as many military topics. Then one day I spotted a book on Robert E. Lee. The cover was odd. Lee looked like Kenny Rogers and I knew even then the battle shown on the cover was from an evocation, if wildly inaccurate, painting of the battle of Wilson’s Creek. Still, I was eager to read it, making it the first Civil War book I ever completed
The book was titled Robert E. Lee: Brave Leader. It was mostly about Lee’s difficult childhood dealing with the disgrace of his father and the need to restore honor to his family. It also dealt with the aspects of his youth that contributed to his later leadership abilities. Although not exactly what I wanted, it was touching, and far more than another children’s book about Lee from the 1970s that dealt with each battle. I read that one after Robert E. Lee: Brave Leader and liked it more, yet Robert E. Lee: Brave Leader stayed with me over the years. I cannot even recall the other book’s name.
Robert E. Lee: Brave Leader was visually effective. The illustrations by Dick Smolinski filled in the holes that the prose by Rae Bains could not convey. They were also adult and emotional. You see Henry Lee leaving his family in disgrace, looking down from a ship bound for the Caribbean. There is a young Lee determined upon a military career, followed a few pages later by an image of a dead Confederate soldier, the cost of that decision. Those images and others, including a young Lee visiting a clown show, have remained with me.
Robert E. Lee: Brave Leader was published in 1986 as part of a series of biographies meant to teach children important personal lessons. The other titles included Gandhi: Peaceful Warrior, Clara Barton: Angel of the Battlefield, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, Thurgood Marshall: Fight for Justice, Jack London: A Life of Adventure, and Benito Juarez: Hero Of Modern Mexico. There were also books on Martin Luther King Jr., James Monroe, Louis Pasteur, Babe Ruth, and Christopher Columbus. One can debate the place of each. Certainly choosing Monroe over the other presidents is odd. Overall though, it represented a kind of late twentieth century multiculturalism. It was itself an echo of John Pershing’s civic-nationalist musings after the American victory at San Juan Hill: “White regiments, black regiments, regulars and Rough Riders, representing the young manhood of the North and the South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by ex-Confederate or not, and mindful of only their common duty as Americans.” It offered a reconciliation between sections that did not ignore racial justice. It permitted honoring Lee right along with King, Barton, and Ruth. One can see this vision in Ken Burns’ The Civil War and the novel The Killer Angels.
Lee was one of my heroes growing up. I used Robert E. Lee: Brave Leader to do a tape cassette recorded interview. I was Lee and my mother, Patricia Acker Chick, asked me questions like it was a news report. I got an A. It was one of the first school projects that I excelled at. Years later I received a framed picture of Lee with his farewell address, which I once knew by heart. I learned it first by buying a copy of the address in a French Quarter shop. It was sold right next to the Gettysburg Address and Declaration of Independence.
If I was asked which reputations I have seen fall the most in the last ten years, Lee would be up there with Sigmund Freud and Harvey Weinstein. Obviously, and despite some high profile removals, he still has admirers, even if those admirers no longer have large microphones. All of those personal admirers I know are older or the same age as myself. I might be part of the last cohort of Southern men taught to venerate Lee. I say might because the future is unknown and stranger things have happened. For now though hardly a major newspaper or magazine offers editorials in his defense. In a November 21, 2018 Washington Post op-ed, Stanley McCrystal wrote that he took his painting of Lee down and “sent it on its way to a local landfill for its final burial. Hardly a hero’s end.” Lee was denied even the mild indignity of being donated to the local Goodwill.
My respect for Lee has remained, even if the veneration faded long before his current vilification. Lee seemed less relevant over time and he was no longer a personal role model I could draw strength from. I found men such as William Tecumseh Sherman and P.G.T. Beauregard more personally compelling over time, not as heroes but as stories I could relate to. Regardless, when Lee’s statue came down in New Orleans I felt cold. A fixture of the city and my youth was gone, and removed with none of the magnanimity Ulysses S. Grant showed at Appomattox. I began to ask what did Lee mean to me or anyone else? Part of this side quest was reading Robert E. Lee: Brave Leader for the first time in decades. I still have no hard answers.
There are in my experience three different versions of Lee which I call the defiant, the traitor, and the reconciliationist. The defiant is celebrated as a battle commander who despite being out-numbered, won nearly every battle. That was the Lee of my father and the Lost Cause die-hards. The traitor is a man who fought to maintain a slave-society and who should have been hanged. That is the Lee of Mitch Landrieu and an emerging consensus. The reconciliationist is a tragic figure who fought to defend his home state. In this version he is respected as a worthy and honorable adversary who did much to bind the nation’s wounds after four years of conflict. That is the Lee of Bains, who ends Robert E. Lee: Brave Leader with a line that few would type in 2018: “His passing was mourned in the North as much as the South, for the nation had lost a great man.”
The tragedy of Lee, and even Gandhi, Tubman, King, and Columbus is that they are not people but symbols. They are monuments, as much in paper and image as in stone. The trouble beyond losing whatever human connection we have is that their flaws and shortcomings, whatever they may be, are more glaring when finally revealed. If Lee suffered a loss of status it is in part because some people constructed a simulacrum of the man. Being a symbol meant in time Lee became an anachronism, and those who railed against him or defended him were not dealing with Lee but instead their version of Lee. It would be tragic if in place of falling Lee statues we create a new myth where Lee is a villain in an American melodrama who is finally defeated by simulacrums of Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.