I’m working on a volume for the Emerging Civil War 10th Anniversary Series on “Fallen Leaders.” As we did with last year’s symposium, the book considers leaders who not only fell, dead or wounded, on the battlefield but those who also “fell” from grace for one reason or another. With that informing my thoughts lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Robert E. Lee.
Lee’s has taken some big hits in the past couple of years: the removal of his statue from Richmond, Virginia; the publication of Ty Seidule’s Robert E. Lee and Me and subsequent media attention it garnered; the release of the recent Lee biography by Allen Guelzo, whose book described Lee as “the Confederate general who betrayed his nation in order to defend his home state and uphold the slave system he claimed to uphold.”
“How do you write the biography of someone who commits treason?” Guelzo asked in his prologue.
Once upon a time, the audacity to ask such a question, fair as it might be, would have earned you the fiery, undying antipathy of Jubal Early. Just asked James Longstreet, who dared question Lee’s infallibility after the war and then made the mistake of getting down in the mud to wrestle with the pigs when they took him to task for expressing his opinion in the first place.
Lee’s modern partisans have taken great exception to recent discussions of whether Lee was a traitor or not, trying to dismiss the label as “presentism” (And presentism, is, indeed, an unhelpful lens for looking at history because it’s judgmental.) But describing Lee as a traitor is not a judgement, really, because the definition of treason is pretty straightforward, making the label factual, not judgmental. Nor is such an assessment “presentism.” As Frederick Douglass pointed out on Lee’s birthday in 1871, “He was a traitor and can be made nothing else.”
Nonetheless, Lee’s defenders were quick to make him into something else, and as the example of Jubal Early demonstrates, they have always been quick to rise up and shout-down the criticism.
A friend of mine told me the other day that, despite what I “hear in the news,” Lee is “as popular as he ever was.” I think that’s actually true among a certain segment of the population, particularly in the Civil War world. But I think there are other segments of the population where Lee never stood in particularly high standing. For some of those people, to speak up against Lee would have gotten them strung up from a tree; their silence at the time, though, should not be construed as agreement with so-called “general opinion.”
One person who did have the power to give voice to those undercurrents of discontent was W.E.B. DuBois. In the March 1928 issue of The Crisis—the quarterly publication of the NAACP, founded in 1910—DuBois offered a sharp but thought-provoking rebuke of Lee, written in the wake of Lee’s birthday that year.
Each year on the 19th of January there is renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee, the greatest confederate general. His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing—one terrible fact—militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery. Copperheads like the New York Times may magisterially declare: “of course, he never fought for slavery”. Well, for what did he fight? State rights? Nonsense. The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slavery. If nationalism had been a stronger defense of the slave system than particularism, the South would have been as nationalistic in 1861 as it had been in 1812.
No. People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. He surrendered not to Grant, but to Negro Emancipation.
Today we can best perpetuate his memory and his nobler traits, not by falsifying his moral débacle, but by explaining it to the young white south. What Lee did in 1861, other Lees are doing in 1928. They lack the moral courage to stand up for justice to the Negro because of the overwhelming public opinion of their social environment. Their fathers in the past have condoned lynching and mob violence, just as today they acquiesce in the disfranchisement of educated and worthy black citizens, provide wretchedly inadequate public schools for Negro children and endorse a public treatment of sickness, poverty and crime which disgraces civilization.
It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. It is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel—not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.
DuBois draws a parallel between events from 1861 to his own day in 1928, and we might find parallels to draw in our own (after all, aren’t people always looking for a “usable history”?). I am reminded of Mark Twain’s admonition that history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Importantly, DuBois took harsh aim not only at Lee but at how Lee’s memory had been used (or, as he deemed it, misused). “[W]e can best perpetuate his memory and his nobler traits, not by falsifying his moral débacle, but by explaining it to the young white south,” DuBois said.
Seidule, once a member of that “young white south,” grew up to realize he’d been sold a false bill of goods (see more in this April 2021 blog post). “Robert E. Lee committed treason,” he eventually concluded.
The question of whether Lee was a traitor or not is not a moot argument. Some prefer a view that instead casts him as a “Virginia gentleman,” for instance (as a Lee-themed Virginia state license plate declares). And it’s true, as Guelzo admits, “no one who met Robert Edward Lee—no matter what the circumstances of the meeting—ever seemed to fail to be impressed by the man.”
But to define Lee that way is to overlook the fact that he, in Seidule’s words, fought “to create a nation dedicated to exploit enslaved men, women, and children, forever.” To applaud Lee’s brilliant military exploits is to forget that he achieved that success by killing “more U.S. Army soldiers than any other enemy, ever.” These are not inconsequential things, as inconvenient as Lee’s partisans find them. For 160+ years, they have been the ones to frame the debate, though, by controlling how we remember him.
Like any historical figure, Lee has much to teach us, good and bad. To learn from him, we must look at him honestly and accurately and from multiple perspectives, and we must resist both deification and vilification. As Guelzo suggests, a more holistic view can help us better understand. “[C]asting Lee in contradiction—” he writes, “as either saint or sinner, as either simple or pathological—is, in the end, less profitable than seeing his anxieties as a counterpoint to his dignity, his impatience and his temper as the match to his composure.”
Lee, the traitor, was a Virginia gentleman, just as Lee, the Virginia gentleman, was also a traitor. We can learn something from both of them, just as we can from listening to long-repressed voices represented by Douglass and DuBois—voices that finally roared to bring Lee down decades after they had to remain silent when he went up in the first place.
If Lee has fallen from his pedestal, perhaps that lets us finally see him as more human.