In a previous article, I wrote about why I choose not to participate in protests: I want no part in the triumph of emotion over reason; I refuse to relinquish a feeling of sober autonomy and jump into the sound and fury of a maddening herd; I recoil at the disparate exhortations and innuendos one finds on protest placards, which strike me as a chaotic mélange of propaganda rather than a medley of interconnected ideas that form a cohesive platform; and finally, I want to avoid the risk of being associated with people whose ideas I repudiate.
I say this with some measure of regret, as I do not necessarily find cause to dispute the main agenda of every protest movement I encounter. For example, I did not join an estimated half-a-million people who descended on Washington, D.C. to participate in the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017, the day after the newly-elected President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, was sworn into office on Inauguration Day. Nor did I participate in any of the Tea Party protests that erupted in Washington, D.C. during the years of the Obama administration. I refused to join these protests even though I support equal rights for women and the Tea Party goal of smaller government.
This catch-22 comes to mind once again as I consider recent protests in New Orleans, LA and Charlottesville, VA in opposition to the removal of monuments paying tribute to Robert E. Lee, the American Civil War general who led the rebel Confederate army. In defending the decision to remove the monument from Lee Circle in New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, delivered an eloquent speech about the difference between the remembrance of history and the reverence of history. It was former President George W. Bush, Mr. Landrieu reminds us, who said at the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History & Culture: ‘A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.’ Mr. Landrieu proceeded to set the record straight, claiming that the Lee statue, as well as statues of other Confederate leaders, ‘were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause,’ which sought ‘to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.’
This account is not exactly consistent with the account provided by New Orleans Historical, a project by the University of New Orleans and Tulane University, which recalls the day of February 22, 1884, when the Lee monument was unveiled to thousands of onlookers and celebrants: ‘[i]n attendance were local and visiting veterans of the Armies of Northern Virginia and Tennessee (many of whom had served under Lee) but also Union veterans who had served in the Grand Army of the Republic. In fact, like many monument ceremonies, the unveiling of the Lee statue served as a moment of reconciliation for white Americans. Union and Confederate veterans gathered together on the same platform, honoring a man many Americans, north and south, regarded as the epitome of military brilliance, bravery, and loyalty.’
Nevertheless, this was reconciliation for white Americans only, as an elementary understanding of the failures of post-war Reconstruction can attest. Moreover, Lee would subsequently be glorified by many post-war Confederate adherents as the ‘hero of the South’, the leading general of the Confederate army. Lee did not support slavery or secession, but he still fought valiantly for the South, an agrarian society whose plantation way of life was built squarely on the backs of racism and slavery. There is no getting around that legacy, and given that controversial white nationalist Richard Spencer was a leading force in the Charlottesville protest, it would also seem that any redeeming qualities one might find in the complicated character and legacy of Robert E. Lee are soiled not only by the antebellum way of life he defended as a Confederate army general, but by the contemporary involvement of nefarious agents like Richard Spencer and his white nationalist allies in protests against removal of the Lee monument
Thus, if I were in New Orleans or Charlottesville, I would have chosen not to participate in protests against removing the Lee monument. I have no desire to be associated with the likes of Mr. Spencer or his allies. Nevertheless, I do not believe Lee deserves only censure and denunciation. I am not an expert on Lee, but to the extent I have read and learned about his life, I cannot object to the admiration many believe he earned as a man of dignity, honor, reserve, and duty. He was a devoted husband and father, an accomplished engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, a hero in the Mexican-American War, a competent superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and a man who earned the esteem of his contemporaries because of his competence, his accomplishments, his seriousness of purpose, and his overarching aura of personal dignity and honor. His superior during the Mexican-American War, General Winfield Scott, stated that Lee was ‘the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.’
Yet in what was the most momentous decision of his life, he decided in April 1861 to side with the Confederacy in the Civil War. Though opposed to slavery and secession, he could not bring himself to wage war on his home state. When Virginia opted to secede, he declined an offer from the Lincoln administration to ‘take command of the Union army,’ declaring to presidential advisor Francis P. Blair (who, as described by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, had made the offer on behalf of President Lincoln in his yellow house on Pennsylvania Avenue): ‘Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?’
Then, writing to his sister on the same day, Lee wrote that, despite his dismay over the state of tensions between North and South, and despite a feeling of futility about the oncoming war, he could not bring himself ‘to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home,’ and thus he had tendered his resignation as an officer in the army. These are not the thoughts of a twenty-first century man who can clearly see the outcome of the war and the long-term historical current against slavery and antebellum racism. They are instead the thoughts of a nineteenth-century man devoted to home and family, four years before the conclusion of the war, before anyone could conceive of the utter brutality of the Civil War or the course that history would take in attempting to overcome the evils of slavery and racism. They are the thoughts of a man thoroughly steeped in his own era.
Though he lost early battles in the war (not entirely through his own fault), Lee never lost the confidence of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. In 1862, he was given command of General Joseph Johnston’s forces after Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. At the time, Union general George McClellan was moving on Richmond as part of the Peninsula campaign. Lee unleashed a series of tactical maneuvers widely credited with helping to push back McClelland’s forces and turn the tides of war in the East in favor of the Confederate army. Lee proved himself a man of tactical brilliance, though his victories were as reckless as they were daring given the loss in casualties. But his strategic vision—to push the war into the North by invading Maryland and Pennsylvania in order to convince war-weary Northerners to sue for peace—would eventually prove a failure. His invasions Maryland and Pennsylvania met with effective resistance and wrought high numbers of casualties from which the South had difficulty recovering. Emboldened by his victory at Chancellorsville in Virginia, he ultimately met his fate in the decisive battle of Gettysburg, when he ordered George Pickett’s men to charge the center of Union forces under General George Meade, in what is known as Pickett’s charge. The frontal assault failed and the battle was lost. Admirably, Lee confessed his responsibility and resigned, though Jefferson Davis refused his resignation.
Lee and the Confederate army would go on to lose the war, and history would be changed forever. The Civil War began as a limited war to preserve the Union, but evolved into a total war to overthrow the antebellum world and reconstruct the nation based on the principle that slavery was an inherent wrong that had no place in a nation founded on the principles of equality written up in the Declaration of Independence. It would take generations for white America to overcome the racism of the antebellum era. To this day, we continue to struggle with the legacy of racism in antebellum America.
It is worth recognizing that Lee was not what we might call, in contemporary terms, a ‘sore loser’. He fully appreciated the significance of his defeat and the importance of accepting the judgment of history. While serving as president of Washington and Lee University until he died in 1870, Lee spent the final years of his life encouraging reconciliation between the North and South. Unfortunately, however, many in the South had a more difficult time accepting their defeat and the judgment of history. In the years after Lee’s death, southern historians would cultivate the ‘lost cause’ of the Confederacy, inspired in part by Lee’s aura of dignity which seemed to embody the patrician nobility of an antebellum Southern gentleman, as well as Lee’s view that the South lost not for any lack of fighting spirit or ardor for its cause, but because it was up against the ‘overwhelming resources and numbers’ of the Northern army.
It is Lee’s association with the ‘lost cause’ that gives me pause in defending his legacy. The formation of the Confederacy was an act of treason whereby southern states seceded because they were opposed to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. It was also the outgrowth of a Southern society that believed in white supremacy and slavery as inherent goods bestowed upon society by God or the order of nature. From the perspective or our own twenty-first century, one is appalled at the congenital conviction of antebellum white Southerners that slavery and white supremacy were inherent social goods (not to mention the congenital racism of nineteenth-century white Northerners who were opposed to slavery but also largely opposed to living in harmony with black Americans). But this fundamental commitment by antebellum Southerners to slavery and white supremacy constituted a set of attitudes and beliefs as normal to them as civil rights and diversity are normal to us.
It is this milieu of nineteenth century attitudes and beliefs that also gives me pause in condemning the legacy of Robert E. Lee. Lee was opposed to slavery and did not believe in secession, but he nonetheless inherited many slaves when his father-in-law died and Lee reluctantly went about overseeing the administration of his father-in-law’s will. Thus, Lee became a slave owner and, in one well-discussed case, had to decide how to punish a slave who had escaped and been recaptured. Lee’s administration of a plantation estate and the unresolved details surrounding his punishment of an escaped slave are a conversation for another article. The main point is that in the course of carrying out his duties, he evinced a conservatism and lack of historical imagination that would doom him to joining the losing side of the American Civil War, American history, and, as Mr. Landrieu remarked, humanity. As explained in a review in The Atlantic of a Lee biography by Elizabeth Pryor, ‘[t]he tragedy for Lee is that he never made the transformational leap that would recognize the fundamental human nature of the slaves.’
That is the tragedy of Robert E. Lee. He was an honorable man who chose to side with a dishonorable cause. While President Abraham Lincoln was a man ahead of his time, Lee was a man thoroughly steeped in his time. Lincoln had a keen understanding of the political and social constraints of his time, but could envisage a future that advanced beyond these constraints, and could work within these constraints as best he could to advance the cause of equality and the course of history in favor of equality. Lee lacked this vision, a tragic flaw which condemned Lee to the losing side of history. It affected not only his positions on the grand questions of union, secession, and slavery, but even on particular matters of military strategy. For example, one reason for the failure of Pickett’s charge was that an infantry assault over a wide plain resulted in severe casualties, primarily because ‘[t]he rifle, which had largely replaced the musket in the Union armies, had made such attacks hopeless,’ and ‘Lee failed to recognize the effect of improved weapons.’
As I wrote in an article defending Andrew Jackson (sort of), I oppose ‘presentism’ in the study of history. A Google search defines ‘presentism’ as ‘uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.’ That does not mean the study of history must preclude making judgments about people and events based on the social, political, or ethical standards that prevail in today’s world. If that were the case, one might be in the absurd position of arguing that we should not condemn slavery. The point, rather, is to remove the blinders of anachronism and try to understand the context in which things have come to be as they are.
History is rarely so pure as to be without conflict, and human nature is rarely, if ever, without shortcomings and moral failings. The study of history is the study of humanity, and that means that when we embark upon our journey of learning about the past, we should be prepared to encounter the best and worst that humanity has to offer—for the peculiar mix of good and bad in a given set of circumstances is the essential stew from which a story of human and civilizational progress, or in many cases, regress, is written. We should always be on guard against judging men of the past by the standards of today.
This is especially true for the ‘great men’ of history. Whenever men (or women) of prominent position are viewed from afar, whether by another face in the crowd listening to him giving a speech, or by a person reading that speech in a history book in some future era, there is an innate tendency for an observer to see a caricature rather than a man, a stage rather than a reality, whereby a man becomes an abstraction composed of some scattering of isolated facts about his life rather than a dynamic consciousness interwoven with the particular circumstances of his life and the particular ethos of the era in which he lived his life. For example, one woman interviewed by the New York Times, in commenting on the removal of the Lee statue in New Orleans, said: ‘You know, he was standing there with his arms folded as if he was surveying all that was his.’ But is this the right way to interpret the folding of his arms? It’s one possibility. But there are other angles as well. It could signify that Lee was a reserved and reticent man, or it could signify the personal habit of a man who folds his arms when listening to someone. The speculations are endless, and one plausible speculation is that this woman was projecting a twenty-first century interpretation on a body gesture by a nineteenth-century man that is perfectly innocuous. It is a natural impulse, perhaps, but one that may be less likely if one takes the time to study the complexities that made Lee a man of flesh and blood in his own time. It is one thing to implicitly draw attention to the victims of antebellum slavery. It is quite another to throw out the baby with the bathwater and ignore the full complexity of a man like Lee who was himself an opponent of slavery. As James Comey, former director of the FBI, once stated in a speech about race and policing, ‘it’s hard to hate up close.’
Unfortunately, however, opposition to ‘presentism’ and honoring the legacy of an honorable man who, in part because he was a man in his time rather than ahead of his time, joined a dishonorable cause, gets lost in the discussion about the removal of a monument in New Orleans or Charlottesville. The mayor of New Orleans delivered an eloquent speech about the evils of slavery and the ‘lost cause’ of the Confederacy, which one can appreciate as a sound reason for removing the statue as a votive monument in a public square. Moreover, the participation of white nationalists like Richard Spencer in Charlottesville protests opposing the removal of a Lee monument focuses attention on the muck of white nationalist ideology that seeks to preserve the legacy of racism.
Spencer-led protests are unfortunate because they distract from legitimate reasons why one might oppose the removal of a Lee monument. The legacy of Robert E. Lee, like the legacy of Andrew Jackson and others, is a complicated one. One must acknowledge that Lee chose the wrong side of history, but that is a different issue from understanding that history walks on a razor’s edge. Understanding justice is one thing. Understanding history is another. This means not shutting our eyes to the evils of slavery, but also not shutting our eyes to the qualities that made Robert E. Lee an honorable man who, in large part because of a deep conservatism and a lack of historical imagination, chose a dishonorable path in the twilight of his life. Even if he had major reservations about slavery, he was thoroughly steeped in a nineteenth-century racist society from which even Lincoln did not escape. But only Lincoln pointed us to a future when slavery could be eradicated, when racism could be widely understood as fundamentally unjust, and when national reconciliation was possible not only among whites, but among all.
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