Robert E. Lee And The Romance Of Rebellion

Like a lot of newspapers I suppose, the Joplin Globe has been running a series of articles on the Civil War, in this the 150th anniversary year of the war to end slavery and secure the notion of an indissoluble United States.

Perhaps before too long, a story will appear that tells the truth about Robert E. Lee. 

Not being a Civil War romantic, I don’t share the fascination some people have with the war’s obscure battle sites or memorabilia, or with the vast body of literature out there about that tragic and nation-defining event.

But I have always wondered why it is that so many people considered Robert E. Lee a hero, this disloyal Union officer who betrayed his country, who owned slaves and led men into battle to preserve the right of white men to buy and sell black families like cattle. 

Suppose for a moment that Lee fought for the right to molest and maim children, out of some misplaced principle of “states’ rights.”  Would there be statues of him in state parks anywhere in America?

I suppose not being from the South, I don’t understand why it is okay to nearly worship such a man, around whom many myths have been constructed to hide the truth.  Thanks, though, to writers like Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who recently authored a piece about Lee for The New York Times, a clearer picture is emerging. 

One example:

…on April 18, presidential adviser Francis P. Blair unofficially offered Lee the command of the thousands of soldiers being called up to protect Washington. Fearing that such a post might require him to invade the South, Lee immediately turned down the job. Agitated, he went to tell his mentor, Gen. Winfield Scott, the Army’s commander in chief. Another dramatic scene followed. Scott, though a proud Virginian, had dismissed as an insult any hint that he himself would turn from the United States. When Lee offered to sit out the troubles at his home, Arlington, the general told him bluntly: “I have no place in my army for equivocal men.” Greatly distressed, Lee returned to Arlington to contemplate his options.

Now, why is it a “proud Virginian” like Winfield Scott, who “dismissed as an insult any hint” that he would betray his country, could see the moral landscape very clearly, and Lee, “greatly distressed,” could not?  More important, why is a man with such poor moral vision a hero in the South?

The truth is that, in the words of Pryor and against the Lee-as-reluctant-secessionist myth, “Lee made his decision” to betray the United States “despite the feelings of his own wife and children,” not to mention others in his extended family. She wrote:

If even his wife, and most of his children, did not support his stand, Robert E. Lee must personally have wanted very much to take this path. This was not an answer he was compelled by home and heritage to make. It was a choice — and it was his alone.

Pryor also debunks the idea that Lee was some kind of abolitionist:

He complained to a son in December 1860 about new territories being closed to slaveholders, and supported the Crittenden Compromise, which would have forbidden the abolition of slavery. “That deserves the support of every patriot,” he noted in a Jan. 29, 1861 letter to his daughter Agnes. Even at the moment he reportedly told Francis Blair that if “he owned all the negroes in the South, he would be willing to give them up…to save the Union,” he was actually fighting a court case to keep the slaves under his control in bondage “indefinitely,” though they had been promised freedom in his father-in-law’s will.

That’s not the stuff heroes should be made of, especially one that, because of his military prowess, may have extended the war and increased the carnage. Richard Cohen summed up that aspect of Lee’s treason:

Lee was a brilliant field marshal whose genius was widely acknowledged — Lincoln wanted him to command the Union forces. In a way, that’s a pity. A commander of more modest talents might have been beaten sooner, might not have taken the war to the North (Gettysburg) and expended so many lives. Lee, in this regard, is an American Rommel, the German general who fought brilliantly, but for Hitler. Almost until Hitler compelled his suicide, Rommel, too, did his duty.

I don’t think you will find many statues of Erwin Rommel in Germany, or visit any Erwin Rommel High Schools, but in the American South, there are plenty of monuments to Robert E. Lee.

One has to wonder why that is.

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