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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Be Proud You’re A Rebel, The South’s Gonna Do It Again

There’s still time to get your $100 tickets to the upcoming “secession ball” to be held—where else—in Charleston, South Carolina.  The official name of the ball is The South Carolina Secession Gala, billed as an “EVENT OF A LIFETIME!!!”  

It is partially sponsored by The Confederate Heritage Trust, which claims to exist to “present the true history of the South.”  If you believe that then you probably believe that the Ku Klux Klan exists to “present the true history of Christian charity.”

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States on December 20, 1860, and contemporary Southerners will gather on that date this year  to “celebrate the courage and the integrity of 170 men who signed their signatures to the Article of Secession,” apparently still a proud moment in the history of the South.

According to The State website,

…ball attendees, who will pay $100 a ticket, will don formal, period dress, eat and dance the Virginia Reel as a band plays “Dixie.” The evening’s highlight will be a play reenacting the signing of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession 150 years ago, which severed the state’s ties with the Union and paved the way for the Civil War.

Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit! It’s a party!  Saddle my horse, Kunta Kinte, I’m goin’ to town!

The State reports that another sponsor of the event, the S.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans, pooh poohs the charge by the NAACP that the ball “is nothing more than a celebration of slavery,” by erroneously claiming that slavery was not the cause of the civil war:

The ball is a way to honor the brave S.C. men who stood up to an over-domineering federal government, high tariffs and Northern states that wanted to take the country in an economic direction that was not best for the South, said Mark Simpson, the S.C. division commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Will this stuff ever end?

The S.C. division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has a statement on its website that includes the following:

The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.

The “motivating factor” was “liberty and freedom”?  Whose liberty and freedom?  What those Confederate soldiers were fighting for—even if some of them didn’t know it—was freedom for rich white folks to own black slaves, no matter how hard contemporary conservative revisionists  try to convince us otherwise.

The soon-to-be-celebrated official secession document is windily titled the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. In that document you will find 18 references to slavery, including the following:

…an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.

You might wonder just what those “obligations” were of the “non-slaveholding States”:

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” […] The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition [sic!] by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

In other words, some of those Northern non-slaveholding states were not returning freedom-seeking Negroes—private property as the South saw it—back to the South for more Southern hospitality. 

The secession document put it this way:

Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

And if any more evidence was needed to prove that the secessionist movement was always about the issue of slavery, here’s more from the document:

Those [non-slaveholding] States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection…

The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

There is no doubt that the Southern rebellion was designed and executed by people who thought they not only had the right to enslave others, but insisted the rest of America aid and abet them in their crimes against humanity.

And it doesn’t matter how many revisionist balls or galas or celebrations the descendants of the rebels hold, nothing will change that fact.

 

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