A Myopic View Of Robert E. Lee

by Dan McLaughlin

For most of the first century following the American Civil War, histories of the war’s legacy – particularly the Reconstruction era – tended to suffer from the myopia of considering only the relationship between white Northerners and white Southerners. As the war neared its end, some in the Union (like Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, though in very different ways) stressed the need for reconciliation between the Union and the defeated Confederates; other “Radical Republicans” wanted a more vigorous demonstration of vengeance towards the rebels and their leaders for their treason. The result of looking at the war and its aftermath solely through this framework is that waves of revisionism swung back and forth between views sympathetic to the Radicals’ desire to remake the South and liberal-sounding histories that condemned them as hard-hearted zealots insistent on prolonging the nation’s divisions, and that painted Reconstruction as a cesspool of corruption. The latter type of history was largely responsible for the bad historical reputation of Ulysses S. Grant’s Radical-friendly presidency. It also colored denunciations of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson (although Johnson, who was wrong about Reconstruction, was right about the specific dispute at issue in the impeachment.) You can still catch a whiff of this latter view in the chapters on that era in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

The problem with the “how hard should we have been on the Confederates” debate is simple: it leaves black people out of the picture. That’s a rather large omission. The Civil War was not, as some would have you believe, fought only over the issue of slavery; it was the culmination of a series of disputes over ideas and policies, and seeing the war as a crusade to free the slaves was never more than the view of a sizeable minority faction in the North. Even Lincoln was willing, all the way to 1865, to make some concessions on the pace of abolition in order to end the war and preserve the Union. But slavery was unquestionably the main cause of the rupture between North and South, without which there would have been no war. The debates and resolutions adopted by Southern states when they seceded made it extraordinarily clear that the South was leaving mainly to protect the institution of slavery. (Moreover, many of the secondary disputes between the two sides were connected to the nature of the Southern slave economy). And in the debates over Reconstruction, the civil and economic rights of the freed slaves were a crucial battleground, one on which Northern Republicans fought long and hard for a decade before exhaustedly surrendering in 1876 in exchange for control of the White House.

If you have only ever read treatments of the life of Robert E. Lee that suffer from the myopic exclusion of black people, Adam Serwer’s latest piece in The Atlantic could offer you a useful corrective. But Serwer suffers from his own myopia.

Lee was widely revered in his own day – even by his adversaries – partly for being a great general, and partly as a paragon of a great many virtues valued by the (white) American society of his time. Serwer offers to add to that picture both a reminder that Lee shared the retrograde racial attitudes of his time and that the cause Lee fought for was inseparable in every particular from slavery. (He offers as one example the fact that Lee would not engage in prisoner of war exchanges that treated captured black Union soldiers as prisoners of war rather than escaped property). He also notes that Lee’s role as a postwar conciliator must be balanced against his continuing opposition to black civil rights, a movement that would mature into the full horror of Jim Crow within a few years of Lee’s 1870 death. If Serwer stopped there, he’d be on solid enough ground.

But intent on attacking every aspect of Lee’s memory, Serwer keeps going. First, he berates Lee for the grand-strategic decision to wage a conventional war against the Union:

Despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.

This echoes a May 19 op-ed by Michael Rosenwald in the Washington Post, tendentiously titled “The truth about Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee: He wasn’t very good at his job,” which chose to level the same charge at the same time, probably for the same reason:

Outmanned, Lee should have taken a more defensive posture, drawing the North into difficult Southern terrain. Instead, he was constantly on the offensive, which resulted in heavy casualties and broken spirits.

It’s true that the Confederacy’s grand strategy in the war was badly flawed. Indeed, the decision to wage the war at all was insane: the Confederacy was far less of a match in manpower or industry for the Union than the Thirteen Colonies had been relative to Great Britain in 1775, and unlike the colonists, the Confederacy didn’t have an ocean between themselves and their adversaries. The Confederate cause could succeed only if it was vastly better-led than the Union, and thanks in large part to Lee, it managed to pull that off for the first two and a half years of the war.

However, Serwer’s attack on Lee as a strategist completely ignores two vital points. One, Lee wasn’t in charge of grand strategy, and in reality wasn’t even a theater commander until June of 1862, when he was put in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia in time to halt a Union advance on the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lee had spent the year before that fighting relatively peripheral battles and supervising the construction of defensive trenches around Richmond. The Confederacy was a democracy, and its elected government was headed by Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate, former Secretary of War and a colonel in the Mexican War who took an active role in military strategy. It wasn’t Lee who decided to locate the new capital so close to the Union lines, necessitating the commitment of extensive resources to defend Eastern Virginia. It was Davis and his government, not Lee, who imposed the political imperatives that drove Confederate strategy.

More broadly, Serwer wholly fails to consider the moral consequences of a purely defensive war of Fabian retreats and guerilla fighting on Confederate turf. Such a war – which Lee never wanted during the war, and which he rejected as a path of insurgency after Appomattox – would have been one of scorched earth and embitterment, not only wrecking the South even in victory but making any permanent reconciliation vastly more difficult in defeat. The human toll of such a war could be seen from the places where it had erupted during the Revolution, like North Carolina. Sherman would ultimately bring scorched earth to Georgia, and the results hardly recommend a deliberate strategy to invite that for the entire war.

Related to this is how little credit he gives Lee’s eminence and gentlemanly surrender for preventing a long-term insurgency, avoiding an aftermath like the French Revolution, and enabling the country to return to being a single, functional political whole in time enough to see the vast rise in American prosperity and power between 1870 and 1945. If the old histories of Reconstruction were myopic in forgetting African-Americans, Serwer’s view is myopic in considering no one else, not even the majority of the population. Looking back at Jim Crow, he cannot see how anything could have been worse, why national reconciliation after the war had any value, or why anyone would have wanted peace in the America of 1865-76. We can use the distance of history to judge the national decision to fight no further, but we should have some understanding of what costs the people of the day had paid already, and what they spared by laying down the sword.

In fact, Lee’s willingness after the war to subordinate the interests of freed slaves to the cause of union and peace was not so radically different from the view that Lincoln himself took during the war. All the way up to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, Lincoln had held onto the view that some concessions on slavery (albeit fewer as the war wore on) could be exchanged for restoring the nation. That doesn’t make Lee the moral equal of Lincoln, but the Americans of that day did not see things in the same terms we do now.

Lee was no hero; he fought for an unjust cause, and he lost. Unlike the Founding Fathers (even the slaveholders among them), he failed the basic test of history: leaving the world better and freer than he found it. And while he was not responsible for the South’s strategic failures, his lack of strategic vision places him below Grant, Sherman and Winfield Scott in any assessment of the war’s greatest generals. We should not be building new monuments to him, but if we fail to understand why the men of his day revered him, we are likelier to fail to understand who people revere today, and why. And tearing down statues of Lee today is less about understanding the past than it is a contest to divide the people of today’s America, and see who holds more power. That’s no better an attitude today than it was in Lee’s day.

As much as I value history – understanding it is essential to understanding our own world today – one should be suspicious of people looking to make a contemporary political cause out of the American Civil War, the most bloody and divisive episode in our nation’s past. The results are often more racial division and less understanding of history. Serwer’s interest in attacking General Lee is transparently about the present, not the past. That myopia is how he ends up down a blind alley.

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