Earlier this week I mentioned that I was going to explore with my Civil War class Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign his commission from the U.S. Army following Fort Sumter and Virginia’s decision to secede. I am interested in contrasting our popular perceptions surrounding Lee’s decisions within a richer historical context. As I mentioned in that earlier post, Lee’s decision is typically analyzed in a vacuum without any mention of how others in a similar position decided. So here is what I plan to do with the class today. We are going to look at some Lost Cause images of Lee followed by a few minutes from the Ken Burns documentary. I will ask the students to think seriously about common threads between the images and the way Burns presents Lee’s difficult decision. Following the movie I will share some of the statistics from Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh’s study as a way to situate Lee among a larger group of officers who were in a similar situation, many of whom decided differently.
The Lost Cause view of a struggling Lee is brilliantly captured in D.S. Freeman’s biography — always a great place to start when analyzing our popular assumptions about the Confederacy and the war:
His resignation was not prompted by passion, nor did it carry with it resentment against the Union he left. On the contrary, if there was any resentment, it was against the authors, Northern and Southern, of the consummate wickedness of bringing about division within the Union. There was a pang and a heartache at the separation from brother officers whose patriotism he had seen vindicated in the hardships of campaigning and in the dangers of battle. He was willing to defend Virginia, whatever her allegiance, but he did not desire to fight against the flag under which he had served. If he must see the Union wrecked by men who would not forbear and plead for justice through constitutional means, if he must tear himself from the service of a nation of which he had been proud, then the hope of his heart was that he might never again be called to draw a sword which only Virginia could command. It was in this spirit that he wrote farewell to General Scott, that loyal old friend, who had admired him, taught him, and advanced him.
Lee did not "break his oath and abandon his duty when he joined the Confederate cause." He resigned his commission. President Lincoln had declared a blockade of southern ports on April 19, and Lee knew what was coming next: an unconstitutional invasion of the states to overthrow elected state governments. As the saying goes, "When you take the king’s shilling, you do the king’s bidding." When one is asked to violate one’s oath to the Constitution, the honorable thing to do is resign the office. If you cannot do the king’s bidding, you cannot take the king’s shilling. This is what honorable men do. Perhaps Mr. Withrow thinks that officers should obey every government order, even unconstitutional ones. More’s the pity. The soldiers who guarded the walls at Auschwitz felt much the same way. Lee’s conduct is exactly what should be held up as an example of what honorable men do when faced with orders that violate their solemn oaths to the Constitution.
Any person of Christian values would know that Robert E. Lee (unlike some of his Northern counterparts) was one of the finest Christian men who ever lived. If Mr. Withrow knew his history, he would know that Robert E. Lee stood for, and believed in, the words of the Constitution of this country, as much as or more than anyone before or after. This was a Constitution, I might add, that was hanging by a thread under the Lincoln administration. As for other Confederate leaders, Mr. Withrow might be surprised to know how many military bases in America today are named after Confederate generals. There is no shame connected, in even the slightest amount, to the name of Robert E. Lee; the shame is on Mr. Withrow for writing such words. There is nothing but honor to be given to the men who fought for the Confederate states, and honor in the flags they fought under.
I post these last two more for their comedic qualities rather than as anything worth serious analysis. My goal today is not to praise or blame Lee for the decision he made, but to try to come to terms with what it meant apart from the tendency to praise regardless of what went into the decision. In addition I am interested in how we’ve chosen to remember this particular moment in his life. I want my students to begin to think seriously about memory and how certain interpretations become ingrained in our collective memories, and that it is reasonable to question those interpretations.