Gary Gallagher’s Lee

Today my class tackled an article by Gary Gallagher on the evolution of Robert E. Lee’s reputation both during and after the war.  There are a number of article-length pieces that can be used, but I stick with "When Lee Was Mortal" which was published in the Military History Quarterly (1998).  I always start with a very general question of whether the students enjoyed reading the article.  Except for one person who suggested that Gallagher repeated himself once too often, the class concluded that it was a nice blend of narrative and analysis.  We then discussed the author’s thesis; I force my students to be as clear and inclusive as possible when sketching out the scope and purpose of the article.  There was one really nice moment: As I was sketching out the thesis on the white board one of my students objected to the way I framed the argument.  She said something along the lines of, "Mr. Levin I think you missed the point."  I stepped back and asked her to clarify which she did with the help of a few classmates.  After a few minutes it was clear that I had indeed missed a crucial point.  It’s always nice when your students feel comfortable questioning your authority.

For those of you who are not familiar with Gallagher’s interpretation of Lee it is best understood as one rooted in a broad historical context.  Lee studies tend to fall in one or two categories.  The first includes those ridiculous Lost Cause/Christian Warrior sketches that give the back of their hand to any serious historical analysis.   The second concentrates on Lee the general and judges his decisions by looking specifically at the battles and campaigns.  The paradigm example of this is Alan Nolan’s critique.  Gallagher is interested in both the evolution of Lee’s reputation and the salient factors that shaped it.  It is not enough to look at the battles, according to Gallagher.  What is needed is a wider perspective that includes the expectations of white Southerners and the way in which Lee’s offensive campaigns both rallied Southern support and worked to build his reputation as a rallying point for Southern independence by the summer of 1863.  I was pleased with the overall discussion and the relative ease with which they were able to piece together why his analytical points about the integration of the battlefield and homefront in any historical analysis is so important. 

What I like about using Gallagher’s work is that his style and clarity have a tendency to "make you smart."  Click here if you would like a more detailed summary of the article that was written by one of my students last year and posted. 

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