“Robert E. Lee: Hero or Traitor?”

What does it say about an organization that structures a conference around a mutually exclusive choice?  This is a perfect conference for those of you who like your history overly simplistic and based around a strawman argument:

But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valour and leadership were surpassed only by his honour and humanity? Or, as some suggest today, was he a traitor whose military skill served a bad cause and prolonged an immoral rebellion against his rightful government?

To many, Robert E. Lee is a remote figure, a marble icon. To others he was simply a great battlefield commander. But Lee was much more; his character shines brightly from the past, illuminating the present. The Symposium will cover Lee the man, his views on government and liberty, his humane attitudes toward race and slavery, Lee and the American Union, Lee as inspired commander and his relationship with the Army, Lee as a Christian gentleman, and the meaning of Lee for today.

Am I to believe that it is possible to have an analytical discussion about these issues?  Given the list of speakers is this really going to be a serious discussion with panelists taking different positions or are they simply going to sit around and toast the general with their words?  At least they were smart enough to invite Bob Krick  and Kent M. Brown who are the only two on the list qualified to talk about Lee’s generalship.  I think I will pass on this one and spend some time Saturday reading a history of Lee.   

11 responses... add one

I think you’re confusing marketing and scholarship. The conference organizers are trying to kindle interest in the conference. And the question of whether Robert E. Lee was a hero or a traitor (or both or neither) is responsible for a lot of ink fired in anger over the years.

I recently wrote my Democrat Congressman and lambasted that party for undercutting our troops in Iraq while claiming to support them at the same time. In the email I stated that the Democrats are today the party of traitors just as they were in 1864. In the next sentence I exempted Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis on the grounds that both “fought openly and honorably against the United States.”

Instead I pointed out that I was referring to Northern Democrat Copperheads such as Clement Vallandingham, Fernando Wood, and Horatio Seymour.

No, I don’t think Lee was a traitor, however mistaken I consider his choice. He and the Stars and Bars receive a lot more respect from this unreconstructed Yankee than certain contemporary politicians.

Terry, — I think you give the organizers of this conference too much credit. The above description is no doubt not simply meant as a marketing technique but will in fact be used as a springboard for what many will consier to be a serious discussion. The list of presenters is a pretty clear indication that this will not be a scholarly conference where debate will take place. It sounds more like a love fest. And that’s fine if that is what is desired. Just don’t tell me that this is about history.

Please understand that I have very little interest in whether we consider Lee to be a traitor and the reason is because it reduces to a personal choice over the starting assumptions.

Can’t he be a hero to some and a traitor to others, and both to some (and maybe neither to others)?

Brooks, — You bet and perhaps we can sketch out a few conceptually impossible alternatives. R.E. Lee can be whatever the interpreter wants him to be. I have absolutely no problem at all with that.

I saw this conference advertised in Civil War News and just had to shake my head. It seems clear to me how the organizers of this event view Lee; their opinion of Lee will not change no matter what is discussed or who does the discussion at this conference. The “humane attitudes toward race and slavery” thing is simply incomprehensible to me. We learned last week in Sherman’s March on the History Channel that W.T. Sherman had little sympathy for slaves, so I guess some would say that this Union general’s attitudes toward “race and slavery” were inhumane. But while one fought for the destruction of the institution, the other, who is labeled as having “humane attitudes” fought for its preservation. Labeling someone a humane slaveowner is a tremendous oxymoron.

Hi John, — Absurdities clearly abound. This gathering is no more than a rap session for Lee apologists. They are going to sit around and use the old “politically correct” argument to bounce their simplistic ideas against. It’s laughable. Apart from Brown and Krick who do know a great deal about Lee as a general there is not one noted Lee scholar on the list.

I love your comparison with Sherman. We are also to believe that Stonewall Jackson was the slaves’ friend because he “educated” them. I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy a friend like Jackson.

“But while one fought for the destruction of the institution, the other, who is labeled as having “humane attitudes” fought for its preservation”

Incorrect. Sherman fought for preservation of the Union, not to destroy slavery. In fact, Sherman was a fan of the southern institution of slavery. See quote from Sherman’s letters below:

“So uninterested was Sherman in fighting for emancipation that he could write David F. Boyd, April 4, 1861, that slavery “is and was no cause for a severance of the old Union, but [I] will go further and say that I believe the practice of slavery in the South is the mildest and best regulated system of slavery in the world now or heretofore” (p. 65).”

Jim, — There is a reason why I don’t respond to your comments as I used to. If you took the time to read John’s comment carefully you would have realized that he was not suggesting that Sherman was some kind of abolitionist. He was simply acknowledging that by 1864 Sherman was fighting in an army, which if victorious, would have brought an end to slavery. If you are truly interested in Sherman’s views on slavery and race I suggest you read his correpsondence which is edited by Brooks Simpson and Jean Berlin, _Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman_ (University of North Carolina Press).


Are you sure? Because it makes reference to, “this Union general’s attitudes”, which clearly is Sherman. He goes on to ironically point out, “the other, who is labeled as having “humane attitudes”, which is referencing Lee. But this type of knitpicking is irrelevant anyway, in that, his comment was just another way of portraying the South in an immoral light when anyone with an average IQ can determine that there was roughly moral parity among whites across regions.

I also am amused at how when I disagree it is either I didn’t read the comment correctly, haven’t read some material you reference, or I just simply “don’t get it”. I admit that I could be guilty of any or all of those from time to time, but that it gets suggested every time means one of us is full of it.

Let’s recall that in the same letter quoted above, Sherman also said: “On the question of secession however I am ultra–I believe in coercion and connot comprehend how any government can exist unless it defend its integrity.”

Sherman scholars have never questioned the existence of his racism or his endorsement of slavery based on that racism. But one might place those comments in context if one really wants to gain a better understanding of Sherman’s views on the roots of secession and civil war.

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