Historians, Revisionism, and Robert E. Lee

Looks like everyone who attended this weekend’s conference on Robert E. Lee sponsored by the Stephen D. Lee Institute had a grand old time.  I came across this short article in the Washington Times which focuses most of its attention on some of the comments by Robert Krick.  The conference is premised on the assumption that R. E. Lee is under attack by politically correct or so-called revisionist historians.  I tend to stay away from responding to these types of claims in large part because I don’t really understand what the criticisms imply.  Serious historians should address the relative merits of individual interpretations rather than hide behind vague generalizations. 

As evidence of this bias Krick claimed that the last few years has witnessed the publication of a "wretched flood of biographies."  He’s absolutely right about this and no doubt I have a couple of these titles on my shelf.  The counterfactual approach that Krick references can be seen clearly in Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered which was published about 15 years ago.  It has spawned a small cottage industry of imitators who tend to publish with small presses and whose authors include Bevin Alexander, Edward Bonekemper, and John D. McKenzie.   Most of these historians adopt Nolan’s assumptions and conclude that Lee lost the war with his overly aggressive strategy and/or conclude that Lee’s reputation was entirely the result of the postwar Lost Cause movement.  This latter argument was made forcefully by Thomas Connelly in his excellent book The Marble Man (1978).  I’ve never really thought of these studies as the result of some kind of personal attack; in the case of Alexander, Bonekemper, and McKenzie we are talking about bad history.  On the other hand, Connelly was a very serious historian and while I disagree with some of his arguments I’ve never been tempted to suggest that his conclusions were being driven by politics. 

Krick cites this postwar construction argument as evidence of revisionism, but is it?  Did Krick at any point in his presentation mention the incredible amount of scholarship published over the past decade that has worked to correct this assumption?  Gary Gallagher has spilled a great deal of ink in various essays arguing that Connelly’s assumptions are mistaken and that Lee’s reputation was solidified before the end of the war, and Krick has shown the same thing regarding "Stonewall" Jackson.  Even more historians have answered the Nolan-counterfactual approach by investigating the reasons why Lee engaged in an aggressive strategic and tactical approach throughout much of the war.  Based on this scholarship I surely do not interpret Lee’s reputation as simple postwar Lost Cause construction.  Of course, this does not imply that the postwar scene did not influence the way we remember the war and Lee specifically

While I admit that there is a great deal of bad history out there let’s keep things in perspective.  Is everything that challenges long-standing assumptions revisionism or politically correct?  I guess that’s what you get when you bring together a bunch of people who are all working under the same false assumptions that imply conspiracy and political motivation.  You end up reinforcing one another without spending time in critical analysis.

And in the end isn’t that what a conference is supposed to be all about?

Print Friendly
 

4 thoughts on “Historians, Revisionism, and Robert E. Lee

  1. Brooks Simpson

    It’s a funny article, between Mr. Bowling and Mr. McCain, who used to be an abusive neo-Confederate regular on a usenet newsgroup who celebrated his “steadfast devotion to The Southern Cause.” Lee needs to be rescued from some of his admirers.

    Reply
  2. Bruce Miller

    The problem with debating historical issues with advocates of the neo-Confederate viewpoint, like the Washington Times columnist Robert Stacy McCain or Thomas DiLorenzo, who was part of the conference, is that the neo-Confederate routine is not really about history. It’s a political ideology, whose main purpose so far as I can see is to sneer at black people and generally promote authoritarian attitudes. The history for them just becomes window-dressing to provide slogans and symbols. For historians or anyone interested in honest history, that presents a dilemma.

    Because on the one hand, some of these ideas have a wide influence in popular understanding of history and they are sort of unavoidable. In the case of the Civil War and Southern history, the essentials of the Lost Cause/neo-Confederate view were pretty much mainstream history in the South for decades. So Confederate symbolism gives far-right groups a chance to address issues that have cultural resonance for people who might not be so friendly to their core ideology.

    On the other hand, there is the dilemma that conference itself may reflect. It sounds like the organizers persuaded a couple of legitimate historians to appear with neo-Confederate ideologists. Which runs the risk of legitimizing their pseudohistory as being a respectable alternative to real history.

    For the kind of exchange among legitimate researchers like the criticisms you mention by Gary Gallagher of some of Alan Nolan’s and Thomas Connelly’s points about Robert E. Lee, when there is some basic level of honesty and also of agreement on common standards of evidence, reasoning and methodology, those kinds of exchanges move knowledge in the area forward.

    But with neo-Confederate ideology, like with Holocaust denial or creationism or other pseudohistory and pseudoscience, those basic standards of evidence and honesty are missing. I just saw a comment by a scientist who debates creationists saying that the average creationist can spout more misconceptions and misinformation in 15 minutes than he could refute in a lifetime. It was a hyperbolic way of saying that people who are committed to dealing honestly with real evidence have a definite disadvantage in that regard when trying to debate someone who’s willing to just make stuff up.

    On the other hand, debunking crackpot claims can also have its value. When Holocaust denier David Irving first made the argument that Hitler was not directing the Holocaust and probably didn’t even know about it, historians knew that claim was ridiculous. But it did spur Holocaust researchers like Christopher Browning to pin down better what is actually known about the decision-making process on the Holocaust.

    Regarding Alan Nolan’s view of Robert E. Lee, I do think he raises some legitimate questions about the Lost Cause idealization of Saint Lee. He makes a good case that Lee’s alleged opposition to slavery is based on his postwar statements, and that the available evidence from his prewar career does not support that. Lee’s Upper South justification for slavery, that it will disappear naturally someday somehow (about the time that hell freezes over), could be spun by Lost Cause advocates after the war as being antislavery compared to the overt glorification of slavery by other defenders of slavery.

    Nolan also makes a good case that there is at least heavy circumstantial evidence that the particulars of Lee’s version of his agonizing over the decision to give up his US command and join the Confederacy are somewhat less than strictly candid.

    And, on a murkier point, part of the Lost Cause image of Lee is that even though he wisely knew that the Confederate cause was lost, still he manfully continued leading his army as a matter of honor and loyalty to the South, and Christian virtue, and devotion to his men, and other saintly reasons. Nolan raises not only the question about how well-founded that claim is factually, but also the question of whether, if true, that it was really an honorable or responsible thing to do. Lee had the authority as commanding general to surrender his army. If he really knew there was no hope of a military victory, why did he not surrender the army and save a lot of lives on both sides that were lost needlessly in the continued fighting? Definitely a murkier point in the nature of the thing. But very relevant to the Lost Cause’s adoration of Confederate saints.

    Reply
  3. Kevin Levin

    Bruce and Brooks, — Your comments point to the fact that neo-Confederates begin from a position that defends Robert E. Lee. The position reduces to a set of assumption (historical and moral) that are assumed to be true and worth defending to the end. Because the defense has little to do with critical analysis any interpretation is dealt with on a moral level (hence the revisionist/political correctness assumption) and assumed to be an attack rather than an attempt to better understand the subject. You can see it in the fact that rarely do you actually find neo-Confederates engaged in debate with the texts and historians they criticize.

    Reply
  4. Jim

    “If he really knew there was no hope of a military victory, why did he not surrender the army and save a lot of lives on both sides that were lost needlessly in the continued fighting?”

    I believe John B. Gordon and others explain that the goal was to cause enough loss of enemy property and life as to make the desire of the North to subdue the South untenable. I think many, including Lee, viewed the war as invasion and thus were willing to defend it to the death of the last few – it was a point of honor. “Lee’s tragedy, and ours as Americans, was that he held firmly and correctly to Duty, Honor, Country” – Bill Thayer, reviewer of Freeman’s “R.E. Lee: A Biography”

    “Lee’s Upper South justification for slavery, that it will disappear naturally someday somehow (about the time that hell freezes over), could be spun by Lost Cause advocates after the war as being antislavery compared to the overt glorification of slavery by other defenders of slavery.”

    Although brought to an earlier close owing to the war, no doubt slavery was destined for failure regardless of the outcome of the CW (listening for gasps from the moral crusaders…). Profits allocate resources and slavery would not have generated the profits that other investments would. Slavery was an economic decision, and similar to the choice between putting your money in a 1% savings account (i.e. slavery) or investing in a diversified mutual fund at 10% (i.e. technological/ manufacturing enterprises), noone would choose the lower return on slavery, not to mention endure the risks associated with such an unethical business.

    “is that the neo-Confederate routine is not really about history. It’s a political ideology, whose main purpose so far as I can see is to sneer at black people and generally promote authoritarian attitudes.”

    I don’t really know what a “neo-Confederate” is, but maybe these people you are referring to simply want to remember their ancestor’s sacrifices and to protect their memory from inaccurate abuse from those who judge the past by today’s standards, who claim to be morally superior, and to use that claim for current political subjugation. “sneer at black people”, etc. is clearly an emotional, perceived reaction and has no real basis for the majority and thus is irrelevant.

    I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on history, and history is not a science. “What we have here is a failure to communicate”. Both sides need to turn down the political rhetoric that misuses history.

    Reply

Join the Conversation