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?