Robert K. Krick, Robert E. Lee, and the Anti-Lee Historians
Last night I attended the first session of UVA’s “Lee at 200” conference which will run through the end of October. Each week a historian will address a different aspect of Lee’s life and legacy with a roundtable discussion scheduled for Oct. 31. I am scheduled along with two other panelists to lead this discussion. Given my role in this symposium I plan to attend as many sessions as possible. Bob Krick kicked things off with a talk on Lee’s legacy and commented on recent challenges to his reputation. It was basically the same talk he presented a few months back at a “conference” hosted by the SCV. I blogged about it then; click here for the post which links to an even earlier post on this talk. At the beginning he quoted from three nameless historians which he used as representative samples of how academics seem to treat Lee. He described them as anti-Lee which I still believe is misleading. One passage was clearly from Alan Nolan who I actually do believe comes closest to fulfilling this description. Nolan treats the historical Lee as if he is on trial and seems more concerned about arriving at a certain conclusion rather than understanding the historical reality in which Lee operated. We can write Nolan’s book off as sloppy scholarship.
I thought the other two passages were from Thomas Connelly and Michael Fellman, but during the Q&A I learned that he had read from William G. Piston and Carol Reardon. I asked Krick if he didn’t think that he had set up a strawman argument in the way he so quickly assumed what motivates these writers. For someone who is so suspicious of psycho-history it is strange to see Krick so easily assume the psychological qualities of Reardon and Piston. My underlying problem with his talk is that I still have no idea what he means by “anti-Lee.” Is anything that challenges the standard picture of Lee to be placed in this category? Why can’t we be content in acknowledging that historians often disagree with one another about the past? I’ve never met Piston, but I’ve talked with Reardon on a number of occasions and she doesn’t strike me as someone who has a personal need to tear down anyone from the past. I actually believe she is a pretty damn good historian. Our job as historians is to challenge interpretations we disagree with by demonstrating where we believe the weaknesses to be. Suggesting that someone is “anti-Lee” tells us more about the individual making the accusation than anything connected with the interpretation in question.
On a different note I should say that Krick’s latest reference book Civil War Weather in Virginia is well worth buying if you are the kind of person who needs to know all thing ANV related. I recently completed a review of the book for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography and will post it when it is published.