It’s been a strange experience teaching the history and memory of Lee to my two Civil War Memory sections. We are going to spend at least 10 days with Lee in preparation for a trip to Richmond, which will take us to a number of sites, including the Lee statue on monument avenue. What I am finding is a kind of detachment among my students that I did not anticipate. Even those students who are native to Virginia don’t seem to display the kind of reverence for the general that you might expect. Today we continued our introductory discussions with an analysis of a number of wartime images as well as a reading of Abram J. Ryan’s poem, “The Sword of Robert E. Lee.” Ryan was a captain in the Army of Northern Virginia and was considered by many to be the “poet-priest of the Confederacy.”
We spent some time discussing our own needs to venerate the past and cast historical figures as heroes. We considered the impact of defeat, emancipation, and military occupation as factors, which help to explain the eventual refashioning of the history of the war around Lost Cause principles, with Lee as its centerpiece.
What I am most impressed with is this generation’s ability to ask, “Why Lee?” In other words, my students are able to ask an objective question that will not threaten any deep-seated emotional connection (one way or the other) to Lee’s memory and legacy. That itself is an interesting reflection of the memory of the Civil War and one that is no doubt horrifying to certain readers. As a group, my students don’t see Lee as the embodiment of perfect virtue or a symbol of an age that deserves to be emulated. In fact, a few of my students were downright disgusted by the idea, especially when it came to the theme of the “Reluctant Warrior.” I mentioned that one of the most popular stories concerning Lee is his reluctant decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army following Virginia’s secession from the Union. A few students suggested that Lee’s actions represented outright treason and another student inquired whether we would make an exception for anyone else in American history or even an officer today. [Just out of curiosity, what would you say to this student and in light of the fact that not all southern graduates of West Point did resign their commissions in favor of their respective states?] I honestly don’t know how to explain this attitude, although I do believe that it is generational.
Finally, I showed a number of prints of Lee from the war and through the postwar period and ending with some recent samples from the collections of Mort Kunstler, John Paul Strain, and William Maughan – including a few religious themes. First, most of my students were in stitches and then asked if people actually buy this stuff. Please keep in mind that these are not little heathens. Most of them claim a religious affiliation and attend church on a regular or semi-regular basis. Something has been lost between the image of Lee and their understanding of Christianity.
Please keep in mind that it is not my responsibility as a teacher – nor do I have a vested interest in demanding – that my students believe anything (beyond factual information) about R.E. Lee. My job is to train my students to better understand why and how we remember the Civil War the way we do. What is clear to me is that they are approaching this subject from a perspective that reflects both their generation’s interests and priorties as well as their distance from the events of the war itself. It’s not that they are not interested in the subject; in fact, I can’t think of a historical subject that lights the room up the way the Civil War does. They simply are not emotionally invested in a certain interpretation of the war as compared to older generations. I understand that certain people will feel threatened and/or disappointed by what I’ve said here, but there really is no reason for doing so. It does not necessarily reflect a fundamental shift in values; in other words, this is not a sign of the apocalypse or the end of western civilization as we know it. It may simply be a reflection of a change in where this generation looks to find certain values at work in their own lives.