Robert K. Krick Defends Lee From Strawmen

I think it’s time for Robert K. Krick to get a new angle.  How much longer do we have to be subjected to vague references of an “anti-Lee” cabal among academic historians?  In 2007 I was asked to respond to a presentation he gave as part of the University of Virginia’s commemoration of “Lee at 200.”  In it Krick accused academic historians of intentionally distorting the history of Lee through an embrace of psycho-history and an over reliance on interpretation.  It appears that when it comes to Lee: No Interpretation Necessary.  If you want to know what Lee believed, just read his own words.  It appears little has changed in five years.

This past weekend Krick took part in the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s Signature Conference at the Virginia Military Institute.  It sounds like it was a huge success, which I am glad to hear.  Krick used the opportunity to once again go after his fellow historians.  This time, however, he accused them of ignoring Confederate postwar accounts as tainted with Lost Cause mythology.  As one example he cited the following:

One “inane strain” of that criticism, he said, holds that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wasn’t really so popular among his troops and Southern citizens at the time.  Nonsense, Krick said.  He offered a maxim about the writing of history that he called Hamlin’s Razor (a riff on Occam’s Razor): “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance or sloth.”

Can someone please name one historian who has recently made such a claim?  This is nothing more than a strawman argument.  The article does not mention whether Krick had anyone specific in mind and I suspect that he failed to do so.  And I don’t know one historian who brushes off postwar accounts as unreliable.  What a silly thing to say.  The only example Krick could muster was a recent story out of Ohio in which a teacher reprimanded a student for including Confederate sources.  Krick wrote to the teacher and we can only hope that this is the end of the story, but it tells us nothing particularly interesting about how historians treat postwar Confederate sources.

Enough already.

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15 comments… add one
  • Sean Walsh Apr 15, 2012 @ 7:17

    As a direct descendant of both Lt. John C. Walsh (NY 28th Infantry, Co. B) and Brig. Gen. Thomas Jonathan Jackson (CSA), I was particularly dismayed at the light my 3rd great-grandfather was cast in in Mr. Krick’s book “Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain.”
    In fact, Lt. Walsh received a note of disability from the regimental surgeon, and had one battlefield promotion to his credit, from 2nd Lt. to 1st Lt. Disliked by his superior officer William Bush, who had smeared his own men and The Union, on record, and had undergone a court martial after being taken a prisoner of war by the CSA, Bush went on to try and paint Lt. Walsh in poor light and went so far to drum up charges against him. The court martial proceedings of Walsh were openly and admittedly found to be exceptionally faulty. Moreover, a finding of NOT GUILTY was submitted in General Orders No. 68 in regard to the charge of cowardice at Cedar Mountain against Walsh – his “dismissal” as an officer was “REVOKED” by President Abraham Lincoln himself !
    It is amazing to me that Mr. Krick would mention my 3rd great grandfather in the manner that he does, in his book, without reading what amounts to a handful of pages and documents READILY AVAILABLE to the PUBLIC on GOOGLE !! Incredible !

  • Smith Apr 3, 2012 @ 7:41

    I find historians embrace of Lee as the military genius who nearly saved the South to be pathetic. Lee was as much to blame as anyone for losing the war. Perhaps only Jefferson Davis deserves more blame, but he took Lee’s advise. Bluntly, wars are won not by defeating the enemy in a battle, but by destroying their army as the culmination of a campaign. Lee failed to grasp this, and the Union army retreated intact time and again at the end of their campaigns. His own two offensive campaigns both ended in disaster. Lee’s penchant for frontal assaults ended up destroying his army’s ability to destroy the enemy. Lee was a failure, then the South lost.

  • Bob Huddleston Mar 30, 2012 @ 17:03

    My favorite Krick story is the sign that stood commemorating the attack of the First Corps, ANV in the Wilderness: while he was there, it did not mention the name of the Corps’ commanding general. Perhaps it has changed since he retired.

  • Emmanuel Dabney Mar 29, 2012 @ 2:51

    Yet there is some early critique of Lee. It’s been looked at by folks such as Elizabeth Pryor in Reading the Man and I found some critique (not so much hatred but critique) in the Richmond Daily Dispatch.

    Much of this pre-dates the summer of 1862.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 29, 2012 @ 2:56

      There seems to be an assumption at work with Krick that if you just go back to the original sources they will reveal the truth. If Lee said it, it must be true. Again, no interpretation necessary.

      • John Maass Mar 29, 2012 @ 6:05

        “There seems to be an assumption…” is just as much as an assumption as that of which you assume Krick!

  • Barbara Gannon Mar 28, 2012 @ 5:47

    If this is a cabal, its not very successful. How many talks does Krick give a year alongside academics? He is one of the “usual suspects” at Civil War conferences.

  • Jimmy Price Mar 28, 2012 @ 5:13

    It would appear that he was recycling from a talk he gave at the VHS a few years back:

    Most historians are guilty of that one. Who knows? Maybe people actually were saying Lee wasn’t popular with his contemporaries when he first wrote this talk?

    That being said, the world of Civil War history just would be the same if it wasn’t for Bob Krick (and his son.)

    • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2012 @ 5:18

      You can certainly find signs of it in Nolan, Connely, and Piston. The problem is that Krick never responds to their arguments; rather, he constructs strawmen versions that he can easily knock down, which work well with his audience.

      That being said, the world of Civil War history just would be the same if it wasn’t for Bob Krick (and his son.)

      Again, no disagreement there.

  • chris meekins Mar 28, 2012 @ 4:45

    Krick actually called Gallagher out during his talk as well. In the recent past, evidently, Gallagher called Krick to the mat over something Krick said while giving a tour (from the statement made it seemed to have occurred in real-time in front of a crowd). I think it was related to teh July 3 charge at Gettysburg. Krick had recently found a supporting contemporary account that backed his tour statement and used this venue to settle that score. Gallagher did not rise to the bait or respond in his closing talk. I thought it fairly odd to have been brought up.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2012 @ 4:51

      Oh brother.

      I find it hilarious that Krick would accuse historians of ignoring Lee’s wartime popularity with Gallagher nearby since he has done more than anyone in making that very point.

      • chris meekins Mar 28, 2012 @ 5:06

        I do believe the larger point, made by both presenters if memory serves, was not for historians to dismiss out of hand an account of an event or action simply because it was a Confederate source. Several folks made that point, even Gallagher touched on it -pointing out some good and some bad sources. The watch-word was br critical of your sources – a fine message; somewhat muddled by the delivery.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2012 @ 5:07

          No disagreement there.

  • James F. Epperson Mar 28, 2012 @ 3:39

    Krick has done a lot of good, quality, work, but he also is quite capable of going overboard in pursuit of his own agendas. His mangling of a letter home by one of Longstreet’s staff officers is perhaps the worst example, and his partisan enthusiasm about these squabbles is disturbing. He led a tour I took back in the 80s, and he was absolutely chortling that he had found a piece of evidence that would “shut those Longstreet people up”.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2012 @ 3:40

      My Krick books have rubber bands holding them together, but he should steer clear of historiography.

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