Tension Between Union & Reconciliation

General-Lee-painting-zach-franzenSpent a few hours earlier today at the Massachusetts Historical Society looking at letters and diaries of Northern soldiers who fought at the Crater. As happens so often during the research process what turned out to be the most interesting discovery was unrelated to my immediate project. After reading his wartime letters I decided to go through the G.A.R. materials in the William M. Olin collection. Included is the John E. Gilman Camp’s Record Book that Olin joined after the war.

I don’t have any information on the backstory, but apparently in 1936 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology accepted a portrait of Robert E. Lee. This did not sit well with the veterans in the Gilman Camp and I suspect they were not alone.

Here are the relevant minutes from the meeting.

January 21, 1936

New Business: Resolve, the action of the Mass Inst of Technology in accepting the portrait of Robt E. Lee is a distinctly un-patriotic act, it is the portrait of a traitor who stood to sacrifice the Union for the barbaric system of slavery, the resolve was noted and carried.

Over the course of the next few weeks camp members had a change of heart.

February 18, 1936

New Business: It is voted that the resolution adopted by this Camp at its last meeting on Jan 21, 1936 protesting against the accepting of a portrait of Robt E. Lee by the Mass Inst of Technology and terming such acceptance a distinctly unpatriotic act be entirely rescinded. That after due reflection and reconsideration it is the feeling of this Camp that the act of the Inst of Tech, in accepting the portrait was intended as a recognition of the healing of the wounds and scars left by the Civil War and the Completeness of the reuniting of the two sections of this great Country and was therefore a most meritorious act.

It would be interesting to know what might have taken place that led to the rescinding of the earlier resolve. Calling Barbara Gannon, calling Barbara Gannon…

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9 comments… add one
  • Billy Bearden Jan 14, 2014 @ 5:28

    Still the bitter feelings by the Yankees at MIT 45 years after the Confederate Veteran built a monument to the Union dead in Oak Bluffs and 11 years after the Yankees added a plaque in honor of the Confederate dead in Martha’s Vineyard stating the “Chasm is Closed”.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 14, 2014 @ 5:40

      Yes, the assumption that all or even the majority of veterans on both sides eventually embraced reconciliation is much too simplistic. Of course, there seems to be more at work here given the fact that the Camp eventually retracted their condemnation.

  • Dave Jordan Jan 13, 2014 @ 18:54

    I’m more curious about who donated the portrait of Lee to MIT and why they did so. Does MIT still have the Lee portrait? If so. is it on public display?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 14, 2014 @ 2:00

      Unfortunately, at this point I can’t answer any of your questions. Like I said, at some point I hope to follow up. Stay tuned.

  • Michael Chornesky Jan 12, 2014 @ 18:16

    I’ve found sources similar to this regarding Lee (mainly people casually referring to him as a traitor to protest commemorations of him) in the Congressional Record and in various letters sent to government officials during the 1920s and early ’30s. Most of the relevant historiography accepts the hagiography regarding Lee as being established by 1907, when Charles Francis Adams gave a now-famous speech extolling Lee’s virtues at Washington and Lee University in the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of his birth.

    It’s an interesting question, especially considering Joan Waugh’s book on U.S. Grant and the fact that Thomas Connelly’s “Marble Man” still remains the go to on the public memory of Lee, despite dating from 1977. In light of recent methodological breakthroughs, Connelly’s appears to be in need of a well-researched update.

    My main question about this particular source would be: how prominent would the GAR or SUVCW have been in issuing such a statement in 1936? Were they more a vets organization or a memorial group at that point? The secondary materials on these kind of groups get fuzzy on coverage after WWI.

  • Brad Jan 11, 2014 @ 15:49

    The whys and wherefores of why they passed the resolution and then rescinded and the intervening discussions — especially the discussions — would be fascinating to know.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 11, 2014 @ 16:57

      I may look into it at some point.

  • Barbara Gannon Jan 11, 2014 @ 13:56

    Camp makes me think this was the sons organization–the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. If true, this makes the initial resolution more interesting because, this generation was supposed to have accepted Lee without question, some did not.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 11, 2014 @ 14:09

      I hadn’t thought about the Sons or the generational divide, but now I am even more intrigued given your point about the Camp and Lee. Thanks.

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