Yesterday I shared a brief passage from W.E.B. DuBois on Confederate monuments. Below is an short essay from DuBois on Robert E. Lee’s legacy published in 1928. Source: The Crisis, March 1928, v.35, n.3 [found in the “Postscript” section]

Robert E. Lee

Each year on the 19th of January there is renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee, the greatest confederate general. His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing–one terrible fact–militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery. Copperheads like the New York Times may magisterially declare: “of course, he never fought for slavery.” Well, for what did he fight? State rights? Nonsense. The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slavery. If nationalism had been a stronger defense of the slave system than particularism, the South would have been as nationalistic in 1861 as it had been in 1812.

No. People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. He surrendered not to Grant, but to Negro Emancipation.

Today we can best perpetuate his memory and his nobler traits not by falsifying his moral debacle, but by explaining it to the young white south. What Lee did in 1861, other Lees are doing in 1928. They lack the moral courage to stand up for justice to the Negro because of the overwhelming public opinion of their social environment. Their fathers in the past have condoned lynching and mob violence, just as today they acquiesce in the disfranchisement of educated and worthy black citizens, provide wretchedly inadequate public schools for Negro children and endorse a public treatment of sickness, poverty and crime which disgraces civilization.

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. it is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel–not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.

About Kevin Levin

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126 comments add yours

  1. In some ways, Lee reminds me of Erwin Rommel and the “clean Wehrmacht” mythology. I saw a good quote on Wikipedia that made me think of Lee: “Rommel’s military brilliance provoked a masochistic tendency to romanticize a worthy opponent, that because he was skilled at his profession, he must have been an anti-Nazi hero.”

    First thing I thought of was the Lost Cause and the twentieth century tendency to describe Lee as an “abolitionist.”

    • You do know that the Nazi’s murdered Rommel for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler.

        • Kristoffer, that video was a great addition to the conversation! And I couldn’t stop thinking about Lee the whole time I watched it.

          Lee died in 1870. Not during the war like Rommel, but shortly enough that he never wrote a biography or joined the Klan. His postwar actions and words were enough to re-paint him as an icon of reconciliation. Dead soldiers really do make the best heroes.

          General Lee, like the Dessert Fox, was a political necessity for the United States at the turn of the century. He was a “Good Southerner,” and a potential hero for the whole nation. Lee’s ties to slavery have been covered up, just like Rommel’s bromance with Hitler. Lee was made into a magically modern man that anyone can admire. This is why FDR called him “one of our greatest American gentlemen.”

          Of course, like Rommel, the real Lee is complicated and contradictory.

    • I’ve lived in Virginia all my life and I’ve never heard anyone describe Lee as an abolitionist. Making up stories doesn’t get to the truth for either side.

      • I lived and taught in Virginia for 11 years and I heard plenty of crazy things about Lee, including that he was an abolitionist.

  2. I don’t think the Nazi comparisons will be useful.

    Strong words and strong arguments from duBois. It took the rest of us 60 + years to catch up.

    • Yeah, I opened the “Godwin’s Law” can of worms. I shouldn’t have gone there. ::sigh::

    • Not sure about that, but I’m sure it’s useful to compare the “reconciliationist” treatment of Confederates with the cold war propaganda that whitewashed the wehrmacht in particular.

    • Funny what a little demonstration in Charlottesville can do to language. Now it is okay to call Nazis Nazis.

  3. Frederick Douglass was saying some of the same things in the 19th century.

    • Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.

  4. quite a punch in a few short paragraphs.

    I agree that Lee rode with the overwhelming public opinion without deviating from or attempting to change it – along with several million other white southerners.

    I also don’t believe he should be excoriated for it, though his monuments should be.

    The actual leaders and creators of that society’s public opinion have all faded away. No one raised statues to them.

  5. What a stunning indictment. Personally, I love his use of the word “nonsense” because that is exactly what the states rights argument is. Utter nonsense.

    • Tell that to the New England states that threatened secession if they were forced to fight the War of 1812. Tell it to the people in California, Oregon and Washington who are calling for secession because they don’t like Trump and the rules coming out of Washington. Secession is part of states rights and it’s still with us. If you think your state should be able to have sanctuary cities, you believe in states rights. If you think your state should be able to legalize marijuana when the national government doesn’t, you believe in states rights. If you think your state should determine what is taught in public schools and when, then you believe in states rights. An awful lot of people believe in it without realizing it.

      • State’s rights do exist. However, state’s rights was not the issue that caused secession. Slavery was.

        Also, when you look at state’s rights, what they really represent is the party not in power in Washington D.C. They are the rallying call of those parties in the bid to get back into power. No matter how you cut it, the party in power always tries to use its control of the federal government to further its interests on the national level.

        The slave owners screamed loudly when Lincoln won because they would not have control of the federal government although the Democrats would still control the Senate. Secession is not part of state’s rights. It is simply the cry of those who don’t have power and want to threaten disunion if they don’t get their way. It is unconstitutional and will be met with military force no matter what state or bloc of states may try to secede.

      • Actually Lynne, the “secession”ist movements you’re referring to in California, Oregon, Washington (and other states like Texas) have gained more notoriety in recent years because of Russian Interference in our political system. Yes, it is true. Putin (the world’s most successful, corrupt, murderous kleptocrat) seeks to prevent any other individuals, organizations, and entire countries from interfering with his ability to do as he pleases. Don’t believe me, study his history… study the history of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. See how they have eliminated competition by dividing, dismantling, and conquering opposition. When that hasn’t worked, he has eliminated them. He, and his other former KGB alumni, have taken over all the former Soviet Industries and Assets since the State-owned Socialist/Communist architecture collapsed in 1989. He is, quite literally, one of the richest, most powerful men in the world. Why would he devote some of his assets to disrupt the United States? Well, besides being trained as an agent in doing that very thing his whole life, most recently, president Obama (and yes, Hillary Clinton) helped institute effective sanctions against Russia after their illegal invasion of Crimea a few years ago. Billionaire Russian Oligarchs are truly being hurt by America’s actions to freeze their assets around the world, and stop them from legally exporting their biggest cash-producing commodity from that region… oil. Quite simply, they’re pissed. They don’t want someone else telling them what they can and can’t do. So, to re-establish+expand their selfish interests, they have found a way of utilizing recently developed internet hacking technologies with their well-established, well-documented skills of espionage, subversion, and insurrection to weaken their “enemies”. They have used their extensive network of insurgents in an all-out blitz to destabilize powers arrayed against their interests, like NATO, Great Britain, and United States. One element of this effort is to look for, find, and encourage separatist ideology within major NATO countries. See “Brexit” as a recent success for them. See their well-documented, and effective, efforts to infiltrate the American election process to create chaos, discord, and division. Their efforts are not limited just to political parties or candidates. Russian backed treachery includes promoting malcontents and divisive movements within countries whose governments are interfering with Russian Nihilistic aims. Remember America’s motto: “United we stand, divided we fall”? It is up to each of us today, to find the “moral courage” W.E.B. DuBois speaks of, to stand up for justice, unity, and oppose those who would seek to break the very things that make America strong. We must not allow ourselves to succumb to our own selfish discontents and personal disenfranchisement to such a degree that we justify undermining, or overthrowing, the entire system within which that disempowerment has been allowed to occur. That is how individual passions overcame reason and led our country into a civil war in 1861. No American wants another great physical cataclysm of death and destruction between Americans. It is only outside forces (like the criminal Putin) that want America to completely implode from within. Corrupt, radical, ambitiously idealistic, and avaricious people inside our country are vulnerable to manipulation by more powerful, more devious, foreign influence. Well choreographed foreign Counter-intelligence designed to appear to the disgruntled as friendly local support will validate their grievances and embolden their cause. But actual financing and empowerment of their lamentation enables them to act upon those vexations (whether real, or perceived). Regular farmers, small business owners, and manual laborers throughout the south in 1861 were subjected to an effective propaganda campaign by the wealthiest 1% of Southern Gentry that found a common scapegoat to blame for whatever ails, ills, or impediments any given southern citizen and his family was experiencing. Why would poor white southern subsistence farmers, who owned no slaves, leave their families to endanger their own lives to fight for a system trying to uphold slavery? They must believe they are protecting that which they value. They must believe that what they value is under threat from those people identified as trying to take it away from them. It is clear why a southern slave-owner would fight (or send surrogates to fight for him) to defend an economic system utilizing slave labor to accomplish goals he’s personally adopted, and believed his whole life. But why would a non-slave owner also fight alongside if they themselves have no interest in owning slaves, or perpetuating either the expansion of, or removal of, slavery as a social construct. Those individuals had their love of country, of independence, liberty and freedom threatened. Some, undoubtedly fought to preserve the social institution of black enslavement and/or white supremacy as indistinguishable elements of their personal “heritage”. By the standard of the day, The poorest white man still didn’t want to work for, or have to defer to, a free and wealthy black man, which is what the northerners (specifically abolitionists) were trying to bring about. It is up to us – each of us today – to question, to seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, on all things… especially what we believe without question. Those well rooted notions that have long since sunk from the conscious thought level down into the sub-conscious realm of practical reality are the very emotionally charged beliefs we should question before simply accepting negative, cynical, even dangerous artful legerdemain of those thoughts and feelings. Most people in Texas, or California, or elsewhere, do not want to “secede” from the Union, they do want more control over their state government without losing the beneficial imports and advantages coming from the federal government to any state in times of distress (such as natural disaster recovery assistance). Oh, there will always be fringe individuals who may collect a small tribe of equally desultory, disorganized, antagonists and anarchists to foment an effect to establish their own autonomy separate and above from the established authority deemed as an illegal regime over them. Wish I had more time to shorten this wordy text into simpler, easier to digest truisms and include links embedded throughout to reference the actual data, research, and evidence supporting each idea I’m asserting above… however they are easy to google and discover oneself, if one were inclined to do so. Going forward into today’s uncharted American political waters, I will keep in mind “Mud thrown is ground lost”, and I will seek out only those media sources consistently showing their strong commitment to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, without overriding opinion (with a hidden agenda) disguised as commentary or “expert advice” from “credible people. I will stay away from “news” agencies profiting off lies, innuendo, distortions, fabrications, exaggerations, and manipulative, out-of-context, false diatribes intended to appear as reasonable arguments instead of the hollow prevarications they actually are. These so called “fair and balanced” displays of partisan pretense are designed to beguile and bewilder the viewer who may not have the time (or desire) to explore or research the detail behind what is being spun as to be believed, almost without question. Remember, #FollowTheMoney if you doubt the veracity of the content being presented on whatever media source you ingest on a daily basis. Know the motivation behind those that would sell stories to viewers, and what those media sources seek to gain from establishing viewer trust and support of the rhetoric they’re paid to present as ‘news’.

  6. I wish the second half of the 3rd paragraph weren’t still true. Good writing, though.

  7. I notice Dubois is treading softly with his 1928 audience. He says “their fathers in the past have condoned lynching and mob violence.”

    Their FATHERS? “In the past?” Lynchings still were an active part of life in 1928, the year in which Virginia signed an anti-lynching law. Dubois was going easy on the whites of his day by implying that they had long ago progressed beyond lynching.

    Anything but.

      • Not sure if it’s a flaw, or if he was just being smart. He could’ve ended up dead if he was too bold.

        • How foolish of me. I was using du Bois’ Black Reconstruction as a point of reference, when that was published after this essay. By that point, du Bois had gotten bold enough to say that “Three-fourths of the testimony against the Negro in Reconstruction is on the unsupported evidence of men who hated and despised Negroes and regarded it as loyalty to blood, patriotism to country, and filial tribute to the fathers to lie, steal or kill in order to discredit these black folk.”

          Then there is this closing paragraph from Black Reconstruction, which is what I was alluding to when I said “another flaw”:
          “Immediately in Africa, a black back runs red with the blood of the
          lash; in India, a brown girl is raped; in China, a coolie starves; in
          Alabama, seven darkies are more than lynched; while in London, the
          white limbs of a prostitute are hung with jewels and silk.”
          Wow. He managed to stereotype Africans, Indians, Chinese, London prostitutes, and maybe/maybe not black Alabamans, all in a single sentence.

          • I don’t read “all” Africans, Indians, Chinese, Alabamians or English; rather that he was pointing out singular examples of undeniable immorality and brutalism in each society (granting that “African” is the far and away most generalized reference with no distinction given the myriad distinct cultures and ethnicities of the great continent) as an explicit statement that extreme acts of [human] evil are universal? To paraphrase Melville, what need is there to invent divine infectious malevolence, disregard and indifference, as humanity more than covers all the bases?

            • That interpretation tends to fall apart, given that du Bois contrasted these stereotyped atrocities with a London prostitute, rather than leave them as an imperfect statement of universality. And the choice of contrast with the London prostitute is a strange one, given his American audience.

          • If you were complaining that DuBois was generalizing too much about the cruelty of colonialists and imperialists (who were “white”), your assertion would at least be debatable. However, NONE of the descriptions IN ANY WAY describe Africans, Indians, Chinese or prostitutes. Clearly, DuBois was speaking of the treatment doled out to each of them, n’est pas?

            • “However, NONE of the descriptions IN ANY WAY describe Africans, Indians, Chinese or prostitutes. Clearly, DuBois was speaking of the treatment doled out to each of them, n’est pas?”
              Excuse me? You’re saying du Bois wasn’t talking about who he was talking about?

            • Kristoffer, please tell us what “stereotype” DuBois was presenting about, for example, Africans? (Don’t know why there’s no Reply button to your message.)

            • The reply button no longer shows up after a discussion here has reached a certain level of nesting. Anyway, the stereotyping comes in not just because a significant number of those groups didn’t fit the stereotypes, but also because none of the groups would want to see themselves solely as du Bois’ stereotypes.

    • Today’s Atlantic article about Lee links to an excellent earlier piece in the Atlantic by Andy Hall (guest writing for Ta-Nehesi Coates) from August 13, 2010, “Arlington, Bobby Lee, and the ‘Peculiar Institution,'” about Lee’s personal history of owning slaves, benefitting from slave labor and being served by slaves, and personally directing the beating of slaves and the breaking up of their families.

      https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/08/arlington-bobby-lee-and-the-peculiar-institution/61428/

        • Truth can hurt.

          I’ve never been able to read the widely-praised “Killer Angels” (it’s on Professor Blight’s syllabus), because I couldn’t get past a passage on about the third page to the effect that Lee was personally opposed to slavery.

          Your post led me to the comments on your Atlantic piece, which in turn led me to TNC’s 4/28/2010 post on “Grant on Slavery” and its comments.

          One comment on the Grant post includes this: “And there’s nowhere in the country where you can wear Nazi regalia and not absolutely horrify people.”

          Shaking my head . . .

  8. W. E. B. Du Bois had both the mind of Christ and the mind of a Communist. Karl Marx, recently, has had his genealogy traced to King David, and therefore to the Christ. Du Bois, in his careful admission letter to the Communist Party U. S. A., tells how Marx was not treated in the U. S. university systems, and how he, Du Bois read Marx finally and this had helped his making a slow decision to be a communist. To Du Bois, communism through Marx was not only no crime, but the clear route to advancing human civilization. His prescriptions for the evils of Western Civilization (including its “gallant South”), its tragic “universal selfishness”, and its empty arrogance for China
    and Africa today rings as true as it did almost a century ago in this article-there is a specter haunting the world..it is the specter of communism.

  9. Can you give us the source of this essay? Much appreciated. Thanks.

  10. Thanks for providing
    this explanation of Lee’s unprincipled involvement in the Civil War written by Du Boise. This gives me a bigger more realistic understanding of why these standing public monuments should not be on display for the world to miscunscrue as greatness and it’s victims(ex slaves/ and people of color) to have to tolerate and pay homage.

  11. Hi,
    I’m curious what is the best response to the following hypothetical rebuttals from one who disagrees with this post:

    1) While Lee and the South were certainly repugnant and evil in condoning slavery, there are a number of primary sources that demonstrate Lincoln and a large contingent of the North (if not even majority) were either supportive of at best ambivalent toward slavery. This article and many of the comments below it seem to suggest that Lincoln and the North fought the war in some significant sense as a moral response against slavery when the historical record suggests, at best, that Lincoln was a very late convert in terms of opposition to slavery, and certainly well after the war started.

    2) Conceding the compelling argument that the South would have supported a statist, centralized government if that only meant the institution of slavery would be preserved, that still does not nullify the very real and long-lasting economic and political realities that informed Southern fears of Northern aggression. Decades of “invasive” tariffs on the South, used largely to prop up industry in the North, and rising political tensions regarding the free/slave status of new states should go into our consideration of motive as well.

    Thoughts? Appreciate the article!

  12. Removing Confederate Statues Are the Easy Part

    Removing the legacy of the Confederacy is obviously harder than toppling a few statues. The removal of a few dozen recetly has taken over 100 years, due to white supremacy advocate opposition. 1500 Confederate memorials have been counted around the country according to recent count. One as far north as Seattle, which the mayor recently announced his intention of removing, along with the statue of Vladimir Lenin.
    Equating Lenin with abhorrent racist murders and rapists is not entirely explained, considering what Lenin along with Marx symbolized articulation of a social philosophy opposed to divine right royal feudalism and it’s off spring robber baron monopoly capitalism. No doubt the Lenin statue was placed in Seattle by the unionization Labor movement of the 1920s, fighting for worker rights like the 8 hour work day, safety and health benefits.
    Prof. Clay Risen has quoted letters by written by Robert E. Lee that have been collected by archivists and historians over the years, one of the most famous was written to his wife in 1856. “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country,”. Robert E. Lee wrote slavery was “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race” in the United States.
    One has only to look at Robert E. Lee’ treatment of the slaves his wife inherited from her father to see the corrupting influence of slavery upon those with “legal authority” over other people’s lives. In 1866, one former slave at Arlington House, Wesley Norris, gave his testimony to the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Mr. Norris said that he and others at Arlington were indeed told by Mr. Curtis (Lee’s wife’s father) they would be freed upon his death, but that Gen. Lee had told them they must stay for five more years.
    So Mr. Norris said he, a sister and a cousin tried to escape in 1859, but were caught. “We were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty,” he said.
    And when the overseer declined to wield the lash, a constable stepped up, Mr. Norris said. He added that Gen. Lee had told the constable to “lay it on well.”
    Ex-Confederate general Robert E. Lee did, however, formally object to the idea of raising Confederate monuments, writing in 1869 that it would be wiser “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.”
    In this I agree with Robert E. Lee, the memorials to the traitors to the USA, who took up arms to defend the legalization of murder, torture and rape of innocent human beings based upon their race should be dismantled to preserve the peace and potentials for progress of the nation.
    The propaganda supporting white supremacy is filling with many lies, non-the least of which is Egyptology, and the attempt by some to mentally remove the nation of Egypt, ancient KMT, the first recorded nation on earth, from the continent of Africa in which it has eternally been actually situated. And place it in a mythical no-man’s land of the “Middle East”.
    For if Africans really built the Sphinx, the pyramids and the Temples of the Nile demonstrating their systematic studies of the stars, the seasons, stone architecture, astronomy, geometry, mathematics and the ancient sciences taught in the Temples known as the Egyptian Mystery Systems 4000 years ago, 3000 years before there was a “Europe”. African philosophies flowing from the older more experienced and mature branch of original humanity which spread from the Nile Valley temples through ancient Gaul, Greece, Indus Valley, Rome, China and around the world to Fiji and the South Seas nations.
    Then the Africans could not be truly inherently inferior. For Africans certainly were not inferior during the “Middle Ages 500 AD to 1600, the so called “Dark Ages” of the northern side of the Mediterranean. Not when the Moors (Blackamoors) of North Africa ruled in Castles in Spain and Southern Italy from 711 AD to 1492. In that historical frame work the Trans Atlantic slave trade and 600 years of discrimination since 1492, was a pay back to Africa for 800 years of North African rule of souther Europe.
    800 years of North African rule of Southern Europe they don’t teach you about in U.S. schools. But that does not mean it is not a fact.
    Www,AfricanHistoryVideos.com

    • There is zero proof that Lee was whipping slaves, even Wesley Norris. Norris is the only person, whoever used his or her name to claim Lee whipped anyone, as far as I know. Why would Mr. Norris do this so many years after the alleged whipping incident? At the very time Mr. Norris used his name publicly to defame Robert E. Lee, Mr. Norris’s father was petitioning Congress to get land from the former Arlington plantation (legally owned by the Lee family). So, it seems that Mr. Norris and his family were trying to defame Lee and emotionally move Congress to give that land to Wesley Norris’s father. Thus, the Norris story seems to have been part of newspaper campaign to influence Congress. For this reason, it’s difficult to believe the part of the story about Lee’s having anyone whipped. Also, the Norris story seems to be an incomplete account which was trying to hide something. Thanks, Tom Forehand, Jr.

  13. Just as a note, some of Lee’s friends in the army fought for the North, and so I wouldn’t necessarily conclude like DuBois that it was social pressure that made him stay. At the time, the nation was composed of individual states each having a complex history and a sovereign sense. We would not recognize today the mindset of these people who belonged to individual states. We are a transient people. I would argue that the Civil War was fought by the South out of a sense of honor, more than anything else. What is that honor? One of the book that discusses such things as the peculiar sense of Southern honor is “Honor and Slavery” by Kenneth Greenberg, which I recommend. I have the feeling that slavery, while certainly an overriding issue, become secondary as the days went by, until at least the day when Lee suggested the South recruit blacks for its army. Lincoln would have sent the slaves to Africa, had he the power.

    • There can be no ‘honor’ without a honorable cause. The South fought literally to their deaths in hopes of holding on to the power to enslave and cruelly exploit black people for their own gain. There is no ‘honor’ it such a repulsive cause.

  14. DuBois states’ “If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel–not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.” I would amend that by inserting a single word as follows, “If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel–not ONLY indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.” Who else is more a traitor to his country than a person who wages war against it?

    • With all due respect…DuBois needs no amendment here. He was wise enough to know the man had no country (literally nor figuratively), as shown in Lee’s lack of honor and history. The land actually belonged to Natives after all.

  15. Here we condemn the south, and make sure to point out that they lost. Why? Because the north won, and won because they were right, and just, and “better”. And why was the north all of those things? Well, just because they won, of course. The winners are always in an advantageous position of being the ones who write the history books. They get to make themselves out as the valiant heroes, and the losers, the evil ones.

    We often forget that our country was born of treason. We raised a rebellion against the crown. What fought for what we thought was right, against something which we thought was wrong. And we won, and therefore won the right to decide what the history books would say. This has played and continues to play out all over the world. The only difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, or a rebel and a revolutionary is the victor.

    I never deny what the south did, but those who have decided to hate the south, always conveniently forget everything about the north. About how while the north was opposed to slavery, they still didn’t think black people were their equals, and even before the civil war, segregation was common practice. Several northern states still held slaves right up until the end of the war. The civil war was not fought to end slavery. It was to bring the southern states which seceded back into the union.

    And the argument that the south seceded over states’ rights is 100% valid. The northern states had been pushing their will on the south for quite a long time, and they were reaching a breaking point. At that time, as another commenter has noted, states were much more independent, and the federal government was not all powerful (like it is now). This was a situation where the federal government was forcing it’s will, which in this case was not a part of the constitution (yet), on the states. So it was very much about state’s rights. But again, the “winners” don’t like to give the losers any opportunity for redemption, and instead go out of their way to go on a historical smear campaign. Visual aid shown here.

    • Since you claim it was about state’s rights, why don’t you list those rights that the federal government was abusing and how the federal government was doing so.

      I’ve seen this claim a lot, but I have yet to see anyone show how the federal government was abusing the states in that time period. The tariff is a non-starter. We’ve already proven how the tariff was not negatively impacting the southern states. Taxes won’t work either. The federal government didn’t have a direct tax nor could it tax exports which were the majority of the south’s production.

    • Can’t say the federal government was prohibiting slavery because it wasn’t. In fact, under the Kansas-Nebraska Act the federal government was letting the people of a territory decide whether it would be a free or slave state. If anything, the federal government was not being restrictive in that matter.
      Oddly, a study of US history from that time period shows a federal government doing the exact opposite. It seems that the southern states were imposing their will on the northern states with the Fugitive Slave Act, the lowering of the tariff to its lowest level, preventing a transcontinental railroad, preventing the passing of a Homestead Act, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and its replacement with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and finally, the Dred Scott decision.
      This is why I ask for you to list and explain those state’s rights.

    • In addition to the many and varied ways the South used its 3/5 to its own advantage, take a gander at the many and varied Articles of Secession. To the extent that they discuss “State’s Rights”, they are *for* the rights of states to enslave people, while they are against the rights of states to :

      o Choose not to enforce the Fugitive Slave law
      o Chose to steal and release into the wild (i.e., free) a Southern man’s property (i.e. enslaved person) should that Southern man enter that state
      o Consider allowing black people to become citizens and even (gasp!) voters
      o Allow abolitionists to publish their anti-slavery “defamation”

      I’m sure there are others, but these are the ones that come immediately to mind. Finding those Articles of Secession should be easy – try Google or Wikipedia.

      “State’s Rights” is the post-facto justification for treason and rebellion. It (they?) were not the justification at the time the treason and rebellion started

    • And, in case you haven’t noticed, until relatively recently the history about the “War for Southern Independence” (gag) was mostly written by the losers (in order to make the public school history books marketable in the old slave states), and what they didn’t write was whitewashed for them.

      The smear campaign you bring up was almost entirely against the former slaves, not the former slave masters.

      My father was a historian. Don’t try to get away with pseudohistory with me.

  16. Kevin, would you mind sharing the full citation of the essay? I was unable to locate it. Thanks.

    • Still trying to locate it. Sorry. Should have been included in the original post.

  17. Reads like it could have been written this morning. Thank you for this.

  18. This brothers is how we come to understanding and wisdom. We must hear each other out. I too was blind to the evils of remembering Lee as something he was not.

  19. Mart J. Elmier, the northern states contained 18 slaves in 1860. In New Jersey. Your statement that Northern states held slaves until the end of the war is wrong. The census of 1860 belies your assertion.

    • That was the end stage of New Jersey’s gradual emancipation scheme. It does not make New Jersey a slave state.

  20. Thank you for posting this excerpt. It helped clarify my thoughts on Robert E. Lee. I have always felt he, and all other Confederate soldiers, was a traitor. Confederates weren’t even Americans. This post helped me understand how he was shamed into his actions. Of course this doesn’t excuse those actions, in fact it points to his moral weakness. I have never understood why we southerners have wanted to hold Confederate war participants in esteem, and many of my family members were among those participants, when that war was wrong on so many levels.

  21. DuBious has characterized not only the true sentiment of Robert E. Lee on his views and actions in his defense of slavery and the South but has given insight into the silent majority of white America in 2017. By their silence and manipulation of political and institutional systems, disenfranchisement of people of color continues. Good Jobs, equal justice, fair politics and the American dream are all attractive illusions that continue to escape people of color in this country. Just look at what that silent majority of “good” white people elected as president of the United States. He is no doubt a white supremacist.

  22. Honest Education on our history is so important. I was raised/educated n the South and worshippered R. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as a child . Only recently did I realize how similar the KKK war of terrorism n the South was to the Sunni terrorism against the American backed government n Iraq. The KKK successfully destroyed the gains of post civil war South and led to Jim Crow laws.

  23. Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight. This civil war was propagated by European interests and driven by the cotton economy. The north used the south as a colony charging tariffs on imports, bleeding the southerners and building the north.

  24. Unfortunately, these so-called great men were men of (darkness) and therefore, they fought in vain. Their beliefs was twisted, and their moral lack of understanding was evidence of their doings. Their lack of courage to stand-up for what were right in their generation defines them truthfully!

  25. Interesting discussion. I wonder if DuBois’ article is the basis of much current criticism of the Confederate statues? I also wonder if those who now want to blame General Lee for defending slavery, wish to blame DuBois for the Stalinist purges of the 1930s? After all, he joined the Communist Party. I do not blame Lee or DuBois for any actions they themselves did not take. I believe both men acted out of honor, trying to do what they saw as right. I don’t object to statues of DuBois, and I don’t object to statues of Lee. They are both part of American history.

    • “I also wonder if those who now want to blame General Lee for defending slavery, wish to blame DuBois for the Stalinist purges of the 1930s?”

      DuBois didn’t personally participate in the Stalinist purges. Robert E. Lee participated both in the system of slavery AND in sending Southerners (most of whom received no benefit from slavery) to their deaths to defend it. DuBois may have been misguided in his support for Stalin, but Lee was an out and out traitor.

  26. This is quite a wonderful essay, but I cannot share it in good faith without knowing the source, and so far I’m coming up blank. The earliest reference I can find to it is 2007. Can you point me to where it was originally published, or at least collected? Thanks so much.

  27. The south had rules governing emancipation that protected elderly, young, or disabled slaves. Northern absentee landlords wanted to be free of the obligations implicit in paternalism. Look at how they treated factory workers. What do you think “40 acres and a mule”was about.

    • “rules governing emancipation”
      “that protected elderly, young, or disabled slaves”
      Does not make sense.

  28. Kevin How do you explain the Lincoln Congress passage of the Corwin Amendment in March 1861 with the North guaranteeing protection of slavery in trying to preserve the union.

    • I have no idea what question you are asking me given the focus of this post.

      • Dear Mr. Pomroy,

        With all due respect, I am not posting this kind of nonsense on this blog. Thomas DiLorenzo is not a serious historian and his understanding of the secession crisis is problematic at best.

        Click here if you would like a refresher course on the significance of the Corwin Amendment from Professor Brooks Simpson, who specializes in the history of the American Civil War and the American presidency. Good day.

        Regards,
        KML

  29. Robert E. Lee may not have loved slavery, but he benefited from it during that time. Either way, he fought on the side to preserve it.

      • Du Bois, W. E. B., ‘Robert E. Lee’ (March 1928), in idem, Writings, ed. Nathan I. Huggins (New York: Library of America, 1986), p. 1223. Presumably the Library of America volume gives the original source (probably a newspaper), but I don’t have a copy myself.

        • Thank you very much. I believe it was a magazine, but this is at least a start.

    • I emailed Professor Robert Williams, who runs the webdubois.org site. He found the essay listed in a bibliography, and sent me the full citation: The Crisis, March 1928, v.35, n.3, found in the “Postscript” section. I went to my campus library today and found it – it’s on page 97.

  30. Excellent ‘snippet’ for those who have never read the full history of the Civil War, which should be a requirement in all schools. Unfortunately, the war continues by those who remain filled with hate for humanity.

  31. He was a traitor like Benedict Arnold. He fought to keep slaves in slavery.

  32. I think more Americans should consider the implications of the English court case Somerset v. Stewart on the Southern colonies motivations for the rebellion against the British. It’s almost never mentioned in US history classes in my earlier education. Google has a fairly good description of it. Even some very conservative Brits like Samuel Johnson were quite opposed to slavery and to the rebellion for its basic hypocrisy. America’s education has a lot of propaganda in it.

  33. Question: “God, family and country” – or – “God, country and family”. Both express our individual American values, and rank them as 1, 2, 3.

    How you rank family and country should say something about individual attitudes in this debate about Lee’s choice. His resignation of his commission in the U.S. Army, in which he stated he would not take up arms against his “family”, clearly put him in the God, family, country camp.

    Personally I disagree with his choice because I believe in service for the “greater good.” However, the values are very close on the scale and can be debated forever much like the number of angels that fit on the head of a pin. Keep in mind Lee did not enlist in the Confederate army for some time after her resigned. Much later he did agree to advize Jefferson Davis but did not accept a commission. At this point he had not crossed the line to become a traitor.

    When he did finally accept a commision it was not as the head of the Confederate Army, but as a general in the Virginia army without a command.

    Also Lee suffered from the embarassment and financial ruin of his father, Light Horse Harry Lee, a hero of the Revolutionary War and Governor of Virginia. That was a long fall for the family, one that he stood up to and whose name he worked to restore. Lee is the only cadet to have graduated from West Point without receiving a single demerit.

    None of that excuses his decision. It simply adds to who he was and what framed his values. Throughout the war Lee never referred to those he fought as “the enemy” but as “those people”. He kept silent about the loss of his citizenship as a just punishment for treason. He turned down an offer to be president of an insurance company because he did not want to profit from the war.

    Many things can be argued about Lee. Arguing whether a choice between family or country as the second highest personal value a man can hold doesn’t negate his being a man of moral fortitude.

    This is a phiosophical question posed in the Bagavad Gita. In the Gita the ruler goes to war against family for violating the law. Philosopy students in an upstate NY university class nearly unanimously took the “family first” value over the “greater good.” Moral dilemas are subjective when the morality is based on values most of us agree are values to be held highly.

    • Lee was Episcopalian. Stonewall was Methodist. Both were devout. But our modernview tells us they had a blind side regarding the ownership of another person.

  34. Did anyone else note that Du Bois died on the eve of King’s “I have a dream” speech? I get this feeling he just had to be there in spirit.

    • Dubois and MLK were on opposite ends of the black liberation spectrum; King was for assimilation (God rest his soul) and W.E.B. Dubois was for equality but with a distinct black identiy. Dubois was more in line with Malcolm X; Booker T Washington with MLK.

  35. Did you notice how prominent the Rebel flag was flown in Charlottesville among the neo nazis and skin heads I wonder how the Sons of the Confederacy can argue that they are about Heritage Not Hate? During the Gulf War Bush said that he would treat the terrorists and the people who harbor the terrorists as being the same people. I wish that someone would explain it to me.

  36. Eloquent words but DuBois made the same mistake Douglas Southall Freeman made: defining Lee with bias. Freeman glorified Lee from a white southern perspective. DuBois attacked Lee from a black northern perspective. Both were effective. Both were influential. Both were understandable. Both were wrong. Understanding history doesn’t come from bias. You can’t get to the truth by only considering a perspective. You must consider all perspectives.

    • I don’t think DuBois was reaching for some notion of objectivity. He was responding as an African-American man traveling through the South. The goal should not be to dismiss his comments because he didn’t consider other perspectives. The goal should be to understand and learn from his.

  37. They still lost and never had a moral leg to stand on. The entire world does not fete and celebrate loosers. Lost on all fronts, militarily, emotionally, spiritually, morally. The military so called geuniuses lost and lost horribly and unconditionally. The ideas of this ilk lost in the American Civil War then again in WWII and now every wannbe Beverly Hillbilly out there is bucking for a third ass whoopin’ and they will probably get it. And I will do everything with my last breath to see to it that they are vanquished from this earth forever this time or coralled on a reservation not on this continent or this hemisphere. You’ll have to go back to Europe from whence you’ve come or back to the Caucus regions where you eminated. Robert E. Lee, manifest destiny = looser then, looser now. Bacjk to the cave with you. All of you!!!

  38. Thank you for this post- it was powerful.
    Is there a way to send you a lovely photo of a Child earnestly drawing a picture of W.E.B. Dubois?
    It’s from a traveling art project. Sincerely, Emme E

  39. This is so beautiful to me. When I read something so miraculously clearheaded and think of the context in which it was produced, I feel I have beheld a little miracle of truth. The truth well told is my favorite art form.
    So few will actually read this, because it’s dressed up like history. That makes me sad, because I truly believe that when you take in something this beautiful, it makes you more beautiful, your heart, mind and expression. Try it.

  40. We should leave the statues standing and engrave DuBois commentary on each one

    • Lisa, I would agree, IF we could somehow keep these Confederate symbols from being a magnet for groups that still want to fight the issues that led to our Civil War and amendments to our constitution that provide equal protections for all under US law.

      When viewed through today’s lens- it seems that not one of our nation’s most prominent leaders avoided any appearance of moral lapses.

      Example- William Tecumseh Sherman
      http://www.azquotes.com/author/13493-William_Tecumseh_Sherman?p=2
      Which of his own words should accompany his statue?
      “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”?
      BTW- Sherman’s middle name was borrowed from a prominent Shawnee warrior chief who tried to establish a multi tribe Indian nation east of the Mississippi.

      • News flash: Sherman never said that, and neither did the usual target for that quote, Sheridan. Those words were said by a Congressional representative.

  41. Ever wonder what was truly on the minds of US southern state governments as they voted to secede from the Union? See below-
    Confederate States of America – Georgia Secession
    (opening comments)
    The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, .—–
    (closing)
    their declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property in the common territories of the Union; put it under the ban of the Republic in the States where it exists and out of the protection of Federal law everywhere; because they give sanctuary to thieves and incendiaries who assail it to the whole extent of their power, in spite of their most solemn obligations and covenants; because their avowed purpose is to subvert our society and subject us not only to the loss of our property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives, and our children, and the desolation of our homes, our altars, and our firesides. To avoid these evils we resume the powers which our fathers delegated to the Government of the United States, and henceforth will seek new safeguards for our liberty, equality, security, and tranquillity.
    The rest of the document above as well as the stated reasons for other Confederate states to secede can be found at
    http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_geosec.asp
    It seems likely that General Lee stayed loyal to both Virginia and the institution of slavery for at least 2 reasons-
    1) to avoid financial and social ruin as the most valuable asset that most slave owners had was not their land but was human “property” called slaves.
    2) it is very hard to ever admit that some of our deeply held beliefs and most prominent practices in life are ever wrong. It is even more so when 1) above is also in question.
    Prior to the Civil War- The core of a financial and social hierarchy in the US south was most often based on the ownership of slaves.

  42. My thoughts as I posted the above-
    In my opinion- From a reading of the Avalon papers quoted above, that without the issues surrounding slavery, secession would not have been considered necessary or desirable. In hindsight, the greatest failure of the founders of our country was not finding a way to bring slavery to a peaceful end. It is also my humble opinion that one of our greatest failures to this very day is our failure to bring racial injustice to an end.
    Our nation- Despite it’s grand achievements, our nation has had and does have many weaknesses.It is clear that we have come a long way in our journey to a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, yet we still have a long way to go.
    Our heros- It is apparent from a thorough reading of history as well as from current events that our “heros” have many flaws. From our founding to this very day many that are thought of as “great men” were not always good men. We need to think about that as we fine tune our beliefs about what should be done with Confederate statues.
    We all are human with our own weaknesses. Our nation is run by humans and our various “heros” were very human.
    This blog does a great service in informing us, giving us a place to share our thoughts, causing us to rethink our own opinions, and makes us better for the effort.
    Thank you.

  43. Good article. However, lest we rewrite history as it really was, the South fought to preserve slavery; The North CERTAINLY did not fight to end it. Both armies agreed on the supremacy of the white race and the Union (with 5 slave states and with 19 out of 24 states where blacks could not legally vote) should not be praised for being ahead of it’s time with regards to race relations and race theories; If the Confederacy was the most racist country (against blacks) in 1861, the Union was the second most racist country. The war was not a moralistic fight either for or against slavery; The South fought to guarantee the preservation of slavery (along with states’ rights) and the North fought TO PRESERVE THE UNION; That is what they fought for.

  44. This should stand next to his statues around the country. It might change some minds.

  45. Robert E Lee’s sympathizers refuses to see the truth. It’s not that hard to see for anyone who want the truth. This man was the General of the Confederate Troops. He was offered the job to be General if the Union Army but refused and instead CHOSE to commandeered the Southern Army.
    The question always come to, well he didn’t own slaves. His wife and her family owned slaves.
    Another cop-out is they didn’t live together all the time. How many servicemen are with their spouses all the time.
    It’s a written self told experience of being a slave of Robert E Lee who said how brutal he were to the slaves he owned. When they tried to escape he PERSONALLY required his “nigger beaters” to pour it on heavy. To beat them until their backs were split open. Then fill the open blood-soaked slashes with brine.
    Enough said.

  46. I quite agree that Lee did not have the moral courage to stay with the US Army, but in his defense, one has to realize that he would have had to try to KILL all of his own sons in combat. Now for those who wish to condemn him for his choice, I would ask that those folks will swear that they would be willing to put a gun to the heads of their kids and KILL them over a political principle. When you can truthfully say that, then you might have some grounds to pass judgement on Lee for his poor choice. Personally, I cannot do so. That is why the Civil War was such a tragedy for ALL.

    • How about just forswearing war? He had that choice. But then that whole property and honor thing got in the way. No, I don’t think deciding to kill someone else’s kids instead of your own, especially for a morally indefensible cause, is any moral decision.

    • George H. Thomas, David G. Farragut, John C. Fremont, David Birney, Benjamin Prentiss, and Jesse Reno are just a few southern born officers who remained loyal to the Union government. Moral courage could be found.

  47. Robert E. Lee freed his slaves, some before the war and some in 1863, as he told the N.Y. Times
    he would.
    Lee referred to Virginia as “my
    country”.
    Before the civil war, the official designation for the U.S.congress was “these united states”
    After the civil war, it was changed to “the United States”.

    • You’re picking very tiny nits without checking with either of the people you would have in argument. At the very least, you need a citation for the “my country” reference. I find that kind of language used all over writing of the period, and mostly in places where we in the 21st c would say “my area.” We don’t say “my country” since so little of our nation (there’s a word for you) is undeveloped and even the GPS system alerts us when we cross a border.

      The plain fact is that Lee chose to fight and kill for the Confederacy, and the Confederacy’s reason for existence was preserving the economic system of large landowners like Lee, based on chattel slavery.

  48. Kristoffer, I am asking you to identify the stereotype that you are saying was being promoted by DuBois. You continue to say he was stereotyping those groups. I say he was speaking of behavior OF OTHERS directed toward those groups. It is your assertion, but you have not mentioned a single stereotype being advanced by DuBois. You keep saying there are stereotypes and how people feel about them, but……what are the stereotypes?

    • Let’s enumerate the stereotypes:
      Africa was about slavery;
      India was about rape;
      China was about a “coolie”;
      Alabama was about lynching (maybe a stereotype, maybe not, it’s a judgement call);
      London was about decadent wealth, personified by a prostitute with riches.

      • Kristoffer, those are not stereotypes and he didn’t speak ABOUT Africans or Indians . DuBois was speaking about the treatment meted out to them by colonialists. If you wanted to argue that he was selective in the examples that he used and that a la “Two Cheers for Colonialism” by d’Souza, he should have mentioned the ‘benefits” of imperialism, then that would be a different matter. We’re probably talking past each other, but I’ll try one last time. To cite examples of crimes (by colonialists, in this case) in various locations is not to stereotype the victims of the crimes. For you to say that “maybe” lynching in Alabama is NOT a stereotype totally undercuts the argument you are making.

        • Again, those are stereotypes, because those groups are portrayed as being simply subjects of wrongdoing. On top of that, they get compared to a stereotype of a London prostitute.

  49. “But one thing–one terrible fact–militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery.
    The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slavery. ” Hardly is this statement objectively true. It is convenient for the black politicians and their pals to feign amnesia when it comes to recognizing that the Supreme Law of the Union perpetuated slavery, making it silly to say the people of Virginia took their State out of it, “to perpetuate” and “defend” slavery. Indeed, the Congress of the Union, begging them to keep her in, sent a proposed amendment to the Constitution, to the States for ratification, that would have made slavery perpetual in the Union, had it been ratified. Something about the nature of the human race in the Union of 1861 was the cause of the war which the black politicians shy from recognizing. One wonders why.

    • “Something about the nature of the human race in the Union of 1861 was the cause of the war which the black politicians shy from recognizing.” No, they recognize it full well. The people who chose to commit treason were quite explicit when they stated why they were seceding. They took the time to write it down for everyone to see. If you want to call it the nature of the human race, then it was one part of that race wanting to protect the right to own human beings and have total control over their very lives while the other part of the human race wanted to prevent slavery from spreading into the territories of that Union.

      We know this to be absolute fact because they wrote it down a lot. Unfortunately, some people today are not interested in those facts because they don’t want to admit their ancestors committed treason by choosing to secede over the right to own human beings. That’s willful ignorance on their part.

      What were the state’s rights the South supposedly seceded over? Show me that in the primary sources written in 1860-1861. What was the tyranny of the northern states? Show me that tyranny in those primary sources.

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