Robert E. Lee, the Historical Jesus, and the Lost Cause

Reading reactions to my post on this past weekend’s Lee conference reminded me of a couple of entries from last spring.  Given the number of new readers I thought it might be worthwhile to post them again.

April 15, 2006

I’ve been reading with interest about the recent “discovery” of the so-called Gospel of Judas, which some scholars believe sheds new light on the story of Jesus and his death. I should say upfront that I am not a Christian; that said, I am very interested in the debates surrounding the interpretation and understanding of the historical Jesus. In other words, I am interested in better understanding the life of an incredibly important man. Of course, there is a deep-rooted tension here between what we can know historically about this individual and what many claim to “understand” through faith. If we are interested in the historical Jesus than the rules of historical inquiry seem to apply, but this is controversial as anyone who examines the historical data knows that it is problematic. Much of our information about the historical Jesus comes from the gospels contained in the New Testament; however, the earliest gospels are estimated to have been written anywhere between 70 and 120 years after the death of Jesus. This gap raises a number of difficult problems for the historian, including the question of authorship and motivation. A number of scholars have raised the possibilities that later gospels were either copied directly or paraphrased from the earlier texts. What this means, of course, is that the New Testament gospels do not necessarily provide independent confirmation of the subject in question. This gap also suggests that the earliest gospel was not written by someone who knew Jesus personally. Finally, even if we could confirm that the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels were his own, we would still have the challenge of interpreting what he meant by what he said. And as any historian knows this can be extremely difficult if the questions of when, where, and why the words were spoken are unknown.

Getting back to the gap between the life of Jesus and the estimates of when the first accounts were written, imagine that the earliest documents we have of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were dated to the late 19th century and penned by people born after the event. How much of the motivation of the Founders could we uncover? Given the difficulties of interpreting the Constitution today even with a rich history of what they said and why, how far could we go in my imaginative scenario? I have to admit that I don’t know much about this new Judas document, but I welcome any new piece of information that may help peel back the layers of this intriguing individual and the life of Jesus. From what I’ve read the document is dated to the 4th century, which places it at a point later than the gospels. The dating of the document, however, does not seems to render it otiose. It’s been interesting reading reactions from individuals who relish the additional information as opposed to those who almost instinctively resist any challenge to their preferred interpretation. I suspect that part of the reason involves the faith that people exercise in reference to the life and resurrection of Jesus. But this raises the interesting question of the role – if at all – historical sources should play in one’s overall view. Should a believer be concerned about the history and/or historical inquiry that many scholars are presently engaged in surrounding the life of Jesus? If one’s belief in a certain interpretation of the life and death of Jesus is based entirely on faith are there any constraints on such a view; in other words, can I believe anything about Jesus on faith. If there are interpretve constrainsts, what exactly are they and who gets to exercise the authority? And if some historical content that is based on a close reading of a wide range of texts is necessary, how much and who gets to decide and why?

The tension between faith and a need to understand the past resonates in Civil War circles. There are those who have little patience with traditional views of the Confederacy and the Civil War which are rooted in the Lost Cause. Debate is difficult as both camps have divergent agendas. Lost Cause advocates seem more concerned with protecting a specific set of assumptions while historians with a more professional bent tend to find it easier to question deeply-rooted interpretations. I am fascinated by people who stick to their guns when it comes to defending a traditional interpretation of Lee, Jackson or even the “benevolent institution of slavery.” Notice that challenges are dealt with by utilizing the language of betrayal or sacrilege. Those who question “the faith” are called “northern liberals,” “communists,” “revisionists,” and yes, “academics.” For these people no amount of discussion, debate or even the introduction of new sources matters. (I should say that I’ve met some pretty stubborn/close-minded academics in my day. These are not mutually exclusive categories.) Their view is a matter of personal faith and not a function of serious historical inquiry. I am not necessarily judging such an approach, but it is clearly not an approach that I find productive in my own quest to better understand 19th century America. Of course there is a broad area in the middle where both camps merge in creative and at times confusing ways. It can be said that both sides are looking for some kind of meaning in the past, but the routes taken have little in common.

The Da Vinci Code and the Lost Cause

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Historians, Revisionism, and Robert E. Lee

Looks like everyone who attended this weekend’s conference on Robert E. Lee sponsored by the Stephen D. Lee Institute had a grand old time.  I came across this short article in the Washington Times which focuses most of its attention on some of the comments by Robert Krick.  The conference is premised on the assumption that R. E. Lee is under attack by politically correct or so-called revisionist historians.  I tend to stay away from responding to these types of claims in large part because I don’t really understand what the criticisms imply.  Serious historians should address the relative merits of individual interpretations rather than hide behind vague generalizations. 

As evidence of this bias Krick claimed that the last few years has witnessed the publication of a "wretched flood of biographies."  He’s absolutely right about this and no doubt I have a couple of these titles on my shelf.  The counterfactual approach that Krick references can be seen clearly in Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered which was published about 15 years ago.  It has spawned a small cottage industry of imitators who tend to publish with small presses and whose authors include Bevin Alexander, Edward Bonekemper, and John D. McKenzie.   Most of these historians adopt Nolan’s assumptions and conclude that Lee lost the war with his overly aggressive strategy and/or conclude that Lee’s reputation was entirely the result of the postwar Lost Cause movement.  This latter argument was made forcefully by Thomas Connelly in his excellent book The Marble Man (1978).  I’ve never really thought of these studies as the result of some kind of personal attack; in the case of Alexander, Bonekemper, and McKenzie we are talking about bad history.  On the other hand, Connelly was a very serious historian and while I disagree with some of his arguments I’ve never been tempted to suggest that his conclusions were being driven by politics. 

Krick cites this postwar construction argument as evidence of revisionism, but is it?  Did Krick at any point in his presentation mention the incredible amount of scholarship published over the past decade that has worked to correct this assumption?  Gary Gallagher has spilled a great deal of ink in various essays arguing that Connelly’s assumptions are mistaken and that Lee’s reputation was solidified before the end of the war, and Krick has shown the same thing regarding "Stonewall" Jackson.  Even more historians have answered the Nolan-counterfactual approach by investigating the reasons why Lee engaged in an aggressive strategic and tactical approach throughout much of the war.  Based on this scholarship I surely do not interpret Lee’s reputation as simple postwar Lost Cause construction.  Of course, this does not imply that the postwar scene did not influence the way we remember the war and Lee specifically

While I admit that there is a great deal of bad history out there let’s keep things in perspective.  Is everything that challenges long-standing assumptions revisionism or politically correct?  I guess that’s what you get when you bring together a bunch of people who are all working under the same false assumptions that imply conspiracy and political motivation.  You end up reinforcing one another without spending time in critical analysis.

And in the end isn’t that what a conference is supposed to be all about?

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Preserving What for Whom?

The well known reenactor and battlefield preservationist Robert Lee Hodge has a short editorial in the Roanoke Times in which he warns residents living in the Lynchburg-Appomattox area to resist plans to build another Wal-Mart:

As I toured Appomattox last year, I saw that development in historic areas has increased more in the last five years than in the past 142 years since the surrender. Wal-Mart announced this month that it will build on the ground that was fought over primarily by a Federal cavalry brigade under Gen. Henry Davies and Confederate troopers under Gen. Thomas Munford — including the 2nd Virginia Cavalry in which Company H was the Appomattox Rangers.

This is where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fired its last shots and suffered its last casualties. The Confederate dead are buried on the ground slated for development. The Robertson house that once stood there was used as a Federal headquarters and probably a hospital. This is of interest to reverent people throughout the country.

Now make no mistake I have a great deal of respect for battlefield preservationists and I’ve been known to give money to at least one organization.  That said, I cringe at these sappy and vague references to the importance of our Civil War past:

Whether you are a Southerner or a Northerner; Democrat or Republican; domestic or imported; black, white, yellow, red, blue or gray — these places tell us more about who we are than any other single historical period in our brief existence. It is our road map to tell us who we are, where we are, where we have been, and where we may go.

I for one can’t stand the sight of Wal-Marts and I resist shopping there whenever possible.  I am even willing to pay more for an item rather than walk into these cookie cutter – fake hospitality asylums.  However, I honestly don’t know why I should resist plans to build one of these monstrosities on land that was fought over by Federal cavalry.  More importantly, Wal-Marts provide people with jobs and even with all of the controversy surrounding benefits packages that has to have some value – definitely more value than preserving land because Federal cavalry fought over it. 

I am going to go out on a limb here and it will probably upset some, but I actually doubt that most battlefield enthusiasts/preservationists really agree with Hodge’s assessment these sites constitute some kind of road map of national identity.  Most people’s interest in the Civil War extends no further than the battlefields themselves.  Just consider the opposition over the past few years to the NPS’s efforts to broaden our understanding of Civil War battlefields in a way that would connect them to broader issues that go very far in addressing our national identity. 

My guess is that in the end most people desire to save Civil War battlefields so they can walk the ground and imagine for themselves the movements of troops and the fighting that took place there.  We’re not talking about serious reflection about issues of national identity, we’re talking about entertainment.  How can Hodge claim that saving land that was fought over by a Federal cavalry brigade translate into anything other than saving a small piece of a larger military campaign puzzle?  In short, it’s a chance to play soldier in the "Mind’s I."   The problem is that the people who enjoy walking battlefields constitute a very small interest group. 

If you want to save the battlefields than raise the money and purchase the land.  Hell, I will even help, but don’t preach to me that this issue somehow transcends region, race, and politics. 

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“Lee at 200″

I know it is a bit early, but those of you in the Charlottesville area should mark your calendars for a series of talks that will take place on Wednesdays beginning on September 26 and ending on October 31.  The conference, which is being organized by the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing Education, will explore various themes connected to the history of Robert E. Lee.  Participants include Gary Gallagher, Robert Krick [check out Krick's article on Ralph Happel in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star], Elizabeth Pryor [her new book on Lee is due out next week], Holt Merchant, and William Davis.  The final evening will be a roundtable discussion and I’ve been asked to prepare a brief presentation based around the session title, "The Relevance of Lee Today." 

I will pass on additional information as it becomes available.

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“Robert E. Lee: Hero or Traitor?”

What does it say about an organization that structures a conference around a mutually exclusive choice?  This is a perfect conference for those of you who like your history overly simplistic and based around a strawman argument:

But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valour and leadership were surpassed only by his honour and humanity? Or, as some suggest today, was he a traitor whose military skill served a bad cause and prolonged an immoral rebellion against his rightful government?

To many, Robert E. Lee is a remote figure, a marble icon. To others he was simply a great battlefield commander. But Lee was much more; his character shines brightly from the past, illuminating the present. The Symposium will cover Lee the man, his views on government and liberty, his humane attitudes toward race and slavery, Lee and the American Union, Lee as inspired commander and his relationship with the Army, Lee as a Christian gentleman, and the meaning of Lee for today.

Am I to believe that it is possible to have an analytical discussion about these issues?  Given the list of speakers is this really going to be a serious discussion with panelists taking different positions or are they simply going to sit around and toast the general with their words?  At least they were smart enough to invite Bob Krick  and Kent M. Brown who are the only two on the list qualified to talk about Lee’s generalship.  I think I will pass on this one and spend some time Saturday reading a history of Lee.   

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