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?


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. 


“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.


“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.   


I’ll Tell You When Enough is Enough

Eric Wittenberg has an interesting post up in which he raises the issue of when a historian has collected sufficient research material for a given project.  While I sympathize with Eric and others in reference to this question I don’t believe the problem is as bad as he makes it out to be.  And the reason, as Eric points out, is that you can’t collect all of the relevant information.  Perhaps most of what is out there is still lying in shoe boxes in people’s attics.  Fortunately, you don’t have to collect all of it.  The piece of the puzzle that I wish Eric had discussed in more detail is the importance of analysis in historical interpretation.  It’s the analysis that needs to drive the project based on the materials collected.  There is always the concern that the analytical aspects of the interpretation are supported by insufficient materials; in the worst case scenario the historian simply begins with a set of assumptions and collects data that supports those assumptions  However, as long as the historian remains open to revision there is room for the interpretation to grow and hopefully become more sophisticated.  The relevant question is whether data that has the potential to significantly alter the analysis has not been uncovered. 

I am quite confident that there is plenty of material on the Crater that I missed in the course of my research.  There are no doubt some pretty colorful accounts of Confederates sharing their perceptions of having to fight black soldiers that would enliven my narrative.  That said, I am pretty confident that there is little out there that would significantly alter the main analytical points that I make in the manuscript.  I decided awhile back that I was not going to try to cram as many voices into the project just for the sake of inclusion.  My published work hopefully balances data and interpretation effectively. 

In the end there is no answer to the question of when enough is enough.  The philosopher Raymond Martin once likened the process to a "Brewmasters’ Nose."  You stir the pot around for a bit and if you do it long enough and fail at it a number of times you eventually "know" when it’s ready. 

So, my advice to Eric (whatever it’s worth) is to think about the main interpretive points that have been made and whether a sufficient range of materials have been collected which support those points. 

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