Off To the SHA

Today I am off to Richmond for the Annual Meeting of the Southern Historical Association.  I’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time.  Tonight I will attend the banquet dinner for the Society of Civil War Historians and tomorrow I will take in a full day of panels.  Tomorrow evening I will spend a few hours at a the University of Richmond for a reunion of former graduate students and Freeman Professors.  While I am not the biggest fan of academic conferences I do enjoy having the opportunity to catch up with old friends and now fellow bloggers.  The best part, of course, is the exhibition hall which includes just about every publisher of American history–and yes, great discounts.  I am bringing my laptop; if the hotel has wifi you can anticipate a few updates and even some photos. 

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“Lee at 200”: A Few Thoughts

Presented at the University of Virginia’s symposium on Robert E. Lee’s Life and Legacy

“This is sacred ground. It is a neutral place, no race, color, religion should be mentioned here.” This is how one person responded to a National Park Service survey which asked visitors to Arlington to assess the relevancy of slavery in properly interpreting life at the home of Robert E. Lee. Another visitor responded that slavery should be taught “only in schools” and another individual seriously suggested that “race has no place in the historical discussion and presentation of a slave plantation.” Across the Potomac River in Maryland, the newest Civil War monument to grace the town of Sharpsburg is of Lee on Traveler and includes the following at its base: “Robert E. Lee was personally against secession and slavery, but decided his duty was to fight for his home and the universal right of every people to self-determination.” I have no doubt that such a belief would have been news to Lee’s slave Wesley Norris.

The fact that such views continue to be embraced by Civil War enthusiasts is worth exploring if for no other reason than that it may tell us something about Lee’s relevance at the beginning of the 21st century. In the case of Lee I suspect that our defensiveness about race and slavery is a symptom of a broader resistance to anything that challenges our ideas of Lee’s moral perfection and ultimately our understanding of the Civil War. As historian John Coski noted in a recent Washington Post interview, “There’s an old saw in the South of a little girl asking, ‘Mommy is Robert E. Lee from the Old Testament or the New?’” I agree with Coski that Lee has been so overly lavished with praise that we have turned him into an untouchable “marble man.” Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock there is no doubt that Lee has come under more serious scrutiny in recent years. Some of the attacks can be dismissed as uninteresting or lacking any scholarly merit. On the other hand, professional historians have introduced interpretive frameworks from psychology, gender studies, political science, and race studies, and although the results have not always held up under scrutiny they have managed to enrich our understanding of Lee’s life, the antebellum south, and the Civil War.

It is not surprising that the increase in Lee studies have brought about a backlash from certain corners within the Civil War community. For many people any challenge to the traditional interpretation of Lee or the Confederacy is tantamount to heresy. Consider the description of a symposium on R.E. Lee sponsored by the Stephen D. Lee Institute in northern Virginia which took place this past spring:

2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee, one of America’s most revered individuals. But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valor and leadership were surpassed only by his honor and humanity? Or 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’s 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.

It is difficult to imagine how a serious historical discussion is supposed to take place when the terms of the debate are framed around such meaningless concepts as “hero” and “villain.” The above description, however, is symptomatic of the difficulty that characterizes much of the discourse surrounding Lee’s life and legacy.

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William W. Bergen on “Lee at 200”

Thanks to Bill Bergen for allowing me to share this talk which he will present tonight at the final session of the University of Virginia’s seminar on Robert E. Lee.  Bill is Assistant Dean for Administrative Services for the University of Virginia’s Law School.  Bergen has lectured widely and has served as an instructor at several of the University’s annual Civil War Conferences. He is the author of “The Other Hero of Cedar Creek: The ‘Not Specially Ambitious’ Horatio G. Wright,” a biographical essay appearing in Gary W. Gallagher’s ed. The 1864 Shenandoah Campaign published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2006.

The Robert E. Lee of legend is perfect, imperturbable, stoic. But one can glimpse the restlessness of the man from a close reading of Lee’s private letters. Take, for example, his strange penchant for counting socks.

More than a dozen of Lee’s letters to Mary Custis Lee during the first five months of 1864 contain references to the homemade socks she had sent. Among the comments the General wrote back to the home front were “There were 67 pairs . . . instead of 64 as you supposed.” “the number of pairs scarcely ever agrees with your statement;” “There were only 23 pairs & not 25 as you stated. I opened the bag & counted them myself twice.” As Lee’s biographer Emory Thomas put it, “Confronted with massive problems, most of which he could not solve, Lee tended to refocus his attention simpler matters over which he did have some influence.” I don’t know about you, but I have had bosses like that; not for nothing did Lee’s staff call him “the tycoon” behind his back.

This seminar has examined Lee from several perspectives, and the overall effect has been to paint a more human portrait. Tonight’s topic is whether Lee matters in today’s world, and my task is to focus on the relevance of Lee the soldier. The answer to the question is easy: Lee is highly relevant. As Gen. John F.C. Fuller, one of Lee’s early and most distinguished military critics conceded, “few generals have been able to animate an army as [Lee’s] self-sacrificing idealism animated the Army of Northern Virginia . . . What this bootless, ragged, half-starved army accomplished is one of the miracles of history.” Lee was the indispensable man, and surely the Civil War would neither endured so long or been so bloody were it not for Lee’s military brilliance. Lee’s military accomplishments guarantee that the study of what he did, and how he did it, will remain germane to the profession of arms for generations to come.

One approach to studying Lee’s significance is to identify the skills that he demonstrated as a soldier, and determine the extent to which one might emulate them. Some of these skills are teachable, at least to a point. Lee learned much at West Point, both as a student and as superintendent in the 1850’s. Graduating second in his class, Lee, like all top graduates, was assigned to the engineers, and he had a major hand in designing forts along the east coast. There he employed the drawing and drafting skills he was taught at the Point. This experience and education combined to develop what became in warfare an uncanny eye for terrain. We can see some of Lee’s power of observation at work in his surviving sketches.

While superintendent, library records show Lee read French military histories and the campaigns of Napoleon, and engaged faculty members in discussion. He apparently consulted with his venerable engineering professor, Dennis Hart Mahan, about the importance of field fortifications in warfare. Those lessons would be put to use repeatedly during the Civil War as a means to help equal the odds against a numerically superior foe and to allow for a reserve that Lee could use to launch an attack. So Lee never stopped studying for a war he knew might never come. Contrast this approach to that of his subordinate, Richard Ewell, a West Pointer who once said that in the old army "I learned all about commanding fifty United States dragoons and forgot everything else.”

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Still Standing is Standing Right in Front of Me

That’s right, my copy of the new documentary Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story has arrived. I plan to give it a thorough review very soon so stay tuned.  My comments about one line from the trailer caused quite an irrational outburst on a few fronts.  First, I never claimed to have seen the movie when I commented on the idea that Stonewall Jackson should be seen as the "champion of enslaved men and women."  No amount of argument, whether its religious, historical or moral could possibly convince me otherwise.  Sorry, I just have a problem with the idea that a slaveowner can be properly labeled as such.  I don’t know, call me old-fashioned. 

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Fun Weekend in Store

Let’s see, I have 79 student comments to write by next Tuesday, fifteen letters of recommendation to write by Nov. 1 and one paper on Robert E. Lee to write by next Wednesday.  Finally, I have to write a report on why we should dump the AP program. 

In other words, don’t expect to see anything along the lines of entertaining, insulting, or informative posts over the next week or so. 

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