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.”

[click to continue…]


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. 


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. 


And We Wonder Why Textbooks are So Expensive

Tindall_2My blogging buddy Rebecca Goetz blogged about this some time ago [scroll down], but given what happened yesterday I just had to chime in.  Yesterday our department received two packages from Norton publishers.  I received one and my department chair the other.  Both packages included the second edition of Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty! which I am currently using in my AP classes.  Keep in mind that my department chair does not teach American history so she gave me her copy.  Also in her package was a copy of the 7th edition of America: A Historical Narrative by Tindall and Shi.  Since she has no use for the book she gave it to me.  That makes two copies of the 7th ed., one copy of the 6th ed., and one copy of the Fourth ed. that are currently gracing my bookshelves here at school.  Keep in mind that I’ve received these books over the past two years.  Has Tindall and Shi really changed that much that they feel a need to send multiple copies to people who will never use it in class. 

Why not send emails out to instructors and professors asking if they are interested in receiving sample copies.  By the way the hardcover version of Give Me Liberty! is $97.50 while America: A Historical Narrative is $50.  I can’t tell you how much fun it is when a textbook representative calls me only to hear that I don’t use them in half of my classes.  There is this awkward pause followed by the uneasy question, "So what do you do in those classes?"  Ten minutes later he wished he never asked that question.


“Stonewall Jackson Sex”

Someone found my blog by doing a Google search of "Stonewall Jackson Sex".  Civil War Memory is the first site listed and I couldn’t be more pleased.