Robert E. Lee: A Traditional General in a Modern War?

Last night Gary W. Gallagher presented a talk as part of UVA’s on-going symposium, “Lee at 200.”  Gallagher’s talk challenged a number of assumptions concerning Lee that collectively point to an old-style or traditional general who struggled to understand the tenets of modern war.  Such a view can be discerned in our popular culture, including the horrific movie Gods and Generals and even Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.  Just think of the music that is played in the background whenever Lee enters the story or the tone of Lee’s voice.  Now think of the way in which both Grant and Sherman are portrayed.  Consider the two images of Lee above.  On the one hand we prefer to think of the Lee on the left dressed in full uniform rather than the photograph taken by Brady just days after Appomattox.  One of the most popular points of contrast – usually mentioned in the context of the surrender at Appomattox – is the contrast between the way Lee and Grant dressed.  We know the drill so I am not going to repeat it.  Gallagher suggested, however, that Lee often dressed with a simple military jacket and colonel’s insignia.  The image of Lee in full military regalia does satisfy our desire to see him as more sophisticated or as somehow cut off from the dirtiness of war in comparison with Grant and Sherman.

The tendency to interpret Lee along traditional lines conforms to our broader assumptions that distinguish an agrarian South made up of cavaliers and a more industrial North made up of raucous immigrants.  We prefer to think of the South as stuck in the past and the war itself as a defensive posture against modernism.  Never mind the fact that the South ranked as the 4th most industrialized region on the planet or that a great deal of recent scholarship has successfully challenged this traditional picture of the South and has even demonstrated that large segments of the population were in fact quite progressive along economic lines.  Never mind the fact that just everybody in the North still farmed in 1860.

Gallagher presented a thorough overview of the literature on Lee and focused specifically on the various ways in which popular writer, beginning in the late 19th century, and scholars continue to interpret Lee as a commander out of step with the demands of modern war.  Early writers include John Esten Cooke, John W. Daniel, Charles Francis Adams, and more recently, Clifford Dowdey and Gene Smith.  All of them utilize the cavalier and other medieval imagery.  More recently, historians such as J.F.C. Fuller, Thomas Connelly, Alan Nolan and T.H. Williams have argued that Lee was unable to take in and appreciate the military situation beyond the Blue Ridge; rather, he was preoccupied with Virginia.  One of the nice things about a Gallagher talk is that you can always expect to get a good dose of historiography.  In fact, I don’t know too many Civil War historians who have as strong a grasp of the historiography of 19th century American history as Gallagher.

In contrast to this popular image of Lee, Gallagher believes that Lee was “perfectly attuned to the realities of a mid-19th century war.”  He was an ardent Confederate nationalist who paid close attention to the relationship between events on the battlefield and morale on the home front.  Perhaps the best example of Lee’s nationalism is his strong advocacy for a national draft in the spring of 1862.  This was the first national draft in American history and it represented a fundamental shift in the degree of intrusiveness in ordinary American’s lives.  And it was the Confederacy which introduced this first!  Lee believed that the individual states ought to give way to the demands of the national government; in fact, at one point Gallagher mentioned that Lee advocated confiscating all of the cattle from southern farms if it was necessary to maintain the armies.  Lee also clearly understood that the war was about the preservation of slavery and wrote about this often in his correspondences with Davis and others.  Lee advocated arming slaves during the war in exchange for their freedom not because he was a closet emancipationist, but because he believed it to be necessary to achieve independence.  Gallagher suggested that the sum total of the Confederate government’s legislative actions during the war constituted a far more intrusive system compared with the United States.  Such a view does not fit our preconceptions of a government bent on protecting states’ rights.

Most importantly, Gallagher believes that Lee’s record and aggressiveness on the battlefield constitutes the best case for interpreting him as a modern general.  Lee’s offensive movements proved to be much more deadly compared with Grant.  In fact, in the three years up to the Overland Campaign Grant lost a total of 35,000 men compared with Lee who lost over 100,000 men.  Gallagher is quick to point out that the high numbers are not cited as a criticism of Lee, but as an indicator that he understood what would win the war.  Lee’s stunning victories galvanized white southerners during difficult times and dampened northern morale.

Anyone who knows Gallagher is aware that he grew up out west and was reared on D.S. Freeman’s studies of Lee and his army along with other more traditional Lost Cause writers.  That enthusiasm and boyhood attraction for Lee and his men continues to come through in his public talks; that said, Gallagher is a first-rate scholar who understands that generalizations about the past or colorful commentary is no substitute for thorough research and analysis.

This talk is based on an article that appeared in the journal Civil War History: “An Old-Fashioned Soldier in a Modern War?: Robert E. Lee as Confederate General (December 1999): 295-321; the article is reprinted in Lee and His Army in Confederate History (UNC Press, 2001).


Dixie College to Change Mascot

Dixie2At first I thought this was some kind of joke, but it turns out there is a real school with the name Dixie College.  Better yet, it’s not in the south, but in UtahDixie  of all places.  Wait, it gets better.  Their mascot is the "Rebel" and school officials are now concerned that this "nickname is [being] linked with the Confederate flag" by the general public.  If they consider the mascot to be problematic what are they going to do about the name of the school itself?  And if they do change the name of the school altogether, what are they going to do with all of their Dixie chicks?  Where will they go? 


Do We Really Need to Save Fredericksburg’s Slaughter Pen?

FrWell, I guess we do, but now that I have your attention let me share with you what is included in the Civil War Preservation Trust’s latest mailing.  (1) notice indicating the availability of CWPT’s financial reports; (2) glossy sheet advertising a Jeff Shaara book or windbreaker as a free gift for donation; (3) typed letter by Jeff Shaara addressed to, "Dear Fellow History Buff"; (4) interview with Jim Lighthizer and on reverse side words of praise for CWPT by well-regarded historians; (5) full-length sheet with breakdown for donation: donate $500 for Cannoneer Membership Level, $35 for Bugler Membership Level, etc.; (6) 2-page generalized letter about the CWPT and the need to save battlefields; (7) detailed tactical map of the battle of Fredericksburg with color image and photograph on reverse side and (8) business reply mail envelope.

I’ve given to the CWPT before, but given my salary as a high school teacher I can’t take part every year and I definitely cannot contribute to additional mailings throughout the year.  I would love to know how much money is wasted on these mailings.  Email would be a more efficient means of communication, but my guess is that the good people at CWPT are operating on the assumption that a hard copy is more likely to lead to a contribution.  Let’s assume that is true; do they still have to include everything mentioned above?  What exactly am I missing in all of this.  Keep in mind that I receive such mailings at least 4 times a year. 

Isn’t it possible that the Slaughter Pen could already be saved if they scaled back on these bulky mailings?

I know this is probably a write-off for the CWPT – which reminds me of a Seinfeld episode:

Kramer : It’s just a write off for them.
Jerry : How is it a write off?
Kramer : They just write it off.
Jerry : Write it off what?
Kramer : Jerry all these big companies they write off everything
Jerry : You don’t even know what a write off is.
Kramer : Do you?
Jerry : No. I don’t.
Kramer : But they do and they are the ones writing it off.
Jerry : I wish I just had the last twenty seconds of my life back.

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Plenty of Lee to Go Around

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Robert E. Lee in recent weeks.  I am working on a presentation on Lee and memory for two dates one of which has been pushed back indefinitely.  I mentioned a few days ago that Bob Krick kicked off UVA’s month-long symposium on Lee; this week Gary Gallagher will address Lee’s generalship.  Next week the Lee Chapel in Lexington, Virginia is hosting a day-long symposium on Lee.  Luckily I have the day off so I plan on attending.  The line-up is first-rate and includes Gordon Rhea, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Emory Thomas, J. Tracy Power, Peter Carmichael, and A. Wilson Greene.  It’s nice to see that the organizers for the conference at the Lee Chapel knew who to invite.  You won’t have to sit there and listen to some nut go on and on about how Lee is the greatest thing since sliced bread or that he is evil incarnate.  Keep that to yourself.   What you can anticipate are thoughtful presentations that address historical rather than moral issues. 


Forthcoming Civil War Studies

I recently realized that my reading patterns in Civil War history tend to follow individual historians rather than subjects.  In other words, when I am looking for books to read I inevitably look at authors rather than subjects.  I’m not quite sure how to explain this and I am also not sure when this started.  Perhaps this tendency goes back to my time as a philosophy major.  My focus was more on individual philosophers rather than subjects.  By far my two favorites were David Hume and Immanuel Kant.  I was just as content reading Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding as I was reading his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and with Kant it extended from his work in metaphysics to anthropology.  Of course there were others, but I was guaranteed to be challenged no matter where I looked in their writings. 

B1On the other hand, my interest in individual historians may be connected to my own limited work in the field.  I’ve come to appreciate just how difficult it is to say something new and interesting and I am constantly amazed by how many first-rate minds are currently toiling in this field.  I have absolutely no interest reading another book on Lincoln, but I will read anything that Stephen Berry writes.  His last book on Confederate soldiers was, unfortunately, overlooked by many.  His gender analysis of what motivated southern men to fight and how they defined themselves in masculine terms is well worth a read and moves us beyond unit loyalty, ideology and politics.  To a certain extent the subject matters little to me; what matters is that I can anticipate being challenged and learning something new – even with a subject that has been dissected through and through.

BJason Phillips is one of the younger guns in the field.  I served on a panel with Jason at the 2007 AHA on Civil War soldiers.  His book is based on his dissertation which analyzes the roll of rumor in the Confederate ranks and home front.  I see this as taking the concept of contingency one step further.  Not only is it important not to read back into the past from a point where the outcome is known, but it is also necessary to distinguish between what seemed to be the case as opposed to what was "true" at any given moment.  I read Jason’s recent article "The Grape Vine Telegraph: Rumors and Confederate Persistence" [Journal of Southern History, (November 2996): 753-89] and was very impressed.  Keep an eye out for this one.

Blight_2Finally, David Blight is set to release a book that contains two slave narratives one of which was used by the NPS at Fredericksburg for their new documentary on civilian life.  The book includes an extensive introduction by Blight.  My interest in Civil War memory can be traced back directly to my reading of his Race and Reunion.  Like many people I can see the book’s weak spots, but its significance must be understood in the way it defined a field of study and has led to a small army of historians who have investigated further the ways in which various groups of Americans engaged in the battle to control the memory of the war.  Blight could write about any topic in American history and I would be one of the first to purchase it.