Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Peter Carmichael on Robert E. Lee or Why Robert K. Krick and Michael Fellman Will Never Agree

Peter Carmichael’s keynote address at yesterday’s Lee symposium was alone worth the drive to Lexington.  His paper was titled, “‘Truth is Mighty & Will Eventually Prevail:’ Why Americans Disagree About the Historical Legacy of Robert E. Lee” and provides a framework for understanding the intellectual root of the debate between two camps.  Carmichael identifies these two camps by referencing their intellectual/cultural roots and argues that they represent fundamentally different approaches to the study of history.  The first group which represents the pro-Lee camp emerged out of a Victorian view of society and the past and stands in sharpr contrast with the so-called revisionist historians who inherited a modernist interpretation that Carmichael beieves can be traced to the turn of the twentieth century.  First the Victorian interpretation.

According to Carmichael any characterization of the first generation of Civil War histories must be understood as emerging out of a Victorian view of the world.  The crucial component within this world view is an assumption about the inevitablity of progress and moral perfectibility of individuals and nations.  Histories were written and consumed by a general public looking for moral lessons or vindication regarding their own claims to moral perfection on a national level.  Postwar histories of the South with their peaceful narratives of plantation life and slavery pointed to their place on the hierarchy above their more “modern” neighbors to the north.  The South represented a noble way of life and the image of the cavalier provided southern white men with an example of what moral perfection looked like.  Such broad cultural assumptions came to shape historical narratives as linear and simple; in other words, history was knowable and verifiable.  Most importantly, it offered relevant moral lessons that were applicable regardless of societal changes.

The revisionist view, (some would call them the anti-Lee group) according to Carmichael, can be understood as a product of the modernist turn.  This turn was in large part inward and can be discerned in the psychology of Freud and the literature of Faulkner.  The modernist view challenged the Victorian Era’s claims to the possibility of moral perfection and the assumption that the past was knowable as a straightforward story that offered timeles moral lessons.  Freud and Faulkner remind us that interpretation is never completed.  The modernist view of the world is “messy, confusing, and incapable of giving one narrative.”  The modernist “mocks” the Victorian or traditional view of the South.  It paints with too broad a brush and it leaves no room for revision.  The “Old South” is the only South and its moral lessons must be defended to the end.  The modernist says that since the past is always being reinterpreted that it is naive to think that it can produce a static collection of moral lessons.

Carmichael is careful in pointing out that there was a great deal of overlap between these two views.  I agree.  Positivism is very much a part of this modernist turn and Comte’s view of the natural and social sciences places a great deal of weight on the accumulation and knowability of the past.  I applaud Carmichael for attempting to locate the intellectual root of these fundamental disagreements that characterize the Civil War community.  That said, I don’t believe that we need to go back so far for an explanation nor do I think it is necessary to try to pinpoint an explanation.  I think the answer is much more simple.  It may come down simply to not understanding the historical process as it is formulated in the academy and for those trained as academic historians a failure to appreciate how many continue to identify or empathize with the past.  For now it is enough to say that Carmichael’s distinction does provide a platform from which he can examine recent debates over R. E. Lee.

In doing so Carmichael contrasts the work of Robert K. Krick and Michael Fellman.  Krick represents the Victorian mindset and Fellman, author of The Making of Robert E. Lee, plays the role of the modernist.  Carmichael made sure to note that his criticisms of the two are based on the utmost respect for their scholarship.   Krick stands out as the most notable pro-Lee scholar.  He rarely “strays from Douglas S. Freeman” but what Carmichael finds troubling is the way he characterizes others who write about Lee.  In fact, it may be his comments about others more than his own writings that justifies his placement in this category.  Fellman’s recent biography of Lee has all the earmarks of the modernist turn.  His emphasis is on Lee’s inner life and his interpretation challenges many of the standard assumptions of the general.  Rather than interpret Lee’s personal side in transparent terms Fellman sees contradiction and complexity, both of which challenge long-held views that single Lee out as the embodiment of moral perfection.  Krick often refers to the work of Fellman and others as “psychobabble.”

The differences between Krick and Fellman are perhaps innocuous on one level, but it is the way in which these fundamental differences play out in public that concerns Carmichael the most.   I found Carmichael’s comments here to be very persuasive and important to the public discussion of some of the more divisive topics in Civil War history.  At the same time I think he could have made these points apart from any discussion of the broader dichotomy of Victorianism v. Modernism.  Krick comes under serious scrutiny for the way he characterizes Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered and what it tells us about the latest generation of Lee historians.  While Krick was justified in his criticisms of Nolan’s interpretation Carmichael suggests that his closing comments play into a non-intellectual and unfair characterization of historical methodology and the motivations of recent Lee scholars:

Nolan’s book sold well, has gone through several printings by this writing early in 2000, and unquestionably will remain popular in the current climate.  It wonderfully suits the Zeitgeist by appealing to the sempiternal yearning to smash idols, which inevitably afflicts a noisy segment of the race.  The itch to fling dead cats into sanctuaries usually does more good than harm.  In this instance, it also affords a limitless appeal in a smug way to the political-correctness wowsers. [review reprinted in Krick's Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy (p. 236)]

The “current climate” includes most academic historians who poke around Lee’s life and arrive at conclusions that Krick disagrees with. The problem, of course, is that Krick’s characterization is meaningless. It purports to explain what motivates modern historians when in fact Krick has no evidence whatsoever for the claim.  More importantly, and this is what truly bothers Carmichael, the constant references to “political correctness” tell us absolutely nothing that is historically useful.  We are left trying to understanding what PC means.  As best I can surmise it is used most often by individuals who appear to have very little interest or understanding of what is involved in the historical process.  I asked Krick in a recent talk why it isn’t possible for historians to disagree rather than to simply characterize them as misguided or worse?  He had no response, but if Krick’s remarks serve to remind us of the dangers of generalizing about academics, Carmichael also has words for those who would generalize about those who do find the more moralistic writings of an older generation to be attractive.

Carmichael challenged remarks by Fellman and others who give the back of their hand to anything that reminds them of a “neo-Confederate” agenda – a label that Carmichael also believes is overused and just as damaging as the PC label.  I agree.  The extreme language on both sides is unfortunately all too popular and often functions as a poor substitute for more serious debate.  We are surrounded by it.  Carmichael cited the recent S.D. Lee “conference” which framed its symposium on Lee as follows:

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.

We are asked to think of Lee in the most simplistic terms imaginable not for the sake of careful understanding, but for the purposes of defending perceived truth in “this era of Political Correctness.”  This is not the mark of a serious history conference, but a support group for those who feel threatened.

Carmichael is surely correct that what is needed is better understanding of the agendas of both groups.  Academics need to better understand why many people continue to identify with a certain version of the past.  They need to resist outright condemnation just because someone (Victorianist) identifies with the perceived moral perfection of Lee or feels as if a certain view of the past is under assault.  Many people look to the past for guidance or sanctuary and should not be criticized for doing so.  Those on the other side need not impugn the motivations of those who would challenge our fundamental assumptions about certain aspects of the past.  For academic historians (modernists) the past is in need of continual revision.  The past is complex and includes plenty of room for multiple interpretations of the same event or individual.  Historians are not in the business of tearing down gods for its own sake; rather, they hope that continuous revision will get us closer to a more sophisticated understanding of history.  There is no conspiracy at work here.

Finally, Carmichael said nothing about the difficult issue of race as a factor in understanding the agendas of both camps.  Over the past few decades academic historians have become more interested in better understanding how slavery and race defined Southern society and shaped those who lived in it.  This latest crop of Lee historians has spent considerable time examining his own racial views both before and after the war and his handling of slaves at Arlington.  [One of the best examples of this approach can be found in Elizabeth Pryor's recent study of Lee.]  Much of what they have had to say has been met with a great deal of hostility from those who wish to keep any references to race and slavery out of the discussion.

Thanks to Peter Carmichael for an engaging talk that has given me much to think about.

Something to Think About

Hopefully I will have some time later today to comment on Peter Carmichael’s keynote address which was delivered yesterday as part of a 1-day symposium on R.E. Lee sponsored by the Lee Chapel in Lexington.  Pete touched on a number of issues that I’ve commented on in recent months. 

In the meantime consider a point made by Aaron Sheehan-Dean that relates to his forthcoming study, Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (University of North Carolina Press).  A comment was made during the Q&A which suggested the average age of the Confederate soldier was 19 years old.  Aaron has done statistical analysis of soldiers in Virginia which points to an average age of 24; he went on to characterize the ANV as an army of husbands and fathers.  If we are thinking about motivation along generational lines than this little bit of information has the potential to refocus our attention on a number of important questions.

“The Historical Legacy of Robert E. Lee”

Today I travel to Lexington for a 1-day symposium on Robert E. Lee sponsored by the Lee Chapel.  I will share my thoughts later today if time permits.

"We can scarcely take up a newspaper that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee…. It would seem from this that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian." — Frederick Douglass

The truth is, Lee lived an all too human existence, fraught with dilemmas and decisions that would challenge the sturdiest soul.  He handled some of these situations well, others with disastrous errors.  Never did he turn away, however, and even his sharpest critics never questioned his steadfastness.  This is where our sympathy with him lies; here and in the heart-rending way that he strove, but failed, to achieve his dreams–number two at West Point by fractions of a point; perennially disrupted in the home life he coveted; denied professional recognition until he stood on the very brink of national disaster; defeated when he had so confidently felt the capacity for victory.  Through all this he was brave and tenacious, and set no limits on what he would give or try to accomplish.  Yet Lee, who could be as self-serving as any of us, was not intrinsically more virtuous than others.  He simply harnessed his fine points–notably persistence and self-control–to overcome failings within and around him.  The greatest honor we can give Lee is to admire him for who he actually was, rather than as an imaginary creature, which only insults him by implying that the reality was inadequate. — Elizabeth B. Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (pp. 470-71)

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).

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.