Category Archives: Lost Cause

It’s A Celebration: Lee’s 200th

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

The Washington Post article is out but unfortunately I wasn’t mentioned in it.  I spent close to one hour on the phone so I at least thought my name and blog would be mentioned.  Oh well, I guess that is the nature of the business.  You can read the article by Brigid Schulte if interested.  She did a pretty good job and included quotes from John Coski, Fitzhugh Brundage, and Theodore C. DeLaney; all are talented historians whose views I respect.

What follows are a few of my own thoughts about where we are on this 200th anniversary of Lee’s birth.  I want to say up front that I am not a Lee scholar.  Most of what I know about the man is from reading biographies and articles by Emory Thomas, Richard McClaslin, Gary Gallagher, Steven Woodworth, and Michael Fellman to name just a few.

For those of us who spend our lives thinking and writing about Southern history I think it is important to remember that for the overwhelming majority of people R. E. Lee is an insignificant name.  Still, for a small number of people there is the belief that Lee’s good name along with ideas about the Confederate experience are currently under assault.  We can make sense of this on a number of levels.  In the Post article Brundage correctly notes that the social make-up of the South is changing in ways that few people could have imagined just a few decades ago.

Now there are all sorts of other ways in which Southerners identify themselves — Salvadorans, Mexicans, Asians — [and] the politics and economics of the region are no longer based on white supremacy.  It makes all the sense in the world that for more and more Southerners, Robert E. Lee is just a footnote.

I agree with Brundage, but the  piece that is missing is that the participation by certain minorities in the last few decades since the Civil Rights Movement has led to a gradual reshaping of our historical landscape.  There is a strong connection between those that wield political influence and the way that power can be used to shape collective memory.  White supremacy during the era of Jim Crow led to a concerted effort to shape a certain memory of the war and the antebellum south.  In short, those who control politics also control the way we think about the past which in turn reinforces the justification for civic exclusion.  The changes that are taking place are inevitable and the debates that take place as a result are often heated.  I don’t know what the answer is; all I can say is that a certain amount of understanding and sympathy is always helpful.  Our public spaces should reflect the history of the people who live in a given region and who are in the end paying for the building and maintenance of these sites.

There is no shortage of biographies and other types of studies of Lee, but even here many interpret this body of scholarship as an attack on Lee and the South.  Copies of Alan Nolan’s 1991 study of Lee were burned in reaction to his characterization of Lee as slaveowner his decision to align himself with Virginia and the Confederacy, and his conduct of the war.  While I am not a big fan of the book there is something to be said of the heated response.  I see this as just one of the places where history and heritage compete for our attention.  We know much more about the antebellum south, the Confederacy, and the war in general so it is not surprising that many of our traditional views of this event and the people who fought it are changing.  We are closing in on the sesquicentennial anniversary of the war which means that our emotional distance is also increasing.  No doubt this makes it easier for some to look at old questions from a fresh perspective or even challenge outright the assumptions that for so long have guided our thinking.  Washington and Lee University’s upcoming exhibit on Lee titled “Re-Visioning Lee” and Arlington National Cemetery’s symposium titled “Does Lee Matter” suggests that this year is going to see a great deal of conflict between those who are willing to step back and examine with fresh eyes and those who will cling to a more pleasing or comforting view of Lee.  According to DeLaney who is helping to organize the exhibit on Lee at W&L:

At Washington and Lee, all things are on the table for debate and discussion, including Robert E. Lee.  Nothing’s too sacred. And that’s an important change.

An important change for some, no doubt, but the majority of people celebrating Lee’s birthday are not interested in any reassessment of the general.  Rather, Lee’s place in the minds of many is secured and worth defending in the face of all challenges.  This popular image of Lee can be found in the many editorials that have appeared over the last few days in newspapers from around the country.  Here is just a small sample:

1. That “something” was wrapped up in his character more than in his morally maculate cause. He was a Virginia gentleman in the best sense: self-disciplined, devoted to duty, genteel, compassionate, humble. He cared for his bedridden mother, becoming nurse, companion, and housekeeper to her in her final years. Likewise did he serve his wife as arthritis began to cripple her. Other virtues? In his military career before the Civil War he displayed physical courage, fidelity, and technical competence as an engineer. As a father, he was a beloved–if seldom home–playmate, a reader of books and teller of stories.

2. If everyone had conducted themselves the way Robert E. Lee did after the Civil War, the healing could have been less painful. Human beings, flawed and sinful, decided to take the low road. They did not meet Lee on that road. True to his character, he refused to travel it.

3. In this modern age, where the individual has become god and God has been diminished so successfully, I guess it would be unreasonable to expect the general to receive his due respect.

4. The significance of General Lee’s (and Thomas Jackson’s) life cannot be overvalued. While the character and influence of most of us will barely be remembered two hundred days after our departure, the sterling character of these men has endured for two hundred years. What a shame that so many of America’s youth are being robbed of knowing and studying the virtue and integrity of the great General Robert E. Lee and General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

5. If Robert E. Lee were alive, he would be celebrating his 200th birthday on Friday, January 19, 2007. This date will probably pass without much notice in the North, but many of us in Dixie will mark the day with recollections of just how great a man he was. In this regard, I offer this reprint of his Farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia. If Mr. Bush wants to end the war in Iraq now, this would serve as an excellent draft for his farewell speech to the troops.

6. Please share the story of this great Virginian with your children and local schoolteachers. The example of Robert E. Lee should be taught in our nation’s schools as America remembers his 200th birthday today.

I will leave it to others to evaluate Lee’s moral qualities.  As a historian the question holds no significance for me.  I am much more interested in understanding Lee within the rich historical context that has been explored over the past few decades by historians.  What I find so striking is the apparent disconnect between the assessment of Lee’s moral qualities and any discussion about history.  It’s as if Lee has been plucked out of the past to be used as we see fit.  We can use Lee to figure out how to handle the war in Iraq and as the embodiment of moral perfection we can use him to educate our children.

It is difficult not to draw comparisons with interpretations of Jesus.  For some the very thought of questioning stories about Jesus – like Lee – is already to take one step too many; it’s as if something sacred has been violated.  Better to accept certain assumptions about the moral character of Jesus and the events of his life on faith.  The only problem, of course, is in deciding what exactly to accept on faith.  What, if any, are the constraints on what can be accepted on faith and who gets to decide?  And within one’s faith should historical methodology play any role and if so how much?  I see both of these strands at work in our discussion of Lee and the broader public debate about our collective memory of the war.

In contrast with those who venerate Lee we have people who would have us believe that Lee is the embodiment of all that is wrong with America.  Check out the site of the Virginia Anti-War Network [Hat-Tip to John Maas] which includes a long article about Lee’s legacy:

Robert Edward Lee — the Virginian who owned and exploited Black people; helped steal half of Mexico during the U.S.-Mexican War; led the attack on abolitionist hero John Brown at Harper’s Ferry; deserted the Union Army; took up arms against the country he had sworn to defend in order to preserve the immensely profitable system of chattel slavery; and lost the Civil War by getting his reactionary butt decisively kicked by a force that included 200,000 armed people of African descent — was born on Jan. 19, 1807, in Stratford, Va.

Both views have much in common, including an overly simplistic view of Lee and the world in which he lived in.  Of course that is to be expected given the forums in which these views appear.  That fact, however, makes these accounts relevant as they capture, unlike our more sophisticated historical treatments of the Civil War, how most Americans “interpret” the past.  The problem is that in the end neither side really does justice to the history of the individual in question.  Both sides give the back of their hands to serious debate and thought.  Their interests are more focused on the present.  On the one hand Lee’s memory can be used to address the current demographic shifts taking place in the South along with the economic, cultural, and social changes since the 1960′s.  For those who reduce Lee’s legacy to that of a villain end up with a false image that can be used to address their own grievances and hopes for the future.

Either way there is little interest in serious history.  So I say happy birthday General Lee – whoever you are.

Mark Grimsley on Myth, Memory, and Sherman’s March

I was doing a bit of snooping around on the internet looking for information on memory and Sherman’s March when I came across a short essay by fellow blogger and historian Mark Grimsley.  It is a nice concise overview of the campaign and how our popular perceptions of Sherman and his men have evolved.

"Thieves, Murderers, and Trespassers": The Mythology of Sherman’s March

Where Do We Go From Here?

In my comments at the AHA I made some brief remarks in my talk and during the Q&A about possible avenues for future research in connection with Civil War veterans and memory.  I thought I might take a minute and extend those thoughts to this sub-field as a whole.  Others have commented that the topic of Civil War memory is a passing fad, but a quick glance at the range of topics and types of questions that have been explored in recent years suggests that the field will continue to expand, especially with the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011.

Surprisingly, given the number of recent studies there are big gaps in the literature that are just waiting to be explored.  One of the most popular subjects for historians, including yours truly, has been the exploration of how battles and the ground on which they were fought were remembered and commemorated. We have excellent studies of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Appomattox; however, we still need interpretations of “Sherman’s March,” Andersonville and even the engagement between the Monitor and the Merrimac.  Military figures such as Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson have proven to be popular subjects for study, but that short list could easily be expanded. First, the list tends to be dominated by white southerners which I suspect has much to do with the popularity of the Lost Cause. Donald Collins recently released a very short study of Jefferson Davis and memory; unfortunately that book is really a missed opportunity as the author failed to fully explore the subject.  Benjamin Butler would make for an ideal subject as well as Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman’s postwar military career contribute to the way we remember him?  Joan Waugh is currently working on a book that explores how Grant was remembered and his place in late nineteenth- early twentieth-century civic culture.  The book is slated for publication with UNC Press.

Very little has been done on the Copperheads apart from Jennifer Weber’s fine study.  We need to know much more about northern dissidents and how their wartime political stance was handled locally following the war.  How did their memories of the war conflict with and evolve as the nation mourned Lincoln’s assassination, expanded economically, and became even more centralized? On the other side of the Potomac John Sarris’s study of northwest Georgia suggests that much more needs to be done on southern dissidents.  I mentioned in my AHA comments that community or local studies provide an ideal focus for the examination of memory.  Historians have begun to examine counties and regions, but little has been done on cities such as Charleston, New

York City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.  My guess is that the urbanization of many cities and the influx of new ethnic groups presented some interesting challenges that became intertwined with Civil War remembrance and civic memory.  I suspect that these local perspectives are going to shed light on a great deal of disagreement over how the war was to be remembered.  The National Park Service would also make for an ideal study, which is absolutely essential given the recent controversy about how the park service should interpret our Civil War battlefields.  My work on the Crater clearly demonstrates that the park service inherited a specific interpretation of the battle that was tightly controlled by white southerners and the veterans themselves.  The park service gained control of the battlefield in 1936 and accepted without question an interpretation that ignored the participation of USCT’s and their treatment following the battle by Confederates.  I cite this as one example, but I suspect that much more could be done as battlefields at Chickamauga  and Antietam were turned into National Military Parks.  One of the most common rebuttals against the expansion of the NPS’s interpretive focus is that it should not be in the business of interpretation.  An examination of the Crater battlefield demonstrates that the NPS was involved in interpretation from the beginning – and a rather narrow interpretation at that.

Feel free to offer additional suggestions.

The Year Of Lee

Most of you are no doubt aware that 2007 is the 200th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s birth.  There will be a great deal of celebration and perhaps even a little history to go along with it.  A reader was kind enough to draw my attention to the Virginia Senate Joint Resolution No. 382 which among other things established a "joint subcommittee to plan and coordinate the 200th anniversary celebration of the birth of Robert E. Lee. Report."  The following section lays out who will serve on the committee:

RESOLVED by the Senate, the House of Delegates concurring, That a joint subcommittee be established to plan and coordinate the 200th anniversary celebration of the birth of Robert E. Lee. For this occasion, the joint subcommittee is hereby designated the official Robert E. Lee Memorial Commission of the Commonwealth. The joint subcommittee shall have a total membership of 14 members that shall consist of six legislative members, five nonlegislative citizen members, and three ex officio members. Members shall be appointed as follows: two members of the Senate to be appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules; four members of the House of Delegates to be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Delegates in accordance with the principles of proportional representation contained in the Rules of the House of Delegates; two nonlegislative citizen members, one of whom shall represent the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and one of whom shall represent the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to be appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules; and three nonlegislative citizen members, one of whom shall represent the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, one of whom shall represent the Confederate Memorial Literacy Society, and one of whom shall represent Washington and Lee University to be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Delegates. The Director of the Department of Historic Resources, the Executive Director of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction shall serve as ex officio members without voting privileges. Nonlegislative citizen members of the joint subcommittee shall be citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Unless otherwise approved in writing by the chairman of the joint subcommittee and the respective Clerk, nonlegislative citizen members shall only be reimbursed for travel originating and ending within the Commonwealth of Virginia for the purpose of attending meetings. If a companion joint resolution of the other chamber is agreed to, written authorization of both Clerks shall be required. The joint subcommittee shall elect a chairman and vice chairman from among its membership, who shall be members of the General Assembly.

Additional "technical support" will be provided by the Department of Historical Resources, Virginia Tourism Corporation, and the Department of Education.  Someone please point out to me where the hell are the historians.  Notice there is no one from the Museum of the Confederacy, Library of Virginia, National Park Service or the Virginia Historical Society. 

With this make-up we can anticipate numerous lecture series like the one set for April which is being sponsored by the Stephen D. Lee Institute.  The title of the event is "Robert E. Lee: Hero or Traitor?"  With a title like that you can expect some heavy-duty historical thinking. Here is a description provided on their website:

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.

I love the attention to character evaluation in the form of mutually exclusive choices: Was he this or that?  I have to hand it to them, the conference organizers apparently chose just the right people to discuss this topic.  They include among other Ron Maxwell and Thomas DiLorenzo.  If anyone actually attends this event please let me know if they ever get around to talking about history.

Some Thoughts About Confederate Veterans And Memory

I am posting this entry on Saturday at 2:30pm.  At this time I am sitting in a conference room in the Atlanta Hilton with five other panelists to discuss our work in the View From The Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers.  The panel is titled “Soldiers, Citizens, and Sources: The Uses of Civil War Soldiers in Writing U.S. History and includes Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Kent Dollar, Chandra Manning, Charles Brooks, Jason Phillips and myself.  Since this is a roundtable discussion each panelist is only given about 5 minutes.  This will allow for  plenty of time to engage the audience in discussion.  Here are my remarks.  Since I am posting this on Wednesday there is a good chance that changes will be made before Saturday.  Feel free to comment.

“Some Thoughts About Confederate Veterans and Memory”
Presented at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association,
January 6, 2007

For the past four years I’ve been researching the battle of the Crater in historical memory – primarily the way white Southerners, including the veterans themselves, shaped the public’s understanding of this particular battle. As many of you know the battle took place on July 30, 1864 and involved an attempt on the part of the Army of the Potomac to tunnel under a Confederate salient in hopes of breaking the growing siege of Petersburg.  The Union attack – which included a division of USCT’s – failed miserably and constituted the last decisive victory for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before their surrender in April 1865.  This project started out as an essay on William Mahone – who led the Confederate counterattack at the Crater – and his attempt after the war to utilize his war record to benefit both his business and political careers.  I say this at the outset because my primary goal was not to study Civil War veterans as a group.

As the project moved beyond the narrow focus of Mahone and on to the battle itself the veterans emerged as an integral part of the story.  I had read David Blight’s Race and Reunion and was prepared for evidence of national reconciliation in connection with the Crater battlefield.  Through reunions and monument dedications both Confederate veterans from Virginia and their counterparts in the North used the battlefield as a forum to highlight the bravery exhibited by men on both sides.  And Union veterans  – particularly from Massachusetts – played an important role in working with their former enemies to bring the battlefield under the control of the National Park Service in 1936.  While it is important to acknowledge, as does John Neff in his recent study of the commemoration of Civil War dead, that national reunion and reconciliation was not a given the veterans achieved a great deal of consensus which continues to dominate the way the general public thinks about this particular battle.  The most significant point is the extent to which the role of USCT’s during the battle and their treatment by Confederates following their surrender had been eliminated from public memory by the turn of the century.

While the level of consensus achieved by Confederate veterans about the battle did not surprise me, the strong points of disagreement within their ranks did.  The literature on Confederate veterans beginning recently with Gaines Foster and Charles Reagan Wilson point to a gradual achievement of consensus structured around the tenets of the Lost Cause. A more local perspective reveals much more complexity.  I am going to briefly present two examples in connection to the Crater in which conflict amongst Confederate veterans shaped the memory of the battle.  The first is explored in my essay in The View From The Ground.  Veterans of Mahone’s division, including brigades from Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, along with other units from North and South Carolina debated through the turn of the century over who could claim credit for their victory.  Virginians succeeded in claiming the victory as their own by minimizing the contributions of units from outside the Commonwealth.  While their strong convictions about their roles in the battle point to continued feelings of Confederate nationalism their desire to claim the battle for themselves became intertwined with issues of honor rooted in local and state identity.  The tendency for veterans to focus on individual regiments and larger units associated with their respective states may have reflected a need for self-identification somewhere between Confederate and American.

More interesting is the fierce debate among veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade that took place as a result of the general’s foray into Virginia politics and leadership of the Readjuster Party.  I explore this in an article that appeared in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 2005.  The Readjuster Party controlled the Commonwealth from 1879 to 1883 and resulted in Mahone’s election to the United States Senate.  The Readjusters welcomed Virginia’s black population into the party and as a result enjoyed increased access to the polls and political power around the state.  The racial shake-up that resulted served to divide Mahone’s former command.  In short, Reconstruction came later for Virginians, compared with the rest of the South, not as a result of the federal government or “carpetbaggers” but at the hands of one of their own.

Newspapers reserved plenty of space for former soldiers who aligned themselves with or against their former commander, and they expressed themselves by either reinforcing or challenging Mahone’s reputation as the “Hero of the Crater.”  Mahone was compared with John Brown and Benedict Arnold and questions were raised about his performance at the Crater, including whether he gave the order to charge or whether he was even present on the battlefield.  One of Mahone’s most vociferous critics was Brig. Gen. David Weisiger who commanded the Virginia brigade at the Crater.  Given Weisiger’s rank and close association with Mahone his claims to have ordered the attack at the Crater were given a great deal of attention.  The damage done to Mahone’s reputation can be seen in Weisiger’s obituary which appeared in the popular publication Confederate Veteran in 1893 and cited him as the “Hero of the Crater.”

Throughout the postwar period Mahone had taken steps to organize the men under his command tohelp in first consolidating his rail lines and later his political interests.  He did this by assisting in organizing a veteran’s organization that eventually took the generals name and by offering free passes on his rail lines to attend annual meetings.  The debates that involved Virginia’s veterans showed that these men were not simply pawns that could be manipulated but were active political agents in their own right.  The debates between veterans of the battle were not about getting the history right, but about the conditions surrounding who could claim a legitimate connection to a Confederate past.  At the height of Readjuster control history and politics became almost indistinguishable with Mahone himself serving as a lightning rod that divided his old command.  In August 1883, Robert Bagby – who served in the 3rdGeorgia Regiment of Mahone’s division appealed to his fellow comrades to look beyond politics:

It is not my wish or desire to applaud Gen. Mahone for the active part he bore in the late war between the States, or vilify or abuse him for his connection with Virginia state politics but as a Confederate soldier who followed where he led in the dark and trying hours of the past. I, for one, am willing to let politics of the living present rest long enough to remember the record made by Gen. Mahone while fighting for a principle that was near and dear to us all.

Mahone was the most divisive former Confederate general in Virginia following the war, much more so than James Longstreet.  After all, while Longstreet was criticized by popular Lost Cause advocates such as Jubal Early he continued to be welcomed at reunions and other events by the men of his old corps.  Mahone’s political decisions, however, worked to alienate the men under his command and it was these men who worked to end the party’s control of the state by 1883.

Both examples suggest the way the Confederate past could be made to serve the present needs of the men in the ranks and perhaps points in the direction of further research.  There is a great deal of consensus when we look down on Confederate remembrances.  We can see the broad outlines of the Lost Cause, which among other things explained away slavery as a cause of secession and celebrated the virtues of the Confederate soldier and turned the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson into icons.  In doing so the Lost Cause presented its readers and later generations with a united front.

When we take the view from the ground, however, we are forced to come to terms with a great deal of conflict that outlasted the war, the fault lines and hidden controversies that often defined the peace.  In the case of the debates between Virginia veterans and their one-time comrades over who could claim credit for victory at the Crater the men identified more with their own states rather than a more abstract Confederate past.  Within Virginia itself the veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade came to blows over the political decisions of their former commander.  In both cases the experiences of the Civil War continued to provide meaning on a local level to the way Confederate veterans identified with their changing surroundings in a post-emancipationist world.

So where do we go from here?  I am intrigued by the possibilities that community studies offer as an avenue for future study.  They provide the right level of focus as they are more likely to exploit local politics and other issues that are missed in broader studies.  Unfortunately most of these local studies give short thrift to postwar experiences or if they do steer clear of issues of memory.  An exception to this rule can be found in Jonathan Sarris’s A Separate Civil War, which compares Lumpkin and Fannin counties before, during and after the war – both situated in northwest Georgia.  The postwar experiences of Confederate veterans and Unionists neighbors in both counties and the sometimes bitter debates that took place are rendered intelligible through a careful analysis of the socio-economic patterns that shaped their pre-war and wartime experiences.  There are other possibilities for future research which we can talk about during the discussion session.