“It’s the End of the World As We Know It”: Lee on Race and Emancipation

My research into Confederate reactions to the presence of USCTs at the Crater leaves little doubt that one of their primary fears was that defeat would lead to the overturning of a slave society.  From their perspective this outcome had nothing at all to do with slave ownership and had everything to do with losing control of a society where the institution of slavery guaranteed the continued separation of the races along with its well-entrenched hierarchy.  The archival record is very clear on this and Chandra Manning’s new book on Civil War soldiers and slavery confirms it. 

While the discussion of race and slavery within the ranks has been given new life in recent historical studies, Robert E. Lee’s own racial outlook continues to suffer at the hands of people who draw overly simplistic distinctions or who fail to place Lee within the proper social-economic context.  Luckily we have Lee himself who makes it very clear in a letter to Secretary of War James A. Seddon on the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The letter was written on January 10, 1863:

In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leave us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence.

While the letters written by soldiers in the ANV who experienced the fight at the Crater were understandably much more emotional, Lee’s letter touches on the main themes.  Battlefield defeat for Lee meant nothing less than an overturning of the Southern racial hierarchy, and one can assume that his reference to "pollution" has something to do with miscegenation or at least a fear of more liberal rules governing the interaction of the races. 

The acknowledgment of such a racial outlook does nothing to my personal view of Lee since I am not invested in any specific moral image.  He is a figure from the past who held views about slavery and race which corresponded to widely held assumptions. 

Nothing surprising about that.

Grabbing Hold Of That Thin Slice of Delaware’s Confederate Past

Looks like the first monument to honor Delawareans who served in Confederate armies will be unveiled this Saturday on the grounds of the Nutter B. Marvel Museum.  The 9-foot obelisk will honor somewhere between 200 and 2,000 residents of the state who served in military and civilian capacities.  Of course, one of the individuals to be recognized is a black man:

David White, a slave from Georgetown who was traveling with his owner on a ship that was captured by the Confederate raider CSS Alabama on Oct. 9, 1862, near the Azores. According to historical accounts, White voluntarily served as a mess steward aboard the Alabama and refused numerous opportunities to desert and gain his freedom.   White went down with the ship when it was sunk by the USS Kearsarge in June 1864 off Kearsarge, France.

White was loyal to the end and even went down with the ship.  How touching.  What more can you ask for? (LOL)

It’s interesting that the SCV would spend so much time focusing on Delaware’s links to the Confederacy.  There is a bit of irony in all of this given the fact that, according to historian William Freehling, it may have been Border States like Delaware that doomed the Confederate experiment.  Delaware’s antebellum experience meant that the rhetoric coming from Deep South “Fireaters” would receive a cold reception before the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  It also helps us to understand why the secession commissioners that Charles Dew documents were unsuccessful in convincing the Border and Middle South States that Lincoln’s election constituted an “immediate threat” to the institution of slavery.  That Delaware ignored these pleas can be seen in the fact that from 1790 to 1860 the percentage of slaves in the Border South had dropped from 25 to 13 percent.  During that same period the percentage of free blacks had increased; by 1860 ninety percent of the state’s blacks were free.

The antebellum history of Delaware serves to remind us that the South was not monolithic in any sense.  The overwhelming number of its residents served in Northern armies and fought against their Southern brothers.  I have absolutely no problem with this monument, but I can’t help but wonder whether this is more a matter of ignoring the richness that is the history of the South in favor of another overly simplistic representation of the past.

I Am Not Interested In You, I am Interested In the Past

One of the lessons I’ve learned as a result of blogging is just how emotional people can get over the Civil War.  Of course I knew this before blogging, but when that emotion is directed at you it provides a whole new perspective on things.  It is almost cliche to say, but it is true that many are still "fighting the war."  Perhaps Brooks Simpson is experiencing the same thing in reference to memory of Grant and the war in the West.  While our subject matter differs our responses are similar.  In this case I will let Brooks speak for me:

I’ve always been interested as to the extent to which certain people take the Civil War personally. You can say what you want about honoring one’s past, one’s heritage, and one’s ancestors, and yet it still surprises me that so many people can’t draw distinctions between past and present, between “them” and “us,” “they” and “we,” or exhibit a passion for (or against) a particular historical figure to the extent that they project their own way of personalizing history on others (you can come across this characteristic if you examine some comments posted in response to blog entries here)….

Let me simply suggest that when people confuse past and present and their ancestors with themselves that they are not practicing history, but a form of identity politics, and, in some cases, are responding to something best found within themselves, whatever that may be. “We” did not fight that war; “we” did not respond to something that happened nearly 150 years ago; “we” did not own slaves, and “we” did not fight to free them, or to save the Union, or whatever. We are trying to understand what they did and why, how they saw and understood the world around them, how and why things happened as they did … in part by appreciating the “pastness of the past,” as it were.

Most of the responses to my posts are sent to my personal email.  I rarely respond, but I am struck by the number of people who actually believe that I have a personal agenda or have taken a moral stand in connection to my research.  You can find numerous statements on message boards where I am labeled "anti-Southern" or my personal favorite, "hater of the South."  While I typically laugh in response to such accusations I am hard pressed to understand the motivation behind it all.  Such accusations tell me nothing about the past, but about the ignorance of the accuser.  Much of the mail I receive stems from the assumption that we should equate Southern history with the white South and/or the four years of the Confederacy.   

I am willing to admit that I am personally invested in one outcome of the war and that is the end of slavery – regardless of how it happened.  Of course I have my personal views of certain individuals, but they are working assumptions that are not invested with much emotion at all.  In other words, I am perfectly willing to step back from the way in which I understand the past.  My assumptions about the past are based on what I’ve read and since I am constantly reading I would hope that my understanding continues to evolve.    I constantly reference books when making specific claims.  While some interpret this as condescending I see it as acknowledging a basic fact that apart from the quality of the books we read no one has an independent connection to historical truth.  My voracious appetite for historical studies is a function of wanting to know better. 

I grew up on the beaches of Ventnor, New Jersey and didn’t read my first Civil War book until my mid-20s.  My ancestors arrived in this country after the war so I have no personal connection to the 19th century.  As difficult as it might be for some people to believe this I have absolutely no personal feelings one way or the other about the people who fought the war.  Often times I find that my readers have failed to distinguish between the perception of an emotional interest with a focus on how Americans remember the war.  The implication is that because I ask questions or draw certain conclusions that I must be personally invested.  In the case of my numerous posts about "Stonewall" Jackson or Robert E. Lee the failure on the part of of my readers is to distinguish between criticisms of historians who write about such subjects and the individuals in question.  How could I possibly have such strong emotional convictions about individuals that I’ve never met?  Since my primary interests center on memory and race in the Confederacy and the postwar South the typical response is to inquire why I don’t write more about the racism of Northerners.  The implication is that I am treating the South "harshly" or that my narrow focus is a sufficient reason to conclude that I am "covering up" other areas of history.  I don’t know how to respond to such criticisms, but to say that I have my interests which I will continue to pursue.  Part of it is that I tend to write about the areas where I live, which is of course Virginia for now.  In a few years I will move and more than likely will take up subjects that bring me closer to my new community. 

Brooks hit the nail on the head in the passage quoted above: I’ve never considered myself part of a "We" in any context whatsoever in regard to the Civil War.  I used to find that personal connection to the Civil War to be somehow endearing, but now I find it distracting and annoying.  It’s annoying because it wastes a great deal of time and conversations with such people are usually not about history, but about themselves. 

I am not interested in you, I am interested in the past.

Clyde Broadway’s “Trinity”

One of the most effective and enjoyable ways of studying Civil War memory is by looking at the various images produced at different times.  I tend to look at images not simply for what they are purported to be about, but as reflective of the artist and the time in which they were produced.  There are no better examples of this dynamic than from the Civil War.  Contemporary images, especially those produced by mainstream-popular artists tend to give me a good laugh.  They include Troiani, Kunstler, Gallon, etc.  Gary Gallagher recently completed a book-length study of images of the Civil War so keep an eye out if that kind of thing interests you.

One of my favorite images of late is titled “Trinity” by Clyde Broadway (copyright, 1994 Clyde Broadway). I’ve used this image on two occasions and both times I failed to credit the artist. The original can be found in the permanent collection of the Ogden Museum of Art at the University of New Orleans.  Mr. Broadway emailed me to remind me of my failure to credit both the artist and the museum in which the painting is located.  Along with a justified mild scolding he mentioned that the painting includes a gold border, which was absent from the image I utilized.  The image is included in Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s new study of R. E. Lee, which I’ve commented on over the past week.

The way in which Broadway depicts religion and Lee stands in sharp contrast with what you will find in Civil War magazines.  There is a highly critical quality in this image that forces you to think rather than revel in the unspoken assumptions that define our popular beliefs about the South and religion.  Broadway seems to be poking fun at our tendency to equate Jesus and Lee (and perhaps all things Southern) almost exclusively to the rest of the country.

Just When You Thought You Were Getting To Know Someone: R.E. Lee’s Washington

I am steadily making my way through Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s new book about Robert E. Lee and am learning a great deal.  One of the early chapters deals with the supposed influence of Washington’s memory on Lee’s life.  Most of us take it for granted that Lee idolized the first president and even some historians have assumed a “mystical bond between the two men.”  Pryor argues that most of these stories surfaced following the Civil War as part of a broader push on the part of white Southerners to justify secession and connect the Confederate experience to the “untarnished greatness” of Washington.  Of course there is a great deal of history to work with in forging this connection given Lee’s marriage and his early years which were spent in large part at Arlington and in the shadow of Washington’s memory.  Pryor does not ignore any of this evidence, in fact she agrees that the memory of Washington did play a role in shaping Lee’s career and personal behavior.

Readers will appreciate Pryor’s attention to detail, especially in her grasp of the relevant secondary sources.  She does not attempt to build a strawman argument here, but cites directly those historians who have pushed this connection to the extreme.  The best place to start is with D.S. Freeman’s excellent biography of Lee:

His ideals had their embodiment, for unconsciously he was a hero-worshipper. He viewed his father not as “Light-Horse Harry” was in the tragic years of his speculation, but as he might have been if the promise of his Revolutionary record had been fulfilled. Above his father and every other man he had always placed Washington. The Father of his Country was no mere historical figure to him, great but impersonal and indistinct. Through Lee’s long years of association with Mr. Custis, who knew Washington better than did any man alive in 1850, Washington was as real to him as if the majestic Virginian had stepped down nightly from the canvas at Arlington and had talked reminiscently with the family about the birth of an earlier revolution. Daily, for almost thirty years, whenever Lee had been at home, his environment had been a constant suggestion of the same ideal. He had come to view duty as Washington did, to act as he thought Washington would, and even, perhaps, to emulate the grave, self-contained courtesy of the great American rebel. The modesty of his nature doubtless kept Lee now from drawing the very obvious analogy between his situation and that of Washington in 1775, but the influence and the ideal were deep in his soul. He would not have shaped such a question, even in his own mind, but those who knew him as the inheritor of the Mount Vernon tradition must have asked if he was destined to be the Washington of the South’s war for independence. [Interestingly Freeman does not cite any sources for this claim.]

More recently, Pryor references Richard McClaslin’s book-length study, Lee in the Shadow of Washington.  Most of the following commentary can be found in Pryor’s endnotes.  McClaslin’s evidence includes letters from Lee’s father on paternal guidance, but they do not mention Washington and there is no evidence that Lee ever read them.  In addition, McClaslin cites Henry Lee’s memoirs, but again there is no evidence that he actually read it until after the Civil War or if he did that it had any influence.  (fn60, p. 497)  Additional footnotes further challenge claims made by McClaslin in reference to the Mexican War and Lee’s decision to continue to improve Arlington for the purposes of displaying Washington relics.  In the case of the latter, Lee did indeed add a parlor room in 1855, but the room was filled with Lee family portraits and other items.

One of Pryor’s guiding interpretive assumptions is that our understanding of Lee’s personal side is based on little documentary evidence.  We have yet to collect all of his correspondence and while collections of wartime correspondence are available much of the rest of what we believe about Lee is based on fragmentary evidence – especially his early years.  In the case of Washington’s supposed influence on Lee, Pryor concludes with the following:

In ten thousand letter pages Robert Lee mentions Washington fewer than two dozen times.  He remarks on the publics interest in its leader; mentions that he looked over a popular biography was sent to him by a friend; notes that celebration of his birthday.  Most of these comments are quite casual.  In his most enthusiastic writing on the subject, Lee, like others of his day, points to Washington’s wisdom and integrity, and particularly praises his valedictory address to the American people, which, ironically, cautioned against growing sectionalism.  But even in his most fulsome expression, the remarks are general, steeped in the national pride of the day, rather than personal feelings.  Never does Lee say he idolizes Washington, or that he hopes to emulate him.  The closest Lee came to a conscious association was after the war, when he struggled to come to terms with his decision to join the Confederate cause, and cites Washington’s change from British to American allegiance as an example of an earlier crisis of loyalty.  But this was after the fact.  During those terrible days of 1861 he used Washington’s name quite differently–as justification for maintaining Union. (p. 52)

I think it is important to remind the reader once again that Pryor is not arguing that memory of Washington did not influence Lee, but that the extent of that influence suggested by historians and other commentators is not borne out in the currently available evidence.