Tag Archives: Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee Symposium on Civil War History

ghost_leeStratford Hall will be hosting what promises to be an exciting and educational weekend seminar on Robert E. Lee as military commander on January 22-24, 2010.  The program will be led by historians, Gary Gallagher and Peter Carmichael.  The weekend includes a trip to Gettysburg for a tour of the battlefield.  Not only are Gallagher and Carmichael two of the most respected historians in the field, but they are also extremely knowledgeable battlefield guides.  I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with both so do not miss this opportunity.   Gallagher will present a talk on Friday evening, titled “The Most Important Confederate: General Lee’s Impact on the Battlefield and the Home Front” and both Gallagher and Carmichael will lead a discussion on Sunday morning about primary sources related to Lee and the campaign.  Civil War enthusiasts and teachers alike should consider attending this program.

I graciously accepted a very kind offer to take part in the conference as the “official” blogger.  Can’t wait!

Deep Thoughts By H.W. Crocker III (2)

It’s a pretty miserable day here in central Virginia.  On top of the rain I am strung out on the couch watching college football and dealing with a cold and sore throat.  Since it looks like I will not get anything serious done today I thought I might offer you the second installment of my examination of Crocker’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War.  The following is titled “We’re All Confederates Now” and asks the reader to imagine the following:

Put yourself in Robert E. Lee’s shoes.  If the South seceded today, how many of us would think the proper response would be for the federal government to send tanks over the bridges spanning the Potomac into Virginia, to blockade Southern ports and carpet bomb Southern cities?  If we don’t, it’s because we see the United States as the Confederacy saw it, as a voluntary union.  The idea that we have to keep California, Mississippi, Minnesota, and Maine together by force would probably strike us as ridiculous.  And if it came to that, it would probably strike us as horrendous and wrong. (p. 33)

First, why do we need to put ourselves in the shoes of Lee?  Does he have some kind of privileged position that would steer us to the correct answer as to what would be considered a proper response by the federal government in case of a modern day secession?  To show how absurd this little thought experiment is, why not put ourselves in the shoes of Winfield Scott, George Thomas or any other Southern graduate of West Point who took part in the invasion of their own homes.  Scott himself outlined the invasion of much of the South in his Anaconda Plan. More importantly, we now know that the generation of Southern West Point cadets that graduated in the 1830s did not resign their commissions in 1861.   In the end, it is irrelevant what we would countenance as a legitimate response.  What we do know is that plenty of white Southerners in 1861 believed that “invasion” was the only response to the actions of most of the Southern states.

There is plenty more where this comes from.

Talking Abolitionism at Arlington House

Given my current work on public history at Arlington House I thought I might share this upcoming event in connection with the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  On October 10 the National Park Service will present a program on John Brown’s Raid that features Fergus Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, as the guest speaker.  It seems fitting to hold an event that highlights Robert E. Lee’s connection with the Brown raid given his role in seizing control of the town and the federal armory and preventing a slave insurrection.  All too often we think of Lee’s involvement in this event as extending no further beyond the strict military role he played.  Of course, Arlington was a large plantation and while Lee was away much of the time he was responsible for carrying out the terms of George Washington Parke Custis’s will (1857) which included the terms for emancipating his slaves.  [I highly recommend Elizabeth Brown Pryor's treatment of Lee's views on slavery as well as the controversy surrounding the emancipation of Custis's slaves.]

I think it interesting to think of the ways in which such an event changes the ways in which the visitor understands the relationship between Lee, Arlington House, and the surrounding landscape.  Lee becomes much more than a colonel in the United States Army.  We see Lee as a white Southerner who worried about the direct threat against the slaves under his control and the broader social and racial hierarchy that slavery supported.  The threat against his property connects directly with the home itself, which is so often depicted as a peaceful place or as the ideal antebellum domestic space.  [see here and here] Finally, such an event allows for the visitor to imagine a landscape that was once occupied and worked by slaves who constituted the largest population on the plantation.  The Lee’s may never have returned to Arlington after the war, but it is important to keep in mind that many of its occupants did and this we can understand as constituting one of the long-term consequences of John Brown’s raid.  The focus on abolitionism at Arlington House also opens up space in which to discuss the establishment of a Freedman’s Village for newly-freed slaves.  One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is the challenges involved in interpreting Arlington House as a former plantation given the fact that the surrounding landscape has been turned into what many Americans deem to be sacred ground.  It seems difficult given that both Lee and Arlington House have been so successfully disconnected from slavery.  Events that stress this side of history are important if we hope to have a more complete understanding of the multiple and competing meanings that are inherent in this site.

Whose Arlington House?

Here is another postcard of Arlington House, which is dated 1928.  Notice the similarities with the last image I posted, especially the children positioned in the center.  Postcards are wonderful little cultural artifacts that tell us quite a bit about how a historic site is interpreted/remembered and by whom.  The image of the front of the home cut off from the surrounding landscape of Arlington National Cemetery as well as the slave quarters in the rear of the building evokes a peaceful scene that would be easily recognizable to middle class white Americans.

Arlington House Postcard