So, then why is Robert E. Lee in attendance at the reenactment of the 1865 skirmish in Aiken, South Carolina between Brig. Gen. Hugh Kilpatrick and Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler? Of course, I don’t want to make too big a deal given that Lee is what sells tickets. However, can someone tell me why Lee, portrayed by David Chaltas, is walking around with a cross in his hand? Is there any evidence that he did this in the heat of battle? On the other hand, Jerry Redmon is quite convincing – perhaps too much so.
And why are there no slaves working in the garden? “Never Against Virginia” by John Paul Strain
Last night Barack Obama attended the annual Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, D.C. It’s one of those private/elitist dinners where members celebrate themselves and poke fun at one another. Much is being made of the president’s comments in reference to the origin of the group and the timing of the dinner. The organization was founded in 1913 and was meant to honor the life of Robert E. Lee. On the face of it, not a big deal, but according to Tommy Christopher at the Political Machine the Lee connection has been almost entirely ignored by the press as well as by Obama’s White House Staff in the days leading up to the dinner. Somehow word of this got to the president who chose to reference the connection in his opening remarks:
I am seriously glad to be here tonight at the annual Alfalfa dinner. I know that many you are aware that this dinner began almost one hundred years ago as a way to celebrate the birthday of General Robert E. Lee. If he were here with us tonight, the General would be 202 years old. And very confused.
No doubt, the reference garnered a laugh or two from the audience, but how many members scratched their heads in confusion? Apparently, the connection with Lee has slackened in recent years according to a 2007 Washington Post article:
It is such an obscure factoid that an informal poll of some of last night’s revelers produced none who’d ever known this to be true — and who apparently would rather not have been asked, judging by the defensiveness that ensued. “I don’t think that has any meaning today,” Sen. Norm Coleman (R- Minn.) said of the Confederate connection. “I will be sitting across the table from Kenneth Chenault, the African American chair of American Express.” Jack Kemp hadn’t heard of the Confederate connection either.
The irony of our first black president reminding a predominantly white audience (I assume) of their connection to Robert E. Lee must be savoured like a fine wine.
Professor Stephen Berry was kind enough to send along this wonderful letter after reading yesterday’s post. In the following 1930 letter, Lexington lawyer and Lincoln-historian, William Henry Townsend, responds to the cranky “posts” of Mary Carter, who has charged Lincoln with the usual tyrannies and abuses. Apparently, angry “Lady Rebs” have been unleashing their venom in defense of the “Lost Cause” for a long time. It’s nice to know that I am in such good company. Enjoy
Dear Miss Carter:
I have your letter…. Thank you very kindly. You will pardon me, however, if I say that a careful reading of your lengthy letter fails to disclose much that I had hoped to find in it…. Although it was time for a rebuttal, I find that you abandoned the argument as to all of the…issues…and in lieu thereof, dumped into the hopper of our discussion a putrid mass of undigested vituperation. Really, my dear Miss Carter, let me say in all good temper that you apparently have run into the same error that the “old tyrant” Lincoln once admonished against when he said: “One ought never plead what he need not, lest he be compelled to prove what he can not!”… Lincoln once said that “a mathematician could hardly disprove Euclid by calling Euclid a liar.” Yet, you fall into this error also. Dr. Cravens is a liar! Allen Clark is a liar! Mrs. Pickett, the widow of a brave Confederate soldier, is a liar! Mrs. Davis is a weak, unstable creature with traitorous inclinations!! Everybody is either a traitor or a liar who has a good word for poor old homely, kind, tragic Abraham Lincoln!… I have carefully read the enclosures…. I am sorry to say that they are all alike—bald, blatent assertion, vituperation and abuse, dripping with prejudice and a black, stifling heat that sheds no light…. You say that you will “cease firing” when Lincoln the man is divorced from Lincoln the myth. Why, bless you dear lady, you do not need to do that if it is any sport you. Abraham Lincoln is as far removed from blank cartridges as Mount McKinley was from the “Big Berthas” on the Western Front. If Lincoln himself were here, he would smile and say, in that slow Kentucky drawl: “Will, it don’t hurt me any, and it does her good, so let her alone.”…
Miss Carter, are there really any enemies of the south, or do we see only windmills which prejudice and bias have distorted into pugnacious knight errants of old? Who, at this time, are the traducers of Davis and Lee in the south? What organization of the north is now engaged in vicious propaganda against our southland and its heroes? I have traveled through the north and east extensively, and if we have any enemies, any persons who possess a settled hostility to the south, I have neither read nor heard of them. Name me, please, any man or set of men who are today flooding the mails with defamatory matter concerning any southern soldier or statesman…. Miss Carter, if the tone of this letter has been too emphatic, I confess that I was somewhat nettled at first by the accusation of “posing” in my respect for Lee and Davis and the rather surprising reference to “men of your ilk.” I had hardly supposed that my two courteous letters merited such an appraisal of me, but I waive these small matters in deference to a southern gentlewoman, doubtless quite sincere, though sadly misguided, who will frankly and candidly, as becomes her breeding, take it all back when she meets Abraham Lincoln in heaven. With very best regards and many thanks for writing me, I am, sincerely [W.H. Townsend, to Miss Mary D. Carter, August 29, 1930]
This is my favorite painting of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox in April 1865. It was painted in the 1920s by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris and clearly reflects the ascendency of Lee in our national memory and imagination. Ferris titled his painting, “Let Us Have Peace” even though these words were not spoken by Grant for another three years as a campaign slogan at the start of his presidential bid in 1868. We spent quite a bit of time with this painting in class last week and a number of my students were struck by the placement of both Grant and Lee as well as their hand gestures. In fact, a few students thought that if a viewer didn’t know any better they would have to conclude that Grant was surrendering to Lee. Notice Grant’s hand as it embraces a much more forceful and self-confident Lee who appears to be in charge of the situation. The relaxed pose of Grant’s officers in the background reinforces this contrast.
Much has been made of the attire of the respective commanders, which is also quite telling as a reflection of what we find worth remembering. Supposedly Lee’s immaculate dress and Grant’s muddy boots point to fundamental differences in character rather than the exigencies of the day. At times it seems as if the contrast is meant to imply that Grant didn’t really deserve to accept Lee’s surrender. The emphasis on dress in the McLean Parlor continues to find voice. Consider this short piece in the Vicksburg Post by Gordon Cotton who speculates on whether those boots were gifts from two Vicksburg sisters, Sallie and Lucy Marshall. It’s a legitimate question, but would it matter at all if a particular narrative of this moment in time had not been burned into our Civil War memory?
One of the reasons I find the study of historical memory to be so fascinating is that often it is not about history at all, but about what the remember believes he/she needs to make sense of the present. In some cases the form of remembrance eclipses entirely the historical subject in question and its borders become porous. Robert Moore’s most recent post is a thoughtful reflection on our remembrance of Lee-Jackson Day:
It is fine to both privately and, to a degree, publicly reflect upon the lives of historical persons. It fulfills various needs of the living. Look at a historical person (or persons) and consider the part of the historical person’s character, actions, etc., and consider how one may take meaning from these reflections. For some, these reflections might even translate into incorporating qualities that some find desirable in the historical person into the way they conduct themselves in their own lives. As long as reflection does not become something greater than a source of inspiration, and I suppose, guidance (as long as it is positive), then it seems innocent enough.
Mr. Cotton includes the following tribute by Ben Hill, which appeared in the Confederate Veteran in 1901 at the end of his article: “He was a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public official without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was Caesar without ambition, Frederick without tyranny, Napoleon without selfishness, and Washington without his reward.”
Perhaps he was all these things and more. I couldn’t possibly know one way or the other without having spent significant time with the man. It may even be the case that Lee’s boots were a gift from two residents of Vicksburg. Mr. Cotton notes that it is impossible to know for sure. What I do know is that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in the McLean house on April 9, 1865.