Getting Right With Lee

Earlier this week I mentioned that I was going to explore with my Civil War class Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign his commission from the U.S. Army following Fort Sumter and Virginia’s decision to secede.  I am interested in contrasting our popular perceptions surrounding Lee’s decisions within a richer historical context.  As I mentioned in that earlier post, Lee’s decision is typically analyzed in a vacuum without any mention of how others in a similar position decided.  So here is what I plan to do with the class today.  We are going to look at some Lost Cause images of Lee followed by a few minutes from the Ken Burns documentary.  I will ask the students to think seriously about common threads between the images and the way Burns presents Lee’s difficult decision.  Following the movie I will share some of the statistics from Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh’s study as a way to situate Lee among a larger group of officers who were in a similar situation, many of whom decided differently. 

The Lost Cause view of a struggling Lee is brilliantly captured in D.S. Freeman’s biography — always a great place to start when analyzing our popular assumptions about the Confederacy and the war:

His resignation was not prompted by passion, nor did it carry with it resentment against the Union he left. On the contrary, if there was any resentment, it was against the authors, Northern and Southern, of the consummate wickedness of bringing about division within the Union. There was a pang and a heartache at the separation from brother officers whose patriotism he had seen vindicated in the hardships of campaigning and in the dangers of battle. He was willing to defend Virginia, whatever her allegiance, but he did not desire to fight against the flag under which he had served. If he must see the Union wrecked by men who would not forbear and plead for justice through constitutional means, if he must tear himself from the service of a nation of which he had been proud, then the hope of his heart was that he might never again be called to draw a sword which only Virginia could command. It was in this spirit that he wrote farewell to General Scott, that loyal old friend, who had admired him, taught him, and advanced him.

I may even share some recent thoughts about Lee’s character such as the following from the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.

Lee did not "break his oath and abandon his duty when he joined the Confederate cause." He resigned his commission.  President Lincoln had declared a blockade of southern ports on April 19, and Lee knew what was coming next: an unconstitutional invasion of the states to overthrow elected state governments.   As the saying goes, "When you take the king’s shilling, you do the king’s bidding."   When one is asked to violate one’s oath to the Constitution, the honorable thing to do is resign the office.  If you cannot do the king’s bidding, you cannot take the king’s shilling. This is what honorable men do.  Perhaps Mr. Withrow thinks that officers should obey every government order, even unconstitutional ones.   More’s the pity. The soldiers who guarded the walls at Auschwitz felt much the same way.  Lee’s conduct is exactly what should be held up as an example of what honorable men do when faced with orders that violate their solemn oaths to the Constitution.

Here is another one from the same paper.

Any person of Christian values would know that Robert E. Lee (unlike some of his Northern counterparts) was one of the finest Christian men who ever lived.  If Mr. Withrow knew his history, he would know that Robert E. Lee stood for, and believed in, the words of the Constitution of this country, as much as or more than anyone before or after.   This was a Constitution, I might add, that was hanging by a thread under the Lincoln administration.   As for other Confederate leaders, Mr. Withrow might be surprised to know how many military bases in America today are named after Confederate generals.  There is no shame connected, in even the slightest amount, to the name of Robert E. Lee; the shame is on Mr. Withrow for writing such words.   There is nothing but honor to be given to the men who fought for the Confederate states, and honor in the flags they fought under.

I post these last two more for their comedic qualities rather than as anything worth serious analysis.  My goal today is not to praise or blame Lee for the decision he made, but to try to come to terms with what it meant apart from the tendency to praise regardless of what went into the decision.  In addition I am interested in how we’ve chosen to remember this particular moment in his life.  I want my students to begin to think seriously about memory and how certain interpretations become ingrained in our collective memories, and that it is reasonable to question those interpretations. 

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10 comments… add one
  • Bruce Vail Apr 10, 2016 @ 17:24

    “…Lee’s decision is typically analyzed in a vacuum without any mention of how others in a similar position decided.”

    Gee, Kevin, I think this is just wrong. The decision is typically discussed in the context that the officer corps of the U.S. Army was split, with a large contingent resigning their commissions to join the armies of the individual Confederate states. It’s almost a cliche in the literature of Civil War military history to see discussion of how the opposing officers in individual battles were West Point classmates, or even personal friends, in the pre-war army.

  • Brian Freiberger Apr 10, 2016 @ 12:28

    What northern connections did George Thomas bow to when he chose to remain with the Union?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 10, 2016 @ 12:30

      I guess it was that little thing called the oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, which he swore to do at West Point.

  • GreenmanTim Sep 23, 2006 @ 0:04

    You mentioned in your earlier post Winfield Scott as a southerner who chose differently than Lee. Scott may have been a Virginian by birth, but he was long resident in Elizabeth New Jersey, since before the War with Mexico, and was considered one of its foremost citizens. He had many social ties and relationships in the North that could have been factors in his decision to stay loyal to the Union.

  • Michael Aubrecht Sep 22, 2006 @ 22:14

    BUT If they don’t click the link, we look like bums. 🙂 And you say “recent thoughts from the FLS” – not “opinions sent to” OK-OK. I’m tired and a little cranky today…

  • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2006 @ 17:35

    What is there to be offended by? All you have to do is click the link and it states very clearly that these are Letters to the Editor. I never presented them as the official view of your paper. What are you so worked up about?

  • Michael Aubrecht Sep 22, 2006 @ 17:00

    Kevin – you and I have always had good debates and you know that I am a daily reader here. However, I have to take a slight offense to your presentation on this particular topic (as it is MY employer) and beg that you make a point to acknowledge that BOTH of these “comedic” links from the Free Lance-Star are “Letters To The Editor” and NOT editorial content. As one of the contributing CW writers there, I have to make a point of that. We are not perfect, but we wouldn’t put this stuff out with our work. The LTE’s are not fact-checked or endorsed by anyone. They are opinions from readers and should not be tossed in with editorial articles and features. I understand your point, but your post is (at a quick glance) misleading and insults our paper. I hope you understand.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2006 @ 10:06

    Thanks for the references to Jackson and Taylor. I’ve read Fellman’s book on Lee; it’s ashame that not more of his analysis made it into the textbook that he co-authors which my class is currently using.

  • John Maass Sep 22, 2006 @ 9:59

    If I recall, Michael Fellman has a chapter about Lee’s decision in The Making of Robert E. Lee, so maybe that would be helpful as well?

  • elektratig Sep 22, 2006 @ 9:25

    Lee’s decision might also be contrasted with the sentiments of two other southern military men before the War. If I recall correctly, Andrew Jackson, in his typically understated way, threatened to personally lead an army against South Carolina (and hang John Calhoun in the bargain) during the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33; and in 1850 Zachary Taylor likewise told southern leaders threatening secession that he would personally lead the army in the field if necessary to enforce the laws. Were they acting dishonorably?

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