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.

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3 comments… add one
  • Steve Keating Jan 19, 2007 @ 16:41

    But you were interviewed! Break-through is in site. Start calculating the speaker fees!

  • Kevin Levin Jan 19, 2007 @ 14:16

    Hi Steve, — Nice to hear from you. I too was surprised, but then I realized that she probably only had so much space and given that she interviewed some well-known historians I guess I was the first to be left out. So be it. I like to think that some of the ideas I shared made it into the article.

    You would assume after reading all of the commentaries about Lee’s personal and moral character that some of the authors have met the man. I still don’t quite understand how people can get so emotionally worked up about the man (pro or con) given that we are so removed from the man and the time in which he lived. You made the relevant point that most of this is not really about the past at all, but about our own values and needs. How sad.

  • Steve Keating Jan 19, 2007 @ 13:40

    I was very surprised this morning not to see you mentioned in the Post article. In fact, I scanned the whole thing looking for your part without really reading the article, at first. Having grown up in Virginia in the 60’s and 70’s, before 20 years in the Army, I can certainly understand how Lee was viewed in the past. When I heard that Martin Sheen was to portray him in “Gettysburg”, I cringed. Then I saw the movie and felt my fears had been realized. But I went back, re-studied both the campaign and the more balanced views of Lee and have to admit that Sheen’s protrayal is probably alot closer to the truth than what I had been taught. Still, it seems Lee is to be forever made of marble or mud, depending on how one views him. So long as we continue to view the past as being a judgment on ourselves, rather than something to understand on it’s own terms, I’m afraid people will always glorify or vilify people like Lee. I truely would like to have met the man, and tried to see the real Lee. I think we would all be surprised.

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