Celebrating Lee

I apologize for the numerous posts about Robert E. Lee our perceptions of Robert E. Lee.  In addition to having to rewrite parts of the Crater manuscript this summer I am collecting material for two upcoming conferences on Lee – one at UVa in October and the other I will announce soon.  This news item out of Charleston detailing a dinner honoring Lee is simply too good to pass over.  Here are a few excerpts from the article with a bit of my own commentary:

Much is said this evening about Lee, the South’s beau ideal. His military prowess might be summed up by one, terrible tally: In one single, bloody month of 1864, from May 12 to June 12, from the aftermath of The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, Union casualties under U.S. Grant, no mean general himself, would total 60,000. That number was equal to Lee’s entire remaining force at that point.

But in the end, it is neither the victorious nor defeated Lee that explains his aura, but the passionate dispassion of the man, his Greek proportion. What sweeps us away is the Lee who could look down from Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, watch the federals below being obliterated by his guns, take in the sweep of the carnage he himself had engineered, and say: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

To be completely honest, I’ve never really understood this statement by Lee.  Is Lee emphasizing the horrors of battle or his own attraction to it or both?  He worries that observers/participants may become “too fond of it” which suggests that the level of attraction is directly related to the level of violence.  Does such a statement imply a seductive quality for Lee and others?  If so, what is that quality for Lee?

Lee never wrote his memoirs. He may have been the only Civil War general, great or small, important or un-, who didn’t tell his self-absorbed, self-justifying tale for a handsome price. He had no price. He was not for sale. What he had was a code. And he embodied it. Great in victory, he was greater in defeat. Through it all, he remained the same Lee. What Epictetus the Stoic wrote, Lee lived.

Lee never wrote a memoir or history because he died too soon.  So much for the comparison with the Stoics.

Much is said about Robert E. Lee this magical night. Each aspect of his character is extolled. Thank goodness he is present only in spirit; how embarrassed he would have been at such goings-on. One by one, his qualities are praised: honor, civility, compassion, dignity, courage, equanimity . . . and yet they cannot be separated, for he was all of a piece, whole.

Eat your heart out Douglas S. Freeman!  One wonders if Lee would even recognize himself if present.

4 comments… add one
  • Richard May 23, 2007 @ 10:21

    Right now I am about a third of the way through the new book Reading the Man. I am finding it to be an enlightening look into Lee the person that no other biography has ever opened to me. As I read it I am doing my best to set aside preconceived notions about REL and let his own words and those of people associated with him introduce me to a more complete person.
    If you have not picked it up yet you really should. It is worth it just for the extensive end notes.

  • Kevin Levin May 22, 2007 @ 19:00

    Johnny, — Good point. Lee’s reputation may indeed have turned out different had he lived long enough to jump into the historical ring. It’s also worth speculating on whether the general tone of Lost Cause writers to mythologize the Confederac and the “Old South” would have been different had Lee struck a more progressive tone along the lines of Mahone or Mosby. Lee’s death allowed contemporary writers such as Jubal Early and others to shape him to suit their own political agendas. I am not arguing that they created the Lee image (that had been done even before the war ended), but that it is important to remember that he wasn’t around to challenge any one interpretation.

    Thanks for taking the time to write.

  • Johnny May 22, 2007 @ 18:52

    Actually, Lee was in the process of writing a memoir when he died. Not only might Lee’s post war reputation have been radically different if he had lived to tell his side of the story, but the post war reputations of individuals like Longstreet may have been quite different too.

  • Jim May 22, 2007 @ 13:55

    “Is Lee emphasizing the horrors of battle or his own attraction to it or both? “

    My father, drafted from law school and trained as a sniper for Vietnam, said that combat was one of the most exciting things a person could do. Maybe the high stakes involved peak the senses to otherwise unknown levels during combat.

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