Robert K. Krick, Robert E. Lee, and the Anti-Lee Historians

Last night I attended the first session of UVA’s “Lee at 200” conference which will run through the end of October.  Each week a historian will address a different aspect of Lee’s life and legacy with a roundtable discussion scheduled for Oct. 31.  I am scheduled along with two other panelists to lead this discussion.  Given my role in this symposium I plan to attend as many sessions as possible.  Bob Krick kicked things off with a talk on Lee’s legacy and commented on recent challenges to his reputation.  It was basically the same talk he presented a few months back at a “conference” hosted by the SCV.  I blogged about it then; click here for the post which links to an even earlier post on this talk.  At the beginning he quoted from three nameless historians which he used as representative samples of how academics seem to treat Lee.  He described them as anti-Lee which I still believe is misleading.  One passage was clearly from Alan Nolan who I actually do believe comes closest to fulfilling this description.  Nolan treats the historical Lee as if he is on trial and seems more concerned about arriving at a certain conclusion rather than understanding the historical reality in which Lee operated.  We can write Nolan’s book off as sloppy scholarship.

I thought the other two passages were from Thomas Connelly and Michael Fellman, but during the Q&A I learned that he had read from William G. Piston and Carol Reardon.  I asked Krick if he didn’t think that he had set up a strawman argument in the way he so quickly assumed what motivates these writers.  For someone who is so suspicious of psycho-history it is strange to see Krick so easily assume the psychological qualities of Reardon and Piston.  My underlying problem with his talk is that I still have no idea what he means by “anti-Lee.”  Is anything that challenges the standard picture of Lee to be placed in this category?  Why can’t we be content in acknowledging that historians often disagree with one another about the past?  I’ve never met Piston, but I’ve talked with Reardon on a number of occasions and she doesn’t strike me as someone who has a personal need to tear down anyone from the past.  I actually believe she is a pretty damn good historian.  Our job as historians is to challenge interpretations we disagree with by demonstrating where we believe the weaknesses to be.  Suggesting that someone is “anti-Lee” tells us more about the individual making the accusation than anything connected with the interpretation in question.

On a different note I should say that Krick’s latest reference book Civil War Weather in Virginia is well worth buying if you are the kind of person who needs to know all thing ANV related.  I recently completed a review of the book for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography and will post it when it is published.

15 comments… add one
  • Bob Huddleston Jan 15, 2011 @ 9:34

    On the personnel of the ANV, Krick knows more than Lee ever did! I love to quote him on the number of BCs! No one can accuse him of being anti-Confederate!

    • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2011 @ 9:46

      He has absolutely no patience for it.

  • Bob Huddleston Jan 15, 2011 @ 8:49

    On a tour with Bob years ago, he,in all seriousness, claimed he was working for Lee and Jackson. I was too polite to ask him who signed his paychecks.

    And, of course, there is –or perhaps “was” — maybe it has changed since Krick retired — the famous battlefield sign in the Wilderness, making the very successful attack by First Corps that no where mentions the name of First Corps’ commanding general.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2011 @ 9:06

      I once asked Krick how he distinguishes between so-called anti-Lee historians and legitimate interpretive disagreement. He basically just blew me off. 🙂 The guy is an expert on all things Army of Northern Virginia and Jackson, but he should maintain a healthy distance from historiography.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2007 @ 9:26

    Dave, — There are a few sections in Nolan that are worth considering, especially the chapter on Lee’s decision to secede. The chapters on Lee’s generaliship are fraught with misstatements and sloppy reasoning. The idea that Lee could simply surrender his army at his choosing is ridiculous as is his handling of the question of whether he relied to heavily on offensive operations. He makes no attempt to place these judgments in a historical context. It’s Lee on the witness stand and Nolan as prosecutor.

  • Warren Sep 28, 2007 @ 22:20

    “Why can’t we be content in acknowledging that historians often disagree with one another about the past?….”

    I may be misquoting him on this one, but I seem to recall A.J.P. Taylor saying once that you couldn’t get historians to even agree on the present…. 🙂

  • Dave Woodbury Sep 28, 2007 @ 18:01

    Can Nolan’s book really be so easily “written off” as sloppy scholarship? I have not read it since it first came out, but was impressed at the time. I didn’t think of it as scholarship so much as a long essay arguing a few points. I think he succeeds in dispelling some notions, such as the popular idea that Lee as “against” slavery.

    As for Krick, I suppose by anti-Lee, he means anything that goes to the extent of actually blaming Lee’s aggression for losing the war — that sort of thing. Not being able to see the three sample quotes he highlighted, it’s hard to say (though one can imagine any number of them from Nolan’s book).

    One might fairly surmise that there is more than a dispassionate detachment on Krick’s behalf, given that he named a son Robert E. Lee Krick.

    But how much defending does Lee really need. It strikes me that his image is all but impervious to denigration.


    • jim Jan 15, 2011 @ 5:39

      God bless General Lee, God bless Robert Krick. Nolan and all his ilk be damned…

      • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2011 @ 5:47

        Thanks for the comment, Jim. Do you make it a practice to damn everyone that you disagree with?

        • jim Jan 15, 2011 @ 17:31

          No, not everyone but when it comes to Nolan and his gang, I make an exception. However, most of you are already clearly entrenched within your anti-Lee positions, thus making it pointless to go on with this. However, you all can pat yourselves on the back for your superior liberal revisionist positions on the subject. You’re all so cleeeeeeannnn while types like me are to be pitied for our backwardness and retrograde thinking. But that’s okay. I say again, God bless R.E. Lee and thank God for folks like Bob Krick, so out of step with the trendy times.
          Now, my earlier comment was deleted for some odd reason. We’ll see what the survival rate of this one is. Have a good one…

          • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2011 @ 18:09


            I’m not sure what you mean by referring to people as “anti-Lee” but it is obviously helping you with some broader issue. You said: “You’re all so cleeeeeeannnn while types like me are to be pitied for our backwardness and retrograde thinking.” It sounds to me as if you have some issues to work through. Thanks for taking the time to comment, but to be honest I’m not even sure you’ve read Nolan’s book on Lee. Why not say something constructive and engage readers rather than dismiss them with the back of your hand.

            You look kind of foolish from over here.

            • jim Jan 15, 2011 @ 19:26

              Sorry, bro, but I don’t think you actually read my missive either. You might want to go back and review. One high school tech to another, you understand. Have you Nolan? It seems Krick has. Too polite to say what you look like from here. Have a good day.

              • Kevin Levin Jan 16, 2011 @ 1:50

                I read your comment and it is pretty clear to me that you have not read Nolan’s book nor is it obvious that you’ve read anything by Krick.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2007 @ 10:30

    Good point John, which is why he probably dislikes Piston. His anti-Longstreet rhetoric came out a couple of times last night.

  • John Maass Sep 27, 2007 @ 7:53

    How interesting that Krick has a talk on folks he deems anti-Lee, when of all active historians of the CW today, he has the reputation of being the most anti-Longstreet!

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