The Ghost of Bobby Lee

By Ta-Nehisi Coates
BobbyLee.jpg

Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus
--Ralph Wiley

Ken Burns' Civil War documentary makes note of the fact that General Lee was opposed to slavery. I basically took that as true, until--in all honesty--some of my commenters informed me that it, in fact, was not. One of the saddest, and yet telling, aspects of the War, for me personally, is that on the two occasions when Confederate troops headed North, they kidnapped free blacks and sold them into slavery. Ditto for black soldiers who were captured and "lucky" enough not to be killed. Anyway, if you have a moment check out this lecture a reader was kind enough to send to me. At about the 55:00 mark, Elizabeth Brown Pryor talks about Lee's relationship to slavery, and more interestingly, how the myth that he was somehow anti-slavery came to be. 


It was sad to hear frankly. If the war actually weren't about slavery, I think all our lives would be a lot easier. But as I thought on it, my sadness was stupid. What undergirds all of this alleged honoring of the Confederacy, is a kind of ancestor-worship that isn't. The Lost Cause is necromancy--it summons the dead and enslaves them to the need of their vainglorious, self-styled descendants. Its greatest crime is how it denies, even in death, the humanity of the very people it claims to venerate. This isn't about "honoring" the past--it's about an inability to cope with the present.
The God of History binds the Confederacy in its own chains. From the declaration of secession in Texas...

...in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states....

To Virginia...

The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under said Constitition were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States.

To Mississippi...

....Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin...

To South Carolina...

...A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

To the Vice-President of the Confederacy itself...

The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew." Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth...

This is about a lancing shame, about that gaping wound in the soul that comes when confronted with the appalling deeds of our forebears. Lost Causers worship their ancestors, in the manner of the abandoned child who brags that his dead-beat father is actually an astronaut, away on a mission of cosmic importance.

I know how this goes. For us, it's coping with the fact that people who looked like you sold you into slavery. It's understanding that you come from a place that was on the wrong side of the Gatling gun. It's feeling not simply like one of history's losers, but that you had no right to win. The work of the mature intellect is to reconcile oneself to the past without a retreat into fantasy--in either direction. Claiming to be the descendant of kings and queens is just as bad as claiming to be thankful for the slave trade.

It's weak to manipulate the dead in order to reconcile our present, to force men to play our Gods. Robert E. Lee was a man, and a product of a time and place that turned people into, quite literally, the most valuable resource in this country.  I hate to keep taking it back to David Blight but...

By 1860 there were approximately 4,000,000 slaves in the United States, the second largest slave society--slave population--in the world. The only one larger was Russian serfdom. Brazil was close. But in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars--that's just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today's dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America.

These were the kind of forces at work in his world, and I'm not convinced we have the intrinsic right to expect someone like Lee to oppose them. Likewise, I may think that it was sinister for people who "looked like me" to sell me into slavery, but that presumes an expectation of racial unity which almost certainly didn't exist at the time. Again, it summons the dead to do the work that I would shy away from.

I think this boils down to the problem of nationalism, and where we find our heroes. It isn't like Southerners are devoid of people who were courageous in all aspects. There's the great Virginian patriot George Henry Robert Thomas, who goes from slave-master in waiting, to leading black troops in brilliant military campaigns in Tennessee, and in his last days defends the rights of freedman. There's Elizabeth Van Lew, who emancipated all her slaves before the War, and used them as part of a Union spy network in Richmond, the Confederate capitol. 

There's "The Boat-Thief" Robert Smalls, a slave who stole Confederate transport steamer, filled with armaments, and sailed it to Union lines. There's Andre Callioux, a manumitted slave turned Union soldier, martyred at Port Hudson in a kamikaze-like charge on the Confederate works. And a century later, there's Martin Luther King, arguably the modern founding father of this America. He was a product of The South, and his moral judgement didn't end at the Mason-Dixon line.

Finally, there's the question of how we claim ancestors, a question that is more philosophical than biological. Africa, and African-America, means something to me because I claim it as such--but I claim much more. I claim Fitzgerald, whatever he thought of me, because I see myself in Gatsby. I claim Steinbeck because, whether he likes it or not, I am an Okie. I claim Blake because "London" feels like the hood to me. 

And I claim them right alongside Lucille Clifton, James Baldwin and Ralph Wiley, who had it so right when he parried Saul Bellow. The dead, and the work they leave---the good and bad--is the work of humanity and thus says something of us all. And in that manner, I must be humble and claim some of Lee, Jackson, and Forrest. What might I have been in another skin, in another country, in another time?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/04/the-ghost-of-bobby-lee/38813/