Lee's Reputation Can't Be Redeemed

The question isn’t whether Robert E. Lee was a successful military commander—it’s why American communities continue to honor a Confederate leader.

Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

On Sunday, I published an essay on the myth of Robert E. Lee. The fascinating thing about Dan McLaughlin’s response to that essay in National Review is how little it takes issue with.

McLaughlin does not dispute that Lee was a cruel slavemaster who engaged in dubious interpretation of his father-in-law’s will to maintain possession of his slaves until a court ruled against him; that Lee betrayed his country in defense of slavery; that Lee turned a blind eye to the massacres and humiliations of black soldiers by his subordinates; that Lee kidnapped free blacks and returned them to slavery during his invasion of the North; that Lee publicly opposed the rights of the freedmen after the war; or that Lee, as president of Washington College, turned a blind eye to his students engaging in racist terrorism while punishing them harshly for trying to take extra time off on Christmas. Indeed, McLaughlin concedes, “Lee was no hero; he fought for an unjust cause, and he lost.”

McLaughlin does not dispute that the myth of Lee’s grace is a central part of the Lost Cause ideology used to justify racial apartheid in the South after Reconstruction, or that monuments, including the recently removed statue of Lee in New Orleans, were erected as symbols of white supremacy.

One might that, believing all of this to be true, McLaughlin would agree with me that Lee is not worthy of a statue in a place of honor, and that removing such statues is no tragedy. Instead, McLaughlin defends Lee’s record as military strategist. Even if he were correct on every point, it would say nothing about whether Lee himself is worth honoring. Benedict Arnold was also a talented general; Americans do not erect memorials to him in their public squares.

McLaughlin insists that Lee wasn’t in charge of grand strategy, and that “it was Davis and his government, not Lee, who imposed the political imperatives that drove Confederate strategy.”

This is only half correct. Lee was not a passive recipient of Davis’s orders; as James McPherson writes in This Mighty Scourge, it was Lee who insisted on the invasion of Pennsylvania as necessary to break the will of the North, and it was Lee whose tactics there were employed in pursuit of that goal, leading to his decisive defeat at Gettysburg. That was a strategic decision that Lee pursued and lobbied for; he was the architect of his own greatest defeat.

But reasonable people can, and do, disagree about Lee’s merits as a military commander.  Stranger is McLaughlin’s crediting “Lee’s eminence and gentlemanly surrender for preventing a long-term insurgency, avoiding an aftermath like the French Revolution, and enabling the country to return to being a single, functional political whole in time enough to see the vast rise in American prosperity and power between 1870 and 1945.”

I don’t give Lee credit for this because it would be like giving the security at Ford’s Theater credit for preventing a presidential assassination. The country returned to a “single, functional political whole” in large part because white supremacist paramilitaries restored the dominance of the Democratic Party in the South by fire and the sword, before the eyes of a Republican Party that was unwilling go any further than it already had to protect the rights of black Americans.

This outcome destroyed the brief attempt at non-racial government in the American South, leading to the apartheid of Jim Crow and the neo-slavery of convict leasing. The rise in American power between 1870 and 1945 offered scant comfort to the people of Tulsa, Rosewood, and Atlanta. If I were to give credit to Lee for this outcome, it would serve only to lengthen the already interminable case against revering him.

McLaughlin writes that I “cannot see how anything could have been worse, why national reconciliation after the war had any value, or why anyone would have wanted peace in the America of 1865-76. We can use the distance of history to judge the national decision to fight no further, but we should have some understanding of what costs the people of the day had paid already, and what they spared by laying down the sword.”

Early in his response, McLaughlin persuasively argues  that too much early scholarship on the Civil War and Reconstruction suffered “from the myopia of considering only the relationship between white Northerners and white Southerners.” But in his description of the end of Reconstruction, McLaughlin replicates that mistake. The so-called “Redemption” that ended Reconstruction did not come from weary Americans wanting to lay down the sword, it came from the champions of the white South reddening their swords with the blood of the emancipated, and the white North making a conscious decision that the cost of protecting the freedmen’s rights was not worth paying.

We can argue here about whether a better outcome was possible in the 19th century; that it was an outcome for which black Americans and the country itself paid for dearly then and continue to pay for still is beyond dispute. Brushing away the suffering of black Americans, for whom the violence did not end, in favor of a pat ending in which North and South were once again one, is an exercise in sentiment I do not find appealing. The dearest costs of reconciliation were not paid by those who did the reconciling, and it is not an outcome in which the nation should take any measure of pride.

While McLaughlin agrees that “the cause Lee fought for was inseparable in every particular from slavery” he describes Lee as possessing “the retrograde racial attitudes of his time.” McLaughlin does not mean this as a defense of Lee, but it minimizes Lee’s views, and I have received many messages from others offering this argument in Lee’s defense. The suggestion is that Lee, in thrall to his era, could not have been expected to know better.

Lee was a man of his time. So was George Henry Thomas, a son of Virginia who chose to fight for the Union over fighting for slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a man of his time, as was Frederick Douglass. Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln were men of their time. Wesley Norris, whom Lee had tortured for escaping his plantation, was a man of his time. The hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Union, including the black soldiers murdered and humiliated by Lee’s lieutenants, were men of their time. We do not, in the main, build statues to people about whom the best that can be said is that they were of their time.  We build them to people who rise above their times, and like many other men of his time, as a farmer, a general, a statesman, and an educator, Lee failed this test in every respect.

McLaughlin writes that “tearing down statues of Lee today is less about understanding the past than it is a contest to divide the people of today’s America, and see who holds more power. That’s no better an attitude today than it was in Lee’s day.”

Abolition was divisive, to say something is divisive is to say nothing about whether it is right. As it happens, McLaughlin’s logic here is backwards: These statues were erected to commemorate white dominance over black Americans; removing them is a reflection of progress toward the nation’s unfilled promise of racial equality.

The Lee monument in New Orleans went up not in 1876 but in 1884, as racist paramilitaries like the White League helped the Democratic Party re-establish its political dominance over the city; these statues are commemorations of those victories, not politically neutral commemorations of fallen warriors. They were raised to, in the words of the historian David Blight,  help “construct a story of noble sacrifice for a holy cause of home and independence, and especially in the service of a racial ideology that would sustain white supremacy.”

The myths both about Lee and the Confederacy, his supposed hatred of slavery, his non-ownership of slaves, and his conduct during the war and his reasons for fighting it, are all sustained by the statues and monuments that honor him. The reverence for the people represented by those monuments interferes with the proper remembrance of history, it does not enhance it. You don’t need a statue of Lee to understand why white Southerners revered him, you need a book. The statue can go in a museum.

McLaughlin concludes that I am making a “contemporary political cause” out of the Civil War, and that my “interest in attacking General Lee is transparently about the present, not the past.”

This, I’m afraid, is correct. My contemporary political cause is demonstrating that white supremacy is a monstrous ideology that has cost hundreds of millions of Americans very dearly over centuries, and that its greatest champions are not heroes worthy of admiration. I’m sorry that’s a fight we’re still having in the present, and that it did not end with Appomattox. The cult of Lee is partly to blame.