On the Civil War general we idolize—and the other one we should.
This blog might make it seem as if I’m immune to the processes of buying into simplifying narratives, of forgetting or ignoring certain complexities and realities in favor of more black and white or appealing histories and stories, that I spend a lot of time writing about here. Well, I’m here today to tell you that the truth is quite the opposite—in many if not most of these cases, I’m aware of the power of the existing narratives precisely because they’ve significantly influenced me in one way or another, and my attempts to push back against them, to highlight the events and figures and texts and stories that they elide or subsume, are thus for my own continuing benefit at least as much as they are for any and all audiences who might find and read this blog. And for no topic does that apply nearly as fully as it does for today’s starting point, the deification of Robert E. Lee.
I grew up in a town that—like many in the South I’m sure—had a park and statue honoring Lee, so maybe my childhood affection for the General began with simple osmosis. But as I started to become a hard-core Civil War buff in my own right, that affection only grew—partly because the guy just plain knew how to win battles (especially compared to those morons and buffoons who led the Union Army right up until Grant; if you can feel any affection for McClellan, you’re a better buff than I), but also because of that sense of a thoughtful and sensitive and impressive personality and character existing alongside the tactical genius. This was the man who, the story goes, in looking over the aftermath of Fredericksburg, a Confederate victory but also one of the bloodier battles in which he participated, famously remarked that “it is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.” And even as I got older and more cognizant of the evils for which the Confederacy stood (and the more subtle but perhaps even more evil forces that had contributed greatly to commemorations of the Confederacy and its leaders after the War), I still for many years fully endorsed the narrative of Lee as a reluctant Confederate, one who disagreed with the cause and hated fighting against his old West Point comrades but who couldn’t turn his back on the Virginia that was his home and homeland in every sense.
There’s some truth to that narrative, without question. But as I researched (for a couple chapters in my dissertation/first book) the late 19th century rise of a Southern version of both the Civil War and American history more generally (what came to be known in part as the Lost Cause narrative and in part as the plantation tradition), I began to learn about just how much that rise coincided with the deification of Lee, with Southern mythmakers figuring out how to frame the man to make him not only palatable for national audiences, but in fact a hero who could help the nation elide the slavery and race-related sides to the Civil War almost entirely. And at the same time, I learned much more about one of Lee’s fellow Confederate generals (and in many ways his second-in-command), James Longstreet, a man whose political and social perspectives and opinions underwent dramatic transformations in the post-bellum years, leading him to embrace not only Reconstruction and the Republican Party of Lincoln but also equal rights for African Americans. All of those changes, along with Longstreet’s explicit criticisms of Lee in conversations and speeches and then published writings during this period, made him an easy target for the Lost Cause chroniclers, a figure whose demonization could parallel Lee’s deification very fully and successfully. And I’ll be the first to admit that the two processes worked, even 100 years after the fact; young devotee of everything Civil War-related that I was, I knew and liked a lot about Lee, and thought of Longstreet mostly as the guy whose mistakes greatly contributed to the Confederacy’s turning-point loss at Gettysburg.
The identities and lives of both men don’t, of course, fit any more perfectly into a flipped hierarchy than they did into the Lost Cause’s one. Lee was indeed thoughtful and did have his issues with secession, although he was also (among other flaws) deeply elitist about class and status; Longstreet was clearly a prickly and difficult person in many ways, although he was also (among other strengths) one of the most well-read and intelligent American military leaders of any era. So the main lesson here is, as always, that we need to look back into the histories and texts and identities ourselves, rather than accepting the narratives that have been created and recreated for so long; and the parallel lesson here is, very clearly I hope, just how much that process impacts and continues for me as well.
May Recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?