Today I wanted to discuss somebody that I personally am not infatuated with, but I would venture to say that he is THE most loved figure of the Civil War by many people who enjoy learning about it, and that man is Robert E. Lee. Lee is such a fascinating figure because time has turned Lee into something line a demigod, he is so revered and so loved by the people who sing his praises that he is almost untouchable. Even when he was still alive Lee was called "The Marble Model" by his classmates at West Point because he never earned a sing;e demerit. (1) That record is insane to think about because they gave demerits for very small infractions like beds being messy and not attending chapel. It is this type of background that set Lee up for this reverence. The larger picture of Lee is that historians for the 50 years or so after the war painted him in this light that made him out to be the greatest General of his time and maybe even American History.
There is a saying that the victors write history, but this was not the case for the American Civil War, and the reason behind this is spin control. After the war, the southern states were admitted back into the Union and the people of those states immediately had many questions to answer and many transgressions that needed to be atoned for. This led to the southern historians right after the war from the period of about 1880 to 1950 to start a huge campaign of spin control, historians now call this school of southern pseudo-history the "lost cause" historians.
I have written two very long and involved essays about this type of historical writing, the idea behind the papers was to learn how NOT to write proper history essays, articles and books. My professors at the American Military University focused intently on this type of pseudo-history to teach us the folly of allowing our personal feelings overshadow the truth. I am going to talk about he basic teachings of the lost cause school and give my reaction to each of these. You must remember that this is my opinion, but many respected historians have debunked and left the lost cause school a laughing stock of Civil War historiography.
1. The north invaded the south and the south had the right to defend their homeland- while this would technically be correct if you looked at Virginia and the other southern states as sovereign nations, this is a half truth because these locations were part of the United States. Lincoln had a constitutional obligation to protect his territory and when Fort Sumter was fired upon in April of 1861, he sent troops to squelch the rebellion.
2. Slavery was not the main issue of the war- this would take up and entire blog entry, just know that lost cause historians argued well into the 20th century that slavery was a minor issue and states rights was the real crux of the matter.
3. Robert E. Lee was by far the greatest general of the war and it was only lack of men and support that he lost.- Listen, Lee was a great general, but I don't even think he was the best general of the Confederacy (Look up Albert Sydney Johnston). Lee was very brilliant, especially on the defensive, but he is given credit for things that are overblown and his shortcomings are often overlooked. The best example of his shortcomings would be Gettysburg, after two days of fighting it had been a bloody stalemate and many of his officers like James Longstreet were begging him to fall back and find a better place to attack, but as historian Shelby Foote would say "Lee's blood was up" (2) so he concocted the idea for Pickett's charge which was a full frontal assault on a fortified position over a mile of open ground. OVER A MILE OF OPEN GROUND, it is no wonder that his army was decimated at Gettysburg.
4. Grant was a butcher and far inferior to Lee in every way. This is the big one, lost cause historians long held that Grant could not hold a candle to Lee on the battlefield, this is untrue in so many facets. These pseudo-historians claim that Grant only won the war because of sheer numbers, this could not be further from the truth. Grant outmaneuvered Lee in 1864 and 1865 all around Virginia and would bludgeon Lee into submission. Grant would also be magnanimous in victory, by giving Lee some VERY generous surrender terms when the time came in April of 1865.
So what is the danger or harm in people having their own little spin on historical figures? These lost cause historians and the people who still, to this day, believe in and preach the gospel that is Lee, do Civil War history a great disservice. The problems with viewing historical figures through these rose colored glasses is two fold,
1. IT IS BORING- history is not cut and dry. I tell my students every year on the first day of school two things, history is not pretty, we are going to talk about disturbing and sad things, but that is life, and two, there is no black in white in most cases when looking at historical figures or events. What makes a great historical figure is the depth provided by knowing, and admitting, their faults and foibles. Personal quirks and shortcomings are what make the man, you need to understand all these historical figures had their skeletons.
2. It allows misconceptions and untruths about events and people to permeate- when people chose to ignore shortcomings and refuse to talk about all sides of an event or a man, it leads future generations to continue down this path. I take my job very seriously as a history teacher, one of the things that I find the most important is to teach my kids to think for themselves and learn how to see bias in historical sources. We are all biased, but it is the job of students of history to see that bias and fix it for the future.
Thanks for putting up with my longest post yet, I would LOVE to see comments on facebook and on the comments section on this blog. Here is a question to get us started, what historical figure can you think of has been put on one of these impossible pedestals?
1- James Roberston- Civil War Journal "Robert E. Lee"
2- Shelby Foote- "Ken Burns' The Civil War"