In these changing times Robert E. Lee’s legacy doesn’t ride so easily.

Robert E. Lee’s Mixed Legacy

One of the most revered battlefield commanders in American history Robert E. Lee still casts a long shadow.

The man who opposed the building of public memorials to the rebellion to which he ultimately became lead general, is today represented by hundreds of statues.

The man whose military surrender at Appomattox ultimately made any further Confederate military resistance unviable, nonetheless became even more revered after his surrender surpassing even Stonewall Jackson in popularity.

The same man who led the Confederacy’s military against the Union — an act of treason — nonetheless was celebrated across the United States as a national hero within a generation of his death.

By the end of the 19th century, Lee’s popularity had spread to the North where his admirers have since pointed to both his seemingly unimpeachable character and his tactical successes against larger foes.

Now, however, his legacy comes ever more into question as his own ownership and ill-treatment of his slaves and his views toward slavery prove controversial in an era of U.S. politics where the ill-treatment of African-Americans at the hands of the U.S. government and law enforcement has never been more scrutinized.

Amidst the cementing of Lee’s legacy as an embodiment of the Southern cause, and later as a national hero, a darker side of Lee’s legacy has emerged as the rise of white Supremacy took hold in post-Reconstruction South, a legacy that has since found widespread acceptance in the North.

Born of the finest Virginian aristocratic stock — Lee was the son of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee III, while his wife was the daughter of George Washington’s adopted son — Lee modeled himself after the strict southern code of what constituted a gentleman.

He also had a talent for evading trouble, accumulating no disciplinary demerits at West Point — a rare feat given the Byzantine rules that governed the Military Academy’s cadets.

Although offered a promising career with the Union the ultimate secession of his native Virginia convinced Lee to resign his commission and join the Confederate states eventually rising up their ranks to become the Confederacy’s lead General.

Up until his bloody defeat at the battle of Gettysburg, Lee had established an impressive reputation for defeating much larger Union armies on the battlefield.

At Gettysburg, Lee lost the Southern initiative at keeping the north on the defensive, allowing Ulysses S. Grant the opportunity he needed to force the Confederacy into surrender at Appomattox.

However, it is not Lee’s military reputation which draws the most attention today, it is his relationship with race and slavery.

Being a slave owner, Lee was surprisingly quiet about the institution — at least in public.

He considered himself a paternalistic master, however, he was known to severely punish any of his slaves who attempted to run away.

Indeed breaking with the customs of his in-laws, the Custis’s and the Washingtons who respected slave families, Lee opted to actually break them apart — proving one of the most devastating aspects of slavery.

As it proves, Lee’s views on slavery were as complex as the man himself. As he argued in an oft-quoted 1856 letter to his wife not long before the outbreak of the Civil War, Lee made clear his views on slavery noting that the evils of slavery notwithstanding, the “painful discipline” that enslaved blacks were exposed to actually benefitted them by driving the barbarism of their native shores out and civilization and Christianity in. The end of slavery, Lee argued to his wife, would come when God willed it.

Indeed to Southerners such as Lee, the greatest danger to the liberty and livelihood of Southerners was the call by northern abolitionists for the direct end of slavery.

This in mind, Lee voted for the pro-slavery John C. Breckinridge over the more moderate Tennessean John Bell who ended up carrying Virginia during the presidential election in 1860.

The irony of Lee’s views were not lost on many historians who have since studied Lee, not the least being Eric Foner. As Foner noted, Lee’s well known code of honor did not apply to blacks.

During the Gettysburg campaign, Foner notes, Lee did not bother to stop his soldiers from kidnapping otherwise free black farmers and selling them into slavery.

Likewise Lee refused to condemn the violence of the Ku Klux Klan after the end of the war.

With the end of the Civil War and the establishment of Reconstruction by the ascendant Republican Party, Lee was outspoken in his opposition to the enfranchisement of former slaves.

Although history is traditionally written by the victor, it was the defeated party that is the South that made their rendition of history last — creating an alternate history known as the Lost Cause.

At the heart of this new ‘pseudo-history’ was a cult of personality surrounding the now deceased Robert E. Lee foisting his legacy upon a pedestal and remaking him as a perverse Southern messiah.

In place of his actual and well documented goal to lead the Confederacy in defense of slavery, the perpetuators of this new rendition of ‘history’ claimed that Lee was fighting for state’s rights, national independence and the preservation of rural agrarian civilization.

The irony of the Lost Cause is tragic indeed, as it in no way benefited poor whites in the South other than justifying the de facto subjugation of blacks in virtual slavery minimizing competition for the meager economic opportunities offered to both.

The Lost Cause was a lie designed to sweep the injustices of the plantation class under the rug all the while keeping the lower class Southern whites in line and maintaining the antebellum racial hierarchy and power structure.

Surprisingly many credulous northerners were willing to believe in the Lost Cause rendition of history, and from the 1890s to 20th century the U.S. witnessed a consolidation of white supremacy in the post-Reconstruction South and beyond.

Pairing a fictional Robert E. Lee with a fictional Abraham Lincoln, a new “reconciliationist” vision was wrought whereby both sides fought for noble principles, the South for self-determination, the north for union, all the while carefully skirting around the role the “peculiar institution” of slavery had in sustaining the South with a vast unpaid labor force that made the harvesting of ‘king cotton’ highly lucrative for the old plantation class.

Thus in keeping slavery out of the picture, this new rendition of history was palatable to broad population of southern and credulous northerns alike whereby the Old South and the Confederacy were romanticized.

All this circles back to Robert E. Lee whose legacy was refashioned into a noble zeitgeist of his time to represent the supposed honorability of the Southern ‘Lost Cause’.

Even though Lee has been greatly fictionalized by those who have attempted to use his stature as the pre-eminent military leader of the Confederacy to convey their own conception of the South he remains a pivotal figure in American history.

An excellent tactician, Lee was a poor strategist attempting to fight an aggressive, frontal assault on a much larger, better armed enemy.

Consequently, it could be argued that Lee was as much a butcher of the enemy as he was of his own men as he lost some 20 percent of the men under his command to the 15 percent casualties he inflicted on the north.

Lee however, only began to flip the statistics in his favor in 1864 after he began to go on the defensive with the Battle of the Wilderness — much too late to turn the tide of war.

The reality was Lee should have fought a more defensive war, attempting to wear the Union down in a war of attrition in its best attempt to tire Northern fervor for an unconditional union victory.

Instead, Lee chose to err on the side of aggression wearing out his most important and irreplaceable resource — his men.

In contrast, Lee’s late game opponent, Grant had the superior aggressive strategy, albeit one that was forced upon him by the North’s burden to win an unconditional victory on its opponent.

Grant, in contrast to Lee, also had the better tactical command of his army during the battle, issuing battle plans that were neither too complex nor orders that were too vague or discretionary.

However impressive a tactician Lee was or a dashing figure he may have seemed, Lee was no secular saint or modern messiah as the propagators of the Lost Cause allege.

Lee’s poor overall strategy of aggression in the face of a larger better armed enemy and his wanton indifference for the unethical actions of his troops on and off the battlefield undermine any claim that he was a brilliant strategist or abhorred slavery.

After his defeat at Appomattox, Lee did not attempt to rebuild any semblance of national unity, in fact he did the opposite, he made clear his disgust for Reconstruction and any attempt to bring about political enfranchisement of blacks instead encouraging — or at the very least complacently accepting — the forces at be — namely the Ku Klux Klan — that sought to terrorize blacks from exploiting the political and economic opportunities promised to them by the ascendant Republican administration in Washington D.C.




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Thomas O'Donoghue

Thomas O'Donoghue

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