There are two aspects to how we understand history.
One is history’s facts, especially those facts which can be
established by physical evidence such as photographs, tapes,
and recordings, films and videos, and written evidence. Most
of history beginning in the second half of the 19th century
can be so supported. Before that, physical evidence is usually
partial or incomplete. First-hand accounts are often very
helpful, but sometimes they are incomplete or biased.
The second aspect of how we view and understand history
comes from the interpretation of history’s facts, either
contemporaneous or, as is often the case, by historians and
other interpreters after the facts --- sometimes long after the
The U.S. Civil war was one of the world’s earliest heavily
recorded events --- this due to the then recent availability of
photography and the telegraph.
The nation today is currently going through an orgy of trying
to reinterpret history --- despite overwhelming evidence and
facts that rebuke efforts to manipulate public opinion, primarily
through an uncritical media and mob tactics.
I will address here just one case in point.
Robert E. Lee was a career U.S. army officer who distinguished
himself over decades of service in early U.S. armed conflicts.
There is no dispute about this. In early 1861, with civil war
looming, the elderly Winfield Scott, then the top commander of
the U.S. army, told President Abraham Lincoln that he wished
that Robert E. Lee, a 32-year veteran of the army and former
superintendent of West Point (from which he had earlier
graduated second in his class), to take command of the Union
army. In March, Mr. Lee accepted the rank of colonel. He then
ignored offers of a command from Confederate officials in the
states that had already seceded. Colonel Lee’s views opposing
secession were widely known. On April 18, Lincoln offered Lee
command of the Union army. On April 21, Virginia, Lee’s home
state, seceded from the Union, and Lee declined Lincoln’s offer,
saying that his highest loyalty was to his home state of Virginia.
He soon accepted a role as advisor to the new president of the
Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and in 1862, he was made
commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, a post
he held until his surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at
Appomattox in April, 1865.
During the Civil War, General Lee distinguished himself in
numerous battles and campaigns, although he made some major
mistakes and lost some major battles. He is generally regarded by
most military historians as an illustrious commander, although he
fought for a losing cause. During and after the Civil War, he was
the most admired man in the South.
His father, General Henry “Lighhorse” Lee had been one of the
heroes of the U.S. Revolutionary War.
His father-in-law owned slaves on their Virginia estate before the
Civil War, but late in life decided to set his slaves free. When he
died in 1858, his family (including Robert E. Lee) decided to honor
his request to set all of the family slaves free in five year’s time. In
a letter to the New York Times that year, Lee confirmed his and the
family decision to set the slaves free in 1863. There is a controversy
about the timing of this emancipation --- some say that on his death
bed, Lee’s father-in-law said the slaves should be set free
immediately. Lee said this wasn’t true.
Robert E. Lee personally opposed slavery, and letters to his wife
written before the Civil War, attest to this. On the other hand, he
did not ever publicly denounce slavery, as several prominent
southerners did do. In the end, of course, he took the side of those
who wanted to preserve this human evil.
Because he did fight for the South, which was considered at that
time an illegal and treasonous act, many then considered Lee a
traitor. Many do so today, although others contend that he was
guided by his stated principle that he was first a Virginian.
The Civil War settled that question once and for all, but in 1861
there were many Americans, citing states rights in the U.S.
constitution, who felt that state identity was equal to or higher
than federal identity. (The only reason he was not hanged as a
traitor, however, was because of the magnanimity of President
Lincoln and General Grant. He then lived in declining health as
the head of a small Virginia college, and died at age 63 in 1870.)
Those are the facts.
Robert E. Lee was wrong about the greatest issue of his day.
His failure to publicly renounce slavery, though he personally
opposed it, was also a wrong choice. Moreover, his failure to
emancipate his father-in-law's slaves (of which he was now
part-owner) was by today’s standards a mistake --- and I will go
further --- even by the standards of his own time, inexcusable.
Like virtually every prominent figure in history, Robert E. Lee
was a flawed individual. His flaws, I think, also led to the tragedy
of a life that appeared headed to greatness --- and almost surely
would have concluded in greatness if he had accepted President
Lincoln’s offer. Instead, he died ultimately in failure.
However, to suggest that Robert E. Lee was not a great general,
and not adored by troops, and not an iconic figure of that tragic
national occasion known as the U.S. Civil War, is simply an effort
to erase history.
Those persons, for example, who deny the Nazi Holocaust of
World War II, or those who deny the barbarity of Soviet dictator
Josef Stalin, also want to erase history.
History cannot be erased without dangerous consequences.
Whether or not there should be statues of Confederate figures,
or other memorials through the use of their names, is a question
to be decided by the community where they exist. The idea that
small, unelected and extremist mobs (and egged on by some
in the media) should determine what we can remember is
unacceptable in our Republic, and no matter if one is a Democrat,
a Republican, an independent a liberal a conservative or a centrist,
any American should be offended when a mob, on the far right or
the far left, presumes to take away our rights and freedom.
Robert E. Lee is no hero of mine. He fought for the wrong cause,
and he shared in the responsibility of the deaths of thousands of
his countrymen. My heroes in the Civil War were Mr. Lincoln and
Mr. Grant. They, too, had flaws; they, too, shared the burdens of
responsibility, but they chose the right principle.
We should remember that when making judgments about our
Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.