Making rounds of the internet this week was a Biloxi, Mississippi city government posting that referenced that Martin Luther King Day also being known officially as Great Americans Day, which was started in 1985 by the city. Turns out Robert E. Lee was born the same week (albeit a century earlier) as MLK. Biloxi likely started this in response to President Reagan signing the law in 1983 that the holiday would become federally recognized in 1986. So it gives this damned Yankee an opportunity to dig into the hero worship of the great Virginian general of the Civil War and examine his place in Southern Heritage.
Robert E. Lee’s success on the battlefield was unparalleled. In reality he only lost two twice as a commander, one at Gettysburg and a final time where he surrendered his troops at Appomattox Courthouse in what is wrongly attributed as the end of the Civil War (it would continue elsewhere in the south for six more weeks or so). Celebration as a great General, even though many of these were waged against the United States, I suppose is due. But throughout the land there are not nearly as many George Patton statues nor street names.
Many cite Lee’s dedication to his home turf, turning down what would have been a commission to lead all United States forces on the eve of the Civil War, and retiring from service to his home state of Virginia. But soon he would volunteer to command troops to defend Virginia and from that he quickly assumed the head of the Army of Northern Virginia. He is oft wrongly credited as the general in charge of all the southern forces, but he was on equal footing with other generals in the Confederacy.
His gentlemanly Virginian demeanor also places him in a category of reverence. While a fiery general, he was widely known for his great concern and kindness to others. He was a slave owner, but is on the record as opposing slavery. Yet he felt the slave experience would enrich the black man and end at God’s choosing, not man’s, writing to his wife:
“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.” – Robert E. Lee
Yet he would discipline his own slaves as necessary, considered purchasing more, sold some (breaking up families in the process) and only when his plantation had emerged on the positive side of the ledger, freed the slaves he inherited.
So then, what of the worship of the General? He was honorable, a brilliant strategist and morally sound (of that time). Is the idolatry purely that he sacrificed so much to fight for his home state in such a brilliant way? Or have those who love him dearly decided to look past some object realities?
Consider that Lee betrayed not one country, but two. While a great military mind, he was perhaps the sole party responsible for any chance that the Confederate States of America succeed in independence.
Lee’s decision to join the Confederate armed services made him a traitor to the United States. Yet his decision sounds eloquently chivalrous, “If the Union is dissolved and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and, save in defense will draw my sword on none.” But this decision nonetheless is a betrayal of the United States of America once he picked up arms against it.
While that may be overlooked as so many fought for the Confederacy, his second act of treachery should not be overlooked so easily — and it was set up by his poor decision making years earlier in Pennsylvania countryside.
The Tragic Choices of Gettysburg. The backstory here is that Robert E. Lee had no intention of fighting at Gettysburg at the end of June in 1863. Invading Pennsylvania was, on the other hand, another brilliant tactical move to both re-supply his army in fresh farmland untouched by war and also to strike fear in the hearts of northern Americans who were quite war weary. Nearing Gettysburg, Lee had the chance to sprint to New York, turn towards Philadelphia or even circle back and attack Washington, DC from the rear. It will always be speculative, but imagine the southern army perched at the doorstep of these cities and the terror that would ensue.
But Lee was forced to fight at Gettysburg due to the failures of his underlings in following orders. Lee brought his Army into town and fought a decision victory on July 1st, but the Union held the high ground. Lee could have opted to leave the North there and continue towards New York or Philadelphia, but his path would have been a series of fights rather than a sprint he envisioned. But he could have chosen the ground to fight upon next.
Lee instead, having never been beaten, felt he could send his men up into heavily fortified hills and destroy the Union Army of the Potomac. Doing so would be a critical blow to northern chances of winning the war. But his key generals opposed the plan, seeing what Lee chose not to see. He forged on and at a great loss, failed to take the hills on July 2nd. Most generals would admit defeat and retreat, but Lee felt it was just a matter of the resolve of his men one more day, and again, despite his subordinate complaints, drove his men against superior forces and was slaughtered.
Lee lost a third of his army at Gettysburg, and with it likely any chance the Confederacy had to succeed.
Having no choice, Lee had to retreat back into Northern Virginia and spent the next two years primarily fighting a defensive war of attrition. The south knew it could not win a long war due to the northern dominance in manpower and industrial might. Meanwhile Gettysburg finally gave the north a major victory and, with it, momentum. This was a turning point.
Fast forward to 1865, where Lee had dug into trenches surrounding Richmond, Virginia, in a last-ditch effort to save the Confederate capitol. When his army was in danger of starvation, Lee planned to give up on defending Richmond and escape to the west where his men could be fed, resupplied and recuperate in the vast hills and forests of western Virginia. But this too went awry as a supply train met his troops but was stocked only with munitions and no food.
It could be argued that Lee heroically chose, in surrendering, to save the lives of his men rather than push them on to certain death by starvation or prolonged combat. But were he the ardent Confederate, one to be glorified as the hero of the cause, he should have disbanded his army and told them to melt into the countryside and reform into bands of Guerilla units, to prolong the war by harassing union positions just like the Indians in colonial times and even the American’s own revolutionary tactics in the south during the second half of the Revolutionary War.
But he chose instead the honorable soldier’s path, surrender. So to the loyalist Confederate who wishes to sanctify Lee’s role in Southern Heritage, the truth is that Lee betrayed that principle in rejecting guerrilla warfare.
At Appomattox court house he was given an honorable surrender and in turn asked his men to honorably lay down their arms and return to their farms. If anything, he should be honored as a hero to Northerners, not Southerners, for negotiating a peaceful and honorable end to the fighting, met by Lincoln’s desires and Grant’s offers that officers and soldiers not be punished at war’s end.
So for Lee to give up, give in and stop the fight? To the fervent Confederate, this should be the ultimate act of treason.
Lee spent his days after the war taking blame for his actions in the loss of life of so many. When asked about the Confederate flag, Lee said to put it in the attic, “I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” Yet for years, and in some places today, the flag flies under his name as “heritage” – which betrays his belief in the matter.
Robert E. Lee was also about reconciliation, nor rebellion, saying to those who took anger at the reconstruction of the south at the hands of the north: “…don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.” He even opposed the construction of war memorials for southern leaders, including his beloved Stonewall Jackson.
But the romanticism for Robert E. Lee marches on, and in many ways he should be viewed as a great American and beyond being a southerner. Not because of any rebellion, but instead because Robert E. Lee stood up for what he believed in, made mistakes, atoned for those mistakes and asked others to forgive, come together and move forward. And while it is impossible to speak for the departed General, it sure seems that his nature and character would be to step aside this weekend so that another great American could have the spotlight in fighting for many with the exact same values Lee himself had.