18 December 2008

Civil War Times And Its Hit Piece On Lee

I don't subscribe to the Civil War Times Illustrated. It's not that I wouldn't like to, it's a nice publication and highly respected. I actually like it very much. I just have to limit my subscriptions and, besides, I have a friend that passes his issues on to me after he's read them. Just last week, he gave me the December 08 issue and the February 09 one. (I assume they skip January for the holidays, uh, I mean Christmas.)

Interestingly enough, the December issue featured a "puff piece" interview of Lincoln scholar, Harold Holzer by CWT editor, Dana Shoaf. In the interview, Holzer made the bold claim that Lincoln "freed the slaves." Even Holzer admitted that view was a "bit simplistic." Yes, just a bit--and that admission coming from a scholar. At least Holzer's honest admission is refreshing.

He also made the incredible claim that Lincoln could "pick up an ax with his thumb and forefinger and extend his arm out." Right, and our 16th President was also able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I know I've read this claim elsewhere (the one about the ax), but I find it extremely difficult to believe; as I think anyone who has ever picked up an ax would. (I'm curious, has anyone ever validated that claim to any extent? I'm also curious if Mr. Holzer has ever picked up an ax.)

But no challenges from the editor on these claims, or from the academic CW blogosphere. Ah, but wait, the February issue included these charming comments about Southern icon and hero, Robert E. Lee on the cover:

"Long lost letters show he favored slavery and fought like hell to keep it."*

No such flattering comments about Lincoln emblazoned on the December issue cover even though, in reality, there was little practical difference in Lincoln's views on race and Lee's. Yes, there is evidence that Lee wanted to maintain the institution of slavery, thinking it the best that could be hoped for at the time, yet he also offered conflicting opinions about slavery's morality. And I believe Lee's views were--as were most 19th century Americans--just that: conflicting. While Lee expressed his view that slavery might be the best that could be hoped for at that particular point in our history, Lincoln had a much more progressive and admirable idea--deport all blacks back to Africa. (I'm being sarcastic, of course. And yes, I have to make that clear.) For their freedom? No. He simply wanted to rid America of blacks. Did that little factoid make the CWT cover, like the intentionally provocative statement about Lee? No. Why not? Lerone Bennett, Jr., social historian and former Ebony editor, offers one possible reason:

"Lincoln is theology, not historiology. He is a faith, he is a church, he is a religion, and he has his own priests and acolytes, most of whom have a vested interest in [him] and who are passionately opposed to anybody telling the truth about him." ~ Lerone Bennett, Jr., Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, p. 114

One CW blogger, commenting on the Lee piece, made sure to point out that "serious students" would welcome the Lee piece and that it was a "more sophisticated" essay. Of course, any essay that trashes Southern heroes is "more sophisticated." (Where was the sophistication in the Lincoln article?)

Ah yes, us poor dumb Southerners and Lee worshipers so appreciate our elitist "serious and sophisticated" yankee friends "edjycatin'" us. Lord knows we don't dedicate any time to serious study about "de wah", after all, "we'uns is too busy makin' moonshine, marryin' our sisters, and fryin' possum."

Does the Holzer interview fall into the "more sophisticated" realm, what with the Lincoln as Superman anecdote and his hatred of slavery presented as gospel?

As I noted in an earlier post, many professional historians, Mr. Shoaf included, often get the facts wrong themselves. Please don't lecture the rest of us on "sophistication" and "serious" study. Some of you take yourselves just a little too seriously.

No one would deny that both Lee and Lincoln held views on race that the vast majority of Americans would today consider racist. They were men of their times. But, despite the continuous denials from academic historians, their views on race are presented in much different ways: Lee always the evil slaveowner, Lincoln the great emancipator. Very serious. Very sophisticated.

Very laughable.


Thanks for suffering my rant. Regularly scheduled programming will now resume. Now where'd I put that jar of corn liquor . . . ?

*The Lee piece was by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, whose recent Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters is all the rage among CW academics. I'm reading it now, very slowly, and will offer my opinion at some future point. Suffice it to say that thus far, I've found that Ms. Brown's interpretations and conclusions about Lee are really nothing new for those coming from her perspective. Some of her conclusions are factually wrong and, in my opinion, a bit misleading. I'll have more to say later.


BorderRuffian said...

"Long lost letters show he favored slavery and fought like hell to keep it."



"...The reasons that induce me to recommend the employment of negro troops at all render the effect of the measures I have suggested upon slavery immaterial, and in my opinion the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation."

-R.E. Lee

Lawrence Underwood said...

The axe thing is easy. . . if your thumb and forefinger are merely a fulcrum and you rest the but of the handle in the palm. This is an old woodsman's betting trick. That may shed even more light on the sixteenth president's 'stellar' character.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Lawrence, but I still don't get it. Even using the palm, holding the full weight of the ax at arm's length seems almost impossible. I'm going to give it a try later today and report back. Not being an "old woodsman" might be my problem.