10 December 2011

Lee, Reunion, & History Twisting

*Update: Here's one of the other quotes I was thinking about when I originally posted this. The point is, Lee's reputation and respect was not something "manufactured" after the war to facilitate reconciliation. It was quite authentic and already well-established. To suggest otherwise is simply bad history:

He was one who, though famous, was not honeycombed with ambition or tainted with cunning or cant, and though a soldier and wearing soldier’s laurels, yet never craved or sought honors except as they bloomed on deeds done for the glory of his lawfully constituted authority; in short a soldier to whom the sense of duty was a gospel and a man of the world whose only rule in life was that life should be upright and stainless. I cannot but think Providence meant, through him, to prolong the ideal of the gentleman in the world . . . It is easy to see why Lee has become the embodiment of one of the world’s ideals, that of the soldier, the Christian, and the gentleman. And from the bottom of my heart I thank Heaven . . . for the comfort of having a character like Lee’s to look at. ~ Union General Morris Schaff referring to Lee’s surrender at which he was present. 

Once again, an academic historian of Northern loyalties mixes some truth with some err and misleads:

Lee became a popular figure of national reunion throughout the country. As an introduction to this subject I suggest you read David Blight’s book, Race and Reunion. ~ *Kevin Levin

On it's face, the comment about Lee is true. However, this (as well as the running record of posts at CWM) would lead some to believe Lee's "becoming" was less than authentic or deserving. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Lee never "repented" of having led the South against the Yankee invaders, he was quite well-disciplined about voicing that sentiment publicly. He felt that it was best to build upon what was left and look to the future. The war was over, the South had lost, it was best to move on and rebuild the South as best as possible. This was quite evident in how Lee conducted himself as he led Washington College after the war. Moreover, Lee's "mythical" stature and national respect were already well-established before "reunion." I've noted that a number of times here. The almost universal respect Lee held in the eyes of others was perhaps best expressed by Union General Joshua Chamberlain at Appomattox:

I turned about, and there behind me, riding between my two lines, appeared a commanding form, superbly mounted, richly accoutered, of imposing bearing, noble countenance, with expression of deep sadness overmastered by deeper strength. It is none other than Robert E. Lee! … I sat immovable, with a certain awe and admiration. ~ Union General Joshua Chamberlain at Appomattox.

That's just one example. While I don't have the other quotes at my fingertips at the moment, others who favored the Union made similar comments about Lee soon after the surrender. Lee did serve as a vehicle for reconciliation, but that position was authentic and well-deserved. It was not "astro-turfed" after the war.

And, as far as recommending a book by David Blight, I'm working on a post about some of Professor Blight's recent essays now. But I just couldn't let this subtle, but growing misconception about Lee go without some kind of response.

"When a man's ways please the LORD, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him." ~ King Solomon

*I do agree with Kevin, however, that the South "spent quite a bit of time reviewing history texts used in schools to ensure that they included their preferred version [perspective] of the war."


Vince said...

I might be missing something but I think your Chamberlain quote is from 1903:

For the five years after the war, although almost everyone was fascinated with Lee, how Northerners felt about him was highly correlated with how severe and revolutionary (socially) they thought Reconstruction should be. At least that's my conclusion based on five minutes of full-text newspaper searching.

Kevin said...

Hi Richard. I think you are reading way too much into my post. It was simply a descriptive claim in response to another comment. To be honest, I am not really concerned at all with whether he deserved to become such a symbol. The fact is that he did and I am very interested in better understanding why.

Brock Townsend said...

&, of course:

55. ...On they come, with the old swinging route step and swaying battle flags. In the van, the proud Confederate ensign. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood; men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word, nor whisper or vain-glorying, nor motion of man, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!
-Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin - Perhaps I was a bit over-critical, but I do believe there is a growing opinion that Lee's image was somehow "manufactured" after the war. I think that is utter nonsense.

"I am very interested in better understanding why."

His reputation was rather well-established prior to the war, which is one of the reasons he was Lincoln's first choice to "quell the rebellion."

Thanks for commenting Kevin.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Vince - I'm not sure if that was my source or not. Could be - I'd have to check. I've got a couple more very similar from other Union soldiers. I'm not quite following your point about reconstruction . . .? Regardless, I think Lee's reputation before, during and after the war was genuine. I've noted before, as has James Robertson, that one of the reasons moderns have such difficulty relating to Lee is because he was in fact of a rare and high moral character. There simply are few men in history like him. That statement will, of course, cause a gag reflex among certain academics. Like I care. ;o)

Vince said...

I'd be interested in seeing the evidence, as I'm having a hard time imagining how Lee's reputation would have been transmitted to and among Union soldiers in the 1860s. Especially with the comparative legacy of George H. Thomas, my perception based on the limited evidence I've seen is that antipathy towards Lee resulting from his being seen as a traitor blocked any consideration of praise for his moral character through ~1870.

My point about reconstruction is that I find it very believable that the heroic image of Lee was intentionally transmitted through the North by Democrats who were trying to promote the Lost Cause (figuratively and literally--they endorsed Pollard's book in 1866) to affect the conversation about reconstruction.

Lee may very well have earned heroic status--I don't know--and I'm all for heroes, my recent disappointment in Joe Paterno notwithstanding. However, the few hours I've spent researching the years 1865-1870 have left me pretty cynical about the early politics of Civil War memory.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Vince - all points well taken. I don't totally disagree - my view is a bit more nuanced though. The reconciliation was both real and necessary, but authentic, as was Lee's reputation and character. Though there's no doubt many took political advantage of that situation, that does not negate its necessity nor its authenticity.