13 April 2015

Lee at Appomattox & Afterwards

Kevin Levin has posted a high five to Ed Ayers for his remarks at the recent festivities at Appomattox. During his speech, Ayers quoted remarks from General Grant's memoirs about his feelings regarding Lee's surrender:
I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.
Levin then offers his perspective on both Ayers' and Grant's remarks:
Ayers correctly notes that Grant’s assessment could be and was interpreted in a way that allowed ex-Confederates to frame their bid for independence as a noble cause. It certainly did not capture Grant’s understanding of the event and Ayers forcefully encourages his audience to acknowledge that it should not color our own.
I would disagree with the notion that when it comes to our understanding of the South's "cause", Grant's assessment and understanding should not "color our own." Why not? Varying degrees of Grant's feelings and thoughts (in regards to the Southern Army's valiant struggle and Lee's character) were shared by many of Lee's former enemies. For example:
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. 
And Chamberlain also wrote:
How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to forgive us all. ~ Joshua Chamberlain on the surrender at Appomattox.
And . . .
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 Schaff was present.
 And . . .
On a quite autumn morning, in the land he loved so well, and, as he held, served so faithfully, the spirit of Robert Edward Lee left the clay which it had so much ennobled, and traveled out of this world into the great and mysterious land. The expressions of regret which sprang from the few who surrounded the bedside of the dying soldier, on yesterday, will be swelled today into one mighty voice of sorrow, resounding throughout our country, and extending over all parts of the world where his great genius and his many virtues are known. For not to the Southern people alone shall be limited the tribute of a tear over the dead Virginian. Here in the North, forgetting that the time was when the sword of Robert Edward Lee was drawn against us—forgetting and forgiving all the years of bloodshed and agony—we have claimed him as one of ourselves; have cherished and felt proud of his military genius as belonging to us; have recounted and recorded his triumphs as our own; have extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us—for Robert Edward Lee was an American, and the great nation which gave him birth would be today unworthy of such a son if she regarded him lightly.

Never had mother nobler son. In him the military genius of America developed to a greater extent than ever before. In him all that was pure and lofty in mind and purpose found lodgment. Dignified without presumption, affable without familiarity, he united all those charms of manner which made him the idol of his friends and of his soldiers, and won for him the respect and admiration of the world. Even as, in the days of his triumph, glory did not intoxicate, so, when the dark clouds swept over him, adversity did not depress. From the hour that he surrendered his sword at Appomattox to the fatal autumn morning, he passed among men, noble in the quiet, simple dignity, displaying neither bitterness nor regret over the irrevocable past. He conquered us in misfortune by the grand manner in which he sustained himself, even as he dazzled us by his genius when the tramp of his soldiers resounded through the valleys of Virginia. And for such a man we are all tears and sorrow today. Standing beside his grave, all men of the South and men of the North can mourn with all the bitterness of four years of warfare erased by this common bereavement. May this unity of grief—this unselfish manifestation over the loss of the Bayard of America—in the season of dead leaves and withered branches which this death ushers in, bloom and blossom like the distant coming spring into the flowers of a heartier accord. ~ Editorial from the New York Herald the day after Lee’s death.
We often read that the popular images of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee were created solely by "Lost Cause" sympathizers after the war and for the sole purpose to "maintain the old order." What utter nonsense. Actually, that is the new "myth." Lee was considered a hero long before "Lost Cause" ideas took root in the South.
I tell you, sir, that Robert E. Lee is the greatest soldier now living, and if he ever gets the opportunity, he will prove himself the greatest captain of history. ~ General Winfield Scott, just before the War Between the States.
Scott's assessment is correct (as history so plainly reveals) and it is why Lincoln first offered command of the Union army to Lee. I suppose we should not let that fact color our understanding either.

Apparently, Lee's undying status as a truly American icon of honor and nobility (along with the "Lost Cause") live rent free in the minds of certain historians. It's an obsession. As the New York Herald editorial noted Lee's "conquering" even in his defeat, the same still seems to hold true today, despite the efforts of some.

My advice would be to ignore the advice of those Lee continues to conquer and allow history and the understanding of Lee's former enemies to color our own.

5 comments:

ropelight said...

I'm not surprised at Levin's gleeful cheerleading, looking down his nose at the Confederacy largely defines his approach to history. His self-evident animosity against the secessionist South in general, and General Lee and the Confederate Battle Flag in particular is documented, undeniable, and boringly predictable.

However, I am surprised that a self-righteous demagogue like Ayres could rise to become Richmond University's President. (What in blue blazes is wrong with the Trustees, is the Board dominated by carpetbaggers and scalawags?)

Ayres, like so many academic historians, (especially the ones coming out of Yale) is little more than a rabble rousing hate-monger, albeit a clever one, but one nevertheless.

He's dismayed that Pew research found that 48% of people believe the main cause of the War Against Southern Independence (WASI) was states' rights, even though "virtually all American textbooks and prominent historians emphasize slavery, as they have for decades." So, unable to persuade Americans the South's cause was wrong, Ayres devotes himself to character assassination, in public at Appomattox on the Sesquicentennial Celebration no less.

Ayres uses a few sentences Grant wrote 20 years after the surrender (in his 1885 Memoirs) as a springboard for indicting the entire Confederate South and for slandering General Lee, and this on an occasion commemorating the end of hostilities when a message of respect, reconciliation, and national unity was the order of the day.

But, Ayres, ensconced in Appomattox's bully pulpit, just couldn't bring himself to pass up an opportunity to spread a little hatred around and trash a man he and his ilk have been unable to sully for decades, although not from want of trying.

jessie sanford said...

Once again Mr. Williams your insight and knack for going straight to the heart of the matter shines like a bright star. Thank you for your defense of our families good name.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thank you sir.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"dismayed that Pew research found that 48% of people believe the main cause of the War Against Southern Independence (WASI) was states' rights, even though "virtually all American textbooks and prominent historians emphasize slavery, as they have for decades.'"

Yes, I'm posted about that before. A rather dismal failure, wouldn't you say? Even more interesting is that this view (in that poll) was more prevalent in younger demographics.

Eddie said...

Yep, the greatness of Lee is due only to Lost Causers.


But if the Democratic Convention must nominate a soldier -- it must have a name identified with the glories of war -- we will recommend a candidate for its favors. Let it nominate Robert E. Lee. Let it boldly take at once the best of all its soldiers, making no palaver or apology. He is a better soldier than any of those they have thought upon, and a greater man. He is one in whom the military genius of this nation finds its fullest development. Here, the inequality will be in favor of the Democrats; for this soldier, with a handful of men, whom he had moulded into an army, baffled our greater Northern armies for four years; and, when opposed by Grant, was only worn down by that stolid strategy of stupidity that accomplishes it objects by mere weight. With one-quarter the men Grant had, this soldier fought him magnificently across the territory of his native State, and fought his army down to a stump. There never was such an army, or such a campaign, or such a General far illustrating the military genius and possibilities of our people; and this General is best of all for a Democratic candidate. It is certain that, with half as many men as Grant had, he would have beaten him from the field in Virginia, and he affords the best promise of beating him again.

New York Herald - June 23, 1868