Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 19: Robert E. Lee the "marble man" (1)

If was so freaked out by the news that the miserable Ratzinger was elected Pope that I forgot to post my dialy entry for Confederate "Heritage" Month yesterday.

One of the books from recent years that has helped immensely in debunking the Lost Cause is The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society by Thomas Connelly (1977).  As the title indicates, Connelly's book tells the story of how the image of Lee in the major historical accounts and popular images has evolved since the Civil War.

Trying to trace popular images is always a tricky undertaking.  But Connelly is careful in constructing his argument and mostly avoids making claims that his evidence can't carry.  His book focuses on the most prominent elements of the sentimentalized Robert E. Lee of the Lost Cause: his wartime brilliance, his model character and his postwar efforts to promote North-South reconciliation.  Much of the myth-making he describes in this book had to do with making Lee into a plaster saint, a man of Christ-like character who exemplified a noble ideal of duty and devotion and various abstract qualities.  Much of the biographical material he presents focuses on trying to develop a more realistic picture of Lee's personality.

Lee as he was

But he also focuses on the historical Lee, with particular attention to how his actual life and career fit with the major elements of the Lost Cause ideology, in which Lee is the single most important figure.

Lee and slavery:  Lee's views on the slavery question didn't fit with the Lost Cause view, which tried to minimize the role that the South's "peculiar institution" played in causing the conflict.  That view long ago reached the absurd point that its advocates will claim with a straight face - and sometimes with serious belief - that slavery had "nothing to do" with the Civil War.

Connelly does not give a lot of attention to Lee's particular political views, though he does analyze Lee's most consequential political decision, his decision to support the Confederacy and betray the United States.  Nor does he deal at any length with Lee's particular proslavery views, or how they relate to the common understanding of his fellow Virginians and the other Southern states.  But he does point out how the Lost Cause mythmaking deliberately downplayed any suggestion that Lee suported the cause that was the reason for the existence of the Confederacy, what  they called their sacred and eternal institution of slavery.  (Virginians like Lee tended to offer more paternalistic but no less supportive views of the Peculiar Institution than did other slaveowners in the Deep South.)  For instance, Connelly writes:

Both Robert Lee, Jr.'s biography and the Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee (1906) by the venerable parson J. William Jones edited Lee's letters in such a manner that the General's national posture was improved.

What ensued was both a de-Southernizing and dehumanizing of Lee. Some phrases that expressed a severe attitude toward the North were lifted. Captain Lee omitted a sentence in a letter in which Lee referred to "rabid abolitionists." He also dropped from a letter a statement in which Lee warned that the Federal government would do as much injury to the Lee family as it could. "They look upon us as their most bitter enemies and will treat us as such to the extent of their powers. Witness their operations whenever they have got a foothold." Jones also omitted the comment, without inserting elision marks to indicate it had ever been there. In a letter in which Lee advised his wife to remove the family from Arlington, Captain Lee cut a section where his father voiced the opinion that war was inevitable because there was "such fury manifested against the South" in Washington that even if the government wanted peace "it may not be in the power of the authorities to restrain them." Reverend Jones omitted it as well, with his customary lack of elision marks.

Bad scholarship and destructive ideology are frequently partners, as we see continually in the Lost Cause tradition.

Lee's Christianity:  Part of the postwar "Lee cult,"as Connelly calls it, held that the Confederate general was a model Christian.  For instance, he quotes an enthusiastic orator from 1883, Major John Daniel, praising Lee's comportment in his final decision to betray America (see below), which involved rejecting the chance to lead the Union armies against the secessionists:

Since the Son of Man stood upon the Mount, and saw "all the kingdoms of the world and theglory of them" stretched before him, and turned away ... to the Cross of Calvary beyond, no follower of the meek and lowly Saviour can have undergone [a] more trying ordeal.

This particular flight of rhetoric was meant to praise Lee's decision to lead the war effort of the Confederacy in defense of the Christian slaveowners' right to buy and sell the human flesh of their fellow Christians with black skin.

Connelly's concern with looking at Lee's religious views is biographical.  Because of the plastic-saint Lost Cause image promoted by Lee's postwar admirers, looking at the actual role of religion in Lee's life becomes a special challenge for a biographer.  Other than the kind of overblown ceremonial flourishes just quoted, Lee's religious views were not especially influential on postwar Christianity, North or South.  Nor does it seem that Lee's social and political views were influenced by his religious faith to anything like the degree of, say, John Brown or most Northern anti-slavery activists.

Connelly argues that "Lee's concept of the Christian life was essential to his behavior."  But the examples he cites of Lee's religious views don't seem to be notably different from what one might expect from a conventionally religious Virginia gentlement of his day.  It is interesting that, as Connelly notes, this model Christian was first confirmed in his Episcopal Church at age 46.  He also seemed to be drawn to a kind of Calvinistic view of God that tended to regard history and the lives of individuals as moving according to a predestined plan of the Almighty.  This outlook may have helped give him inner determination to carry on in the face of serious setbacks and massive defeat.  It may also have encouraged him to find scapegoats for the outcome of the Civil War other than his own failings and the misbegotten choice of his own and of his fellow secessionists to fight a civil war to preserve slavery.

Lee's Virginia "patriotism"and his suport of secession:  Lee was a highly-respected officer at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War.  Winfield Scott, the Army's most senior officer, described Lee in 1854 as "the best soldier in Christendom," based largely on his performance as a captain in the Mexican War.  Scott in 1861 offered to make Lee the chief fieldcommander ofthe American army.  In the Lost Cause mythology, Lee had to make an agonizing decision.  Believing in the Union, sure the Confederate revolt would lead to disaster and opposing slavery, he nevertheless chose to support the Rebels because of his love for his home state of Viriginia.  And did so because of his character, his Southern honor and so on and so forth.

Connelly raises some good questions about this story:

There are intriguing questions regarding Lee's conduct in 1861. His dislike of secession, his love for the Union, and his conviction that Virginia's alignment with the Confederacy would eventually bring disaster to the state, all are familiar. In view of these attitudes, one wonders why Lee did not endeavor to use his influence within Virginia to squelch the secession movement. He certainly might have been able to do it. Even before he resigned his commission in the United States army, the Virginia convention on April 19 had voted for the appointment of a major general to command state troops, and the advisory council had recommended Lee. On April 21, the day after Lee resigned, Governor John Letcher formally tendered the offer. Two days later, after Lee's acceptance, he was treated to praise and an ovation when he addressed the convention in Richmond.

How can Lee's rapid change of attitude toward secession be explained? If his loyalty to the Union and his pain of resignation were as intense as his biographers indicate, the switch was abrupt. Within a week after resigning his commission, Lee was a major general commanding the Virginia state troops. During that same week he began working tirelessly to get the army in shape for war with the United States.

In other words, the pretty lie that Lost Cause advocates use about Lee's Hamlet-like inner struggle over secession is simply not consistent with his actual conduct.  Refusing to serve in the US Army at the time would have been one thing, and that bad enough.  But to join the slaveowners revolt and agree to lead one of its most important armies is not the act of a man whose patriotism for his country, the United States, was hard to abandon.

Connelly is willing to credit Lee's decision to a real love of his native Virginia.  And civil wars, after all, can rapidly change the outlook and emotions of its participants.  Connelly believes his deterministic religious views may have led him to portray himself as having been deeply troubled by his decision to betray his country.  He even speculates on whether "Lee, perhaps subconsciously, viewed himself as a Southern Hamlet, destined by fate to live unhappily in a troublesome world."

It's certainly a more appealing image than that of a man who decided to become a military leader in a war to preserve slavery and kill large numbers of his fellow Americans in doing so.  But the latter is far more consistent with his actual conduct than any sentimentalized view of him agonizing over a decision that he evidently had no great difficulty in making.

This aspect of Lee's career is particularly important in light of the Lost Cause claims.  Lost Cause ideology emphasized that devotion to "states rights" in the abstract and to one's own particular state in particular were the real cause of the war.  That's not what the secession leaders were saying in 1860-1861 when secession actually occurred.  On the contrary, the defense of slavery was front and center of their appeal to other Southerners to join them in rebellion.  But the image of Lee as a tormented Hamlet, torn between his love of country and his love of his home state, fit well with the Lost Cause ideology that sought to promote "states rights" that would prevent the federal government from interfering with segregation and "Jim Crow" laws.  Or with official and unofficial violence directed against black citizens.

The postwar conciliator: Lee did publicly advocate reconciliation between the North and South after the war.  This aspect of his career allowed him to become admired - bizarrely enough - as a national hero.

But this aspect of Lee's career also has to be understood in the postwar context.  After the overthrow of the democratic Reconstruction governments in the South by force, violence and fraud in the latter half of the 1870s, there was indeed a kind of national reconciliation.  But it was primarily a reconciliation of Northern and Southern white people at the expense of not only the citizenship rights but basic human rights of African-Americans in the South.  Northern public opinion and the Northern political parties wouldaccept no continuation of slavery.  But they did accept the segregation regimes that were imposed in the South.  And the perspective promoted by men like Lee were part of the ideological justification for that.

This summary from the University of Houston's Digital History Project is a good capsule version of what happened:

In the 1870's, violent opposition in the South and the North's retreat from its commitment to equality, resulted in the end of Reconstruction. By 1876, the nation was prepared to abandon its commitment to equality for all citizens regardless of race. ...

As soon as blacks gained the right to vote, secret societies sprang up in the South, devoted to restoring white supremacy in politics and social life. Most notorious was the Ku Klux Klan, an organization of violent criminals that established a reign of terror in some parts of the South, assaulting and murdering local Republican leaders.

In 1871 and 1872, federal marshals, assisted by U. S. troops, brought to trial scores of Klansmen, crushing the organization. But the North's commitment to Reconstruction soon waned. Many Republicans came to believe that the South should solve its own problems without further interference from Washington. Reports of Reconstruction corruption led many Northerners to conclude that black suffrage had been a mistake. When anti-Reconstruction violence erupted again in Mississippi and South Carolina, the Grant administration refused to intervene.

The election of 1876 hinged on disputed returns from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, where Republican governments still survived. After intense negotiations involving leaders of both parties, the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, became president, while Democrats assumed control of the disputed Southern states. Reconstruction had come to an end.

It was not to be the last time that a disputed presidential election result in Florida was to have far-reaching effects on the future of the country.

Lee's legal position in the postwar period also should be kept in mind.  The Southern Rebels were widely regarded by Union supporters as traitors.  There was little sentiment for massive punishment of ordinary Confederate soldiers.  Butcertainly,senior officials in the Jefferson Davis administration and leading Confederate army officers, who had been responsible for so much death and destruction, could have been tried for treason and a variety of related crimes.   Whether the postwar treatment of former Rebel leaders was too mild is a very interesting question.  But the two leading traitors in the minds of the nation were Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, both of whom had their American citizenship formally removed.  (Both would be posthumosly restored by President Jimmy Carter.)

So Lee had a strong motive for publicly refraining from defending the Confederate cause, especially in the year immediately following the war, and also to publicly urge his fellow Southerners to gracefully accept defeat.  But Connelly points out that in private correspondence and conversations, which from a major Confederate figure like Lee may well have had more practical influences than any public speeches or statements, he was steadfast in his defense of secession and bitter against the North for their allegedly harsh treatment of fomer Rebels.  Lee was supportive of efforts to publicize a pro-Confederacy historiography of the Civil War:

Lee also shared the fear of other ex-Rebels that unless the Southern version of the crisis were published, the secession effort would be interpreted by hostile historians. He was not the "silent Lee" so often depicted by historians, the man counseling reticence. In quite human fashion he tried to encourage others to defend the South. He praised Albert Bledsoe's planned Southern Review as an organ to present the South to the American people "in an agreeable and convincing manner"; encouraged historian Edward Pollard to give "a full and true account" of the Confederate saga; and agreed with a Georgia admirer that "a truthful history" needed to be written. And to his cousin Cassius, Robert Lee expressed hope for "a true history" of the South's "defense of the rights," that "justice be done them." Lee's desire to justify secession was tied closely to his strong wish to write a history of the Army of Northern Virginia's exploits.

Although Lee collected materials for his own book, he had not prepared a manuscript by the time he passed away in 1870.  It's worth noting that the Edward Pollard who Lee encouraged to write "a full and true account"was the one who first popularized the phrase "the Lost Cause."

Lee's postwar decision to accept thepresidency of Washington College and to use his stature as a figure admired by most white Southerners to encourage education and economic reconstruction was a constructive and public-spirited contribution to the postwar South.  But no one should be under any illusion that Lee's efforts for national reconciliation included any public acknowledgement of how wrong he and his fellow Southerners were to secede from the Union and precipitate war.  Nor did he ask them to recognize how they ultimately brought disaster onto themselves and their country (the United States) by persisting in the sin of slavery.  Or to actively defend the rights of newly-enfranchised black citizens.  That kind of national reconciliation was not something in which Robert E. Lee was interested.

In Part 2, I'll continue with Connelly's book and his look at Lee as imagined in the Lost Cause mythology.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month post 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)

No comments: