This is the second part of a discussion of Thomas Connelly's The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society by Thomas Connelly (1977). (See Part 1.)
Connelly provides a look at the development of Robert E. Lee's image in both professional history and popular symbolism. Apart from its specific relevance for Civil War history, his description of that processs is a fascinating description of how "remembering our history" or "coming to terms with our past" actually happens on a national level. HIs story of competing memorial assocations and historical organaizations and veterans' events and all thr rest is an entertaining read, for those of us who have some interest in such things.
What I want to focus on here is what Lee's postwar image came to be. Noting that the "image of Lee advanced by his early [postwar] admirers would actully change little in future times," he describes the main elements as follows (my summaries except where quotes are indicated):
(1) Lee was a man from a distinguished family who was essentially a perfect model of a son and husband.
(2) Choosing to side with the secessionists was an agonizing decision for Lee. "He hated both slavery and secession, and loved the Union more deeply than most. Yet his sense of duty to Virginia prevailed."
(3) His military leadership was incredibly brilliant. "Lee rarely - if ever - made a command error. Defeats were due to the sins of subordinates."
(4) The North overpowered Lee's armies by brute force and a willingness to incur huge losses.
(5) In the postwar period, Lee was a model of sensible leadership, working to reconcile the divided nation.
Connelly provides a very useful framework for looking at the life and accomplishments of Lee, a man whose life is even now an important ideological symbol:
Two things must be kept in mind when observing the postwar South's reaction to this image of Lee. Heroes are not made of nothing, and Robert Lee was a man of more sustance than many others. While Lee's military record will be discussed later, it is important here that he was superb general, and was regarded as such by many of his contemporaries. They also saw imas a man of lofty character, whose demeanor transcended the pettiness of many other men. Lee did not require a cult of admirers to establish his reputation.
But the cult existed, and transformed Lee into a virtual demigod. And because such men as Jubal Early and J. William Jones were themselves possessed of the Lost Cause mentality, the exaggerated image of Lee which they constructed provided needed rationales for a defeated South.
(I suppose we should note in fairness that Connelly's "heroes are not made of nothing remark" was a quarter century before George W. Bush appeared on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in his flight suit.)
Although Lee was greatly admired among Southerners during the war, hie "was not yet the primary hero symbol of the South" at the end of the war, writes Connelly. He had to share more of the adulation with others like Stonewall Jackson and P.G.T. Beauregard. Without trying to describe the facts and judgments at issues here, the following are particularly important for the "Lee cult's" image of their hero as a near-infallibile military commander:
(1) An emphasis on the strategic importance of the Virginia theater as far more critical than others.
(2) Attempts to exonerate Lee himself from responsibility for the disastrous Rebel defeat at Gettysburg.
(3) Efforts by Lee partisans to denigrate other Southern generals like Joe Johnston and Beauregard.
Because Lee's fame rested on his role as Rebel general, the glorification of Lee fits nicely with another aspect of Lost Cause ideology: the focus on the war itself. This very much affects popular understanding of the Civil War today. The war itself presents endless sources of fascination: divided loyalties, huge battles, high-stakes confrontations between memorable personalities on both sides, the excitement of emancipating the slaves, high diplomatic drama.
While the focus on the war itself is entirely understandable, what too often gets lost is an understanding of the politics leading up to the war. It's not unusual - in fact it's very common - for people with a high level of interest in and knowledge about the war itself to have a very limited knowledge of prewar politics.
And this is the gap in understanding through which the pseudohistorians and propagandists of the Lost Cause drive their pro-Confederate theories. When Lost Cause advocates recycle common pro-slavery arguments ("The plantation owners took care of slaves in old age and often gave faithful elderly slaves their liberty" [i.e., turned them out to fend for themselves when they were too old to do any work]) or hopelessly obscure factoids ("People in Oregon considered seceding" [Say what?]), those hearing them may sense something is wrong with the thinking, but are understandably left not knowing quite what it is that's so wrong. The most dramatic evidence of this is survey results showing that large numbers of Americans believe the Lost Cause notion that slavery was not a precipitating cause of the Civil War, a notion that in 1861 would have seemed completely unmoored from reality. It's not the only area in which many people today are uncomfortable with the "reality-based."
Connelly's book is important for contemporary discussions of the Civil War, because he carefully lays out the development of the Lee image in a way that helps us take a critical and realistic view of the general's career. It also shows how, even in the field of history-writing, the "reality-based" aspects of the world have a troublesome habit of intruding themselves.
(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month post 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)