Thursday, April 21, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 21: Robert E. Lee and the war

Alan Nolan first became prominent as a Civil War historian - technically, he might be considered an "amateur" historian, since he's an attorney by training - with his Lee Considered (1991), which challenged the traditional Lost Cause image of Lee, which was pretty much the most prominent version used by Lee's biographers.

I suppose we could call it a "revisionist" biography.  But "revisionist" history has always had a mixed meaning, with some implication of being an eccentric or ideology-driven change to established historical understandings.  In the more technical sense, "revisionist" shouldn't really imply a negative judgment.  If new documentary evidence on a topic or an individual biographical subject is found, revising the traditional view may be perfectly sensible.  In the case of Lee, an ahistorical ideological view had actually shaped the Lee biographical tradition.  So a more reality-based version, even without new document discoveries, would be "revisionist" in relation to that tradition.

But the label is still problematic, maybe even more so now.  The Holocaust-denier fanatics prefer to call themselves Holocaust "revisionists," with a self-styled aura of revising a false view of history.  Actually, they are spinning a thoroughly dishonest pseudohistory based on anti-Semitic ideology.  But even criticis of Holocaust-denier pseudohistory sometimes use the label "Holocaust revisionists" to refer to them.  And with far-right groups making much greater use of neo-Confederate symbolism in the last decade or so, they are operating in a similar pseudohistory netherworld as the Holocaust deniers.  So "revisionism" may be too problematic a term for use in Civil War-related history.

Lee's alleged torment over accepting secession

One of the key events in Lee's life to which Nolan devotes special attention is his decision to accept a military post in the Confederacy.  He traces the chronology of that event carefully, and quotes extensively from Lee's contemporary letters to describe his attitudes about the developing crisis.  In the Lost Cause version, Lee agonized over his decision to side with the Confederacy against the United States, but his honorable devotion to his native state of Viriginia persuaded him.  But Nolan's reconstruction of events presents a very different picture.

Lee returned from his US Army post in Texas to Virginia, arriving in Alexandria on March 1, 1861.  He met with the Army's chief general Winfield Scott soon afterward, and they discussed what role Lee would play in the military crisis over secession.  Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, and on March 16 he promoted Lee from lieutanant colonel to full colonel.  Lee formally accepted the promotion on March 30.

On April 18, Lincoln adviser Francis Blair met with Lee in Washington to let Lee know that Lincoln was offering the command of the federal army being raised to oppose secession to Lee.  As Nolan points out, the Virginia legislature's decision to secede was on April 17.  On April 20, Lee sent his letter of resignation from the US Army by mail.  "Save in defence of my native State," he wrote, "I never desire again to draw my sword."  Lee's resignation was formally accepted on April 25.  As Nolan writes, "Between the posting of his resignation on April 20 and its acceptance on April 25, Lee drew his sword with marked alacrity."

On April 21, Virginia's Excutive Council voted to recommend to the governor of their now Rebel state that Lee be offered commands of Virginia's armed forces.  Lee accepted Virginia's commission on April 22.  By May 14, Virginia's forces were formally part of the Confederacy and Lee received a commission as a brigadier general in the army of the Confederate States of America.  Nolan makes a circumstantial but convincing case that Lee was negotiating with the Virginia Rebels for such an outcome well before the formal offers were made.

All this would be fairly unremarkable, except that the Lost Cause legend of Lee insisted that he was an opponent of slavery and that he reluctantly accepted a Rebel command, perhaps even believing the defeat of the Confederacy was a foredoomed outcome.  The actual record of his actions make this alleged reluctance unlikely in the extreme.

Lee on the offense

Nolan also gives attention to the Lost Cause praise for Lee's aggressive military strategy.  As I mentioned in an ealier post with reference to an separate essay of Nolan's, there is good reason to believe that a defensive strategy was far more appropriate to the political, military and economic situation of the Confederacy.  For the North to ahieve its war aim of preserving the Union and later of destroying slavery, it had to conquer the South.  For the South to achieve its war aim of independence, it had only to survive.  Nolan writes in Lee Considered:

When all is said and done, the commentators' rationalizations of Lee's most daring offensive thrusts seem contrived. Although these commentators are aware that Lee's efforts were unsuccessful, costly, and destructive to the South's chances of victory in the war, they are committed to the Lee tradition and seem to strain to absolve him. If simple logic rather than complicated and contradictory rationalization prevails, these offensives can be seen to fall readily into the pattern of Lee's mistaken grand strategy, the grand strategy of attack.

Still other arguments have been put forward in behalf of Lee's leadership. Some who admire his performance argue that he in fact pursued a defensive grand strategy but did so in the form of the previously noted "offensive defensive," at a distance from Richmond. [Lee biographer Douglas Southall] Freeman, among others, presents this argument. As has been emphasized, a defensive grand strategy may involve reasonable offensive operational strategy and tactics. But regardless of the general validity of this strategic concept, as applied to Lee the "offensive defensive" is a sham. The facts at hand reveal a general who specifically stated that military defeat of the Federals to "drive the armies of the enemy from the field" was what the South had to achieve in order to win the war, who consistently advocated the attack and undertook movements that were designed for giving battle or foreseeably led to battle, and who until his army was decimated and penned up in the Richmond defenses persisted in using his forces offensively. The contention that Lee's strategy entailed an "offensive defensive" is not credible in the face of the facts: the facts identify a general who believed that the offense was the appropriate grand strategy.

Lee and surrendering the lost cause

Since a big part of the Lost Cause ideology is about celebrating what portrayed as a noble but doomed cause, it is consistent with that to admire Robert E. Lee for his courage and fortitude and dedication in carrying on, even after he recognized irrevocably that the Confederacy would lose the war militarily.  For Douglas Southall Freeman and other Lee admirers, this aspect of his leadership showed more of his greatness.  Because he was such a preeminent figure in the Confedeeracy, in the Lost Cause retelling at least, Lee's willingness to continue on was a great and inspirational factor in persuading the Confederate army and the public to continue on with the war effort.

Nolan makes a very good point about Lee's conduct in this regard, with careful consideration of various possible reasons for his actions.  If Lee knew the war had become a clearly doomed effort, was it not his responsibility as a commander and as a human being to surrender long before he did?  As commander of the Army of Virginia, he had the authority to do so.  And, in fact it was that authority he exercised at Appomatox on April 9, 1865.  Nolan writes:

Real people were dying in those last months of the war.  And major destruction to the South was continuing.  Nolan directs his analysis in Lee Considered on this point of Lee's responsibility for surrender not on giving a definitive answer to the factual question of exactly which point in time Lee recognized that the cause was militarily truly lost, but rather on the maudlin, foolish and ethically bizarre celebration of Lee's actions in Lost Cause mythology:

Readers may form their own opinion as to the time - twenty, fifteen, ten, or five months before the end - when Lee's personal responsibility became an imperative. That responsibility was not in fact assumed by Lee until April 9, 1865. The issue of Lee's personal responsibility cannot be escaped by romanticizing his continuation of the war. As a responsible actor in the events of the war, Lee must be fully subject to history's gaze and must be accountable for his acts.

Nolan's framing of this particular issue is valuable:

In reality, military leadership is not just a private or personal activity. Nor is a military leader's sense of honor and duty simply a private and personal impulse. Military leadership and the leader's sense of duty are of concern not only to the leader but also to the followers and to the enemy, ordinary people, many of whom die, are maimed, or otherwise suffer. In short,  military  leadership involves responsibility for what happens to other persons. There is, therefore, no matter how sincerely a leader may believe in the justice of a cause, a difference between undertaking or continuing military leadership in a cause that the leader feels can succeed and undertaking or continuing such leadership in a cause that the leader feels is hopeless. In the latter circumstance, the leader knows that his order "once more into the breach" will kill and injure many of his soldiers as well as the enemy's and also realizes that his order and these deaths and injuries are without, in [Clifford] Dowdey's phrase, "any military purpose." Lacking a military purpose, they also have no political purpose. Thus they are without any rational purpose.

To restate this point, Lost Cause advocates celebrated Lee's continuing the fighting and killing and destruction in a war he had known for some time to be hopeless.  I have to wonder how this kind of muddle-headed thinking may have influenced the notion that victory in later wars in which the costs far exceeded any probable benefit - the Vietnam War and the Iraq War come to mind - was predominately a matter of Will.  It's not a legacy that serves the country well.

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

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