It has taken a while, but it’s about time Robert E. Lee lost the Civil War. The South, of course, was defeated on the battlefield in 1865, yet the Lee legend — swaddled in myth, kitsch and racism — has endured even past the civil rights era when it became both urgent and right to finally tell the “Lost Cause” to get lost. Now it should be Lee’s turn. He was loyal to slavery and disloyal to his country — not worthy, even he might now admit, of the honors accorded him.
I confess to always being puzzled by the cult of Lee. Whatever his personal or military virtues, he offered himself and his sword to the cause of slavery. He owned slaves himself and fought tenaciously in the courts to keep them. He commanded a vast army that, had it won, would have secured the independence of a nation dedicated to the proposition that white people could own black people and sell them off, husband from wife, child from parent, as the owner saw fit. Such a man cannot be admired.
But he is. All over the South, particularly in his native Virginia, the cult of Lee is manifested in streets, highways and schools named for him. When I first moved to the Washington area, I used to marvel at these homages to the man. What was being honored? Slavery? Treason? Or maybe, for this is how I perceive him, no sense of humor? (Often, that is mistaken for wisdom.) I also wondered what a black person was supposed to think or, maybe more to the point, feel. Chagrin or rage would be perfectly appropriate.
I'm pretty puzzled by it, too.
I suspect the admiration of Lee probably stems from the 100+ years of grace awarded the South upon their military defeat, when a morally exhausted but commercially ambitious country turned its attention from war and bloodshed (and racial justice) to reconciliation among Whites and expansion. More specifically, Lee, being a "warrior", is more apt to be seen as "above the fray" and given reverence not afforded to other, more political Confederates such as Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens.
The nation's turn from war to reconciliation, at the expense of racial justice, is addressed in David Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. I'm a few chapters into it and recommend it heartily.
If anything, I find the respect afforded Lee by professional historians more puzzling than that of average citizens, particularly those in Virginia, who could be expected to be more generous to one of their state's ancestors.
At the same time, I'm not as irritated by the various signs and other monuments to Lee and other Confederates as I once was. The respect granted to "losers" in American history is in its own way, appropriate. I think it largely serves the interest of a pluralist society to allow for a wide range of "heros". For example, there are monuments and tributes, commercial and otherwise, to the various Native American leaders of the Old West (Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, etc) in places such as South Dakota, that serve to help educate Ameicans living long after of their lives and causes, leading us to question our own country's treatment, past and present, of the continent's native inhabitants. Many Americans living today no doubt have little sympathy for Indians or the historical preservation of their leaders. Nonetheless, we appropriately remind ourselves of these representatives of American life.
In the case of Lee in particular, it must be said that Lee was not tried for treason (nor really was anyone else from the Southern Confederacy). General Grant, among others, didn't wish to see Lee imprisoned or suffer politically or otherwise for his course of action, despite having fought against him for more than a year. So that his name adorns highways doesn't concern me too much. But it is high time that among our professional class that a more critical appraisal of the Confederal general is provided.