Robert E. Lee Loses Again

Even as his statue comes down, Robert E. Lee still has fans like Trump who are willing to overlook his faults

Robert E. Lee, like many of his Confederate comrades, was better at fighting the war of reputation in the history books than the actual military contests of the battlefield. In defeat, Lee worked diligently to burnish his reputation. He thereby planted the seeds for the Lost Cause myth that consoled the white South. The legacy of Lee can still be seen in the innumerable statues and memorials to the Confederacy that still litter America.

If the war of reputation continues posthumously, then the taking down of the large bronze statue of Lee in Richmond, Virginia is a significant defeat. The erection of the statue in 1890 was inextricably linked to the rise of Jim Crow: it was constructed in a white only neighbourhood as a marker of the strengthening of the colour line. The push, over many decades, to dismantle the statue has been equally tied to the Civil Rights movement.

Some are still fans of Lee and the statue. In a statement, Donald Trump lamented: “Just watched as a massive crane took down the magnificent and very famous statue of ‘Robert E. Lee On His Horse’ in Richmond, Virginia. It has long been recognized as a beautiful piece of bronze sculpture.” The former president added, “If only we had Robert E. Lee to command our troops in Afghanistan, that disaster would have ended in a complete and total victory many years ago. What an embarrassment we are suffering because we don’t have the genius of a Robert E. Lee!”

Even for Trump, this is an exceptionally idiotic statement. In its weirdness it calls to mind the old Saturday Night Live sketch, “What if Superman Grew Up in Germany Instead of the United States?” (Spoiler alert: the Nazis almost win World War II with the help of Uberman until the United States develops the Krypton bomb).

In any case, while Lee won a few tactical victories (helped by the fact he often fought on home field in Virginia), he was far from being the genius portrayed by Trump. But lots of myths still circulate about Lee, thanks to the adept propaganda campaign he and his compatriots waged.

As Adam Serwer once noted in The Atlantic, “Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.” About the myth that Lee was a kind slaveowner who wanted to emancipate his slaves, Serwer wrote, “Lee had beaten or ordered his own slaves to be beaten for the crime of wanting to be free; he fought for the preservation of slavery; his army kidnapped free black people at gunpoint and made them unfree—but all of this, he insisted, had occurred only because of the great Christian love the South held for black Americans.” 

The cult of Lee is mainly in the service of Lost Cause mythologizing, but there is also a class component. Military analysts love to exalt aristocratic leaders even when they lose: not just Lee but also Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian. Or when they have win but have checkered careers (as with George Patton and Douglas MacArthur).

All of these men were avatars of the military caste, possessing a regal bearing. They carried themselves with panache. They suggested a whole way of being governed by a warrior’s code distinct from the grubbiness of modernity.

These aristocratic warriors stood in contrast to the more plebeian generals who lacked style even if they actually have won more battles or been more important to victory: Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Georgy Zhukov, Võ Nguyên Giáp.

About Lee, one is tempted to give the final word to the man who defeated him, Grant, who wrote in 1865: “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.”

Equally eloquent is W.E.B. Du Bois’ rebuke of the “canonization” of Lee, written in 1928. As Du Bois noted, Lee “followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame, because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. He surrendered not to Grant, but to Negro Emancipation.”

Du Bois ends by making a crucial distinction between military valour and moral courage:

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. It is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel – not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.

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