Tuesday, 12 September 2017
Robert E. Lee: Answering His Critics
Written by Steve Byas
Confederate General Patrick Cleburne died many years before the rise of the Taliban and their efforts to destroy the monuments and symbols of their enemies. But Cleburne did accurately predict the Taliban-like efforts to alter the history of the Civil War.
“Surrender means that the history of this heroic struggle will be written by our enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern school teachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by all the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit subjects for derision.”
But Cleburne did not realize that the assault would target the common foundations of America, North and South, using the greatest heroes of the late Confederate States of America as a starting point to attack the Founding Fathers — such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
No person identified with the Confederacy has been more admired than General Robert Edward Lee. And yet, there are those Americans who, much in the spirit of the Taliban, have decided that the historical reputation of the late commander of the famed Army of Northern Virginia must be shredded. For example, I recall my recent trip to New Orleans to watch my Oklahoma Sooners play Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. During our vacation, my wife and I took a tour of the Big Easy on a double-decker bus. The tour guide haughtily noted that the Lee monument would soon be taken down, before proceeding to deliver a one-minute rant on the supposed evils of the general, charging that he was just some “slave-owning dude.”
When Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, both men were former slave-owners. Both had freed their slaves, expressing disdain for the institution. Yet, one man, Grant, graces the $50 Federal Reserve note, while the other, Lee, is seen as a fit object of scorn by those who wish to cast him as an evil man. Some go so far as to say that even Lee’s reputation as a great military leader is overrated.
This is despite Lee’s string of victories over numerically superior Union forces. His triumph at Chancellorsville, against a federal force twice his own, has been studied at West Point and other military schools across the nation. In the first Persian Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf used a version of Lee’s battle plan at Chancellorsville to destroy the Iraqi army. Lee was still winning victories over larger armies until the final months of the war.
Some have conceded that Lee was a brilliant military mind, while arguing that his performance at Gettysburg with the so-called Pickett’s Charge was a horrendous mistake. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20, but historian Phillip Thomas Tucker offers a convincing defense of Lee’s performance at Gettysburg in his recent book Pickett’s Charge.
“Endlessly derided by historians,” Tucker wrote, “Lee’s decision to unleash his attack at Gettysburg was his only realistic one because this was the Confederacy’s last chance to win the war in one decisive stroke. Contrary to today’s traditional view that Lee’s decision to attack the Union center-right … was the height of folly, the truth of Pickett’s Charge was altogether different. Quite simply, the attack was Lee’s best opportunity to reap a decisive success after July 2’s tactical opportunities had passed. Based on careful calculation (instead of the stereotypical view of a gambler’s recklessness), Lee correctly targeted the weakest point in Meade’s line, a weak spot distinguished by a copse of trees located at a high point along the open Cemetery Ridge.”
In short, “Lee correctly calculated in striking at exactly the right place and the right time, while utilizing a bold battle plan that was as brilliant as it was innovative.”
Tucker argues that if other military officers in Lee’s army (such as James Longstreet and Jeb Stuart) had performed as they should have, Lee’s army might very well have marched right into Washington, D.C., and dictated peace terms to President Abraham Lincoln.
But of course, the attacks upon Lee’s military leadership more likely are based upon the common misconceptions about the origins and purposes of the war itself. The case against honoring Lee seems to be that the Civil War was fought to abolish slavery, and since Lee was the most important military leader of the side that supposedly was fighting to “keep slavery,” no monuments should remain honoring his memory — even in his beloved Virginia.
Slavery was certainly a source of friction between the Northern and Southern sections of the country, contributing to the decision of seven Southern states — Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas — to secede from the Union. But one must look at other factors, as well, such as the tariff, which tended to help the economy of the industrialized North at the expense of the more agrarian South. In fact, it had almost caused the secession of South Carolina a generation earlier.
And secession was not just a “Southern idea.” Northern states, more than once, had threatened secession earlier in U.S. history, largely due to their resentment at the outsized influence of Virginia in the Union.
After seven states left the Union in late 1860 and early 1861, eight states where slavery remained a legal institution were still in the Union. If the war had really been fought to abolish slavery, one wonders why Lincoln did not call for an invasion of those eight states, as well.
But Lincoln did not call for the abolition of slavery when he asked for 75,000 volunteers to suppress what he termed a “rebellion” in seven states. Even after the war was more than a year old, Lincoln expressly told newspaperman Horace Greeley that he was not waging war to abolish slavery, but rather to save the Union. In the August 22, 1862 letter, Lincoln wrote, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Enlistments filled the ranks of the Union, made up of men who answered the call to “save the Union.” With the modern insistence that the war was waged to end slavery, this motivation is either largely forgotten, or dismissed as mere sentimentality.
This motivation — to save the Union — was grounded in the very reason the Union was created in 1776. The 13 British colonies united out of military necessity, knowing that the only way they could win their independence was through union. When Daniel Webster proclaimed on the floor of the Senate a generation before the Civil War the famous words, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” he did not need to explain himself. It was widely believed that the only way to maintain the experiment in liberty was through a union of like-minded states. Otherwise, foreign powers such as the British or the French could be tempted to pick them off one by one.
Lee opposed secession for his state of Virginia, while also opposing an invasion of the seven states that had chosen to leave the Union. He resigned from the army rather than participate in the forced subjugation of the seven seceded states.
Yet, when Lincoln made his call for volunteers, Virginia and other states were expected to produce the men that would invade the Deep South. This quickly precipitated the secession of four more slave states — Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas — states that had previously rejected secession. They did not secede to protect slavery, but rather because of Lincoln’s call for an invasion of fellow states. Three other states, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri — all slave states, did not secede, but did eventually provide soldiers for both sides. Again, had the war been fought to “end slavery,” one would think that they would have left the Union, as well.
After Virginia’s secession, Lee felt he had no choice but to offer his services to the Confederate States of America, which Virginia had joined. To Lee, this was his duty, and he once said duty was the most sublime word in the English language.
As the war dragged on, with Confederate troops under Lee and other brilliant military minds winning more battles than they lost, it began to look as though the Confederate States of America would truly become an independent nation. By the fall of 1862, France and Great Britain were poised to recognize this as a fact. Lincoln was desperate to “save the Union,” and took a desperate measure. He could have told the British that they should not recognize the independence of the Southern states because they had no right to secede from the Union, but that might have resulted in derision from the British, who could have just said, “Serves you right,” considering what had happened in 1776.
Both the French and the British had abolished slavery a few decades earlier, and undoubtedly Lincoln could have kept both countries from recognizing Southern independence if he would have made the war about slavery, rather than the legality of secession. But had he done so, he might have faced massive desertions from the Union army. More importantly, logic may have then necessitated the invasion of the four Union states where slavery was still legal.
Lincoln’s solution was to “thread the needle.” He issued an executive order, ending slavery in states “still in rebellion” on January 1, 1863, as a “war measure,” but leaving slavery untouched in those states still in the Union. Combined with the Union’s military success at Antietam in September 1862 in blocking General Lee’s invasion of Maryland, the British and the French decided to hold off in recognizing the Confederacy.
The reality is that Lincoln had no constitutional authority to end slavery anywhere, but his Emancipation Proclamation proposed to leave slavery untouched in areas that recognized his presidency, and end it where he had no troops to enforce it. Despite the inherent contradiction of the Emancipation Proclamation, it has led many today to believe that the war was fought to end slavery, and slavery was ended by it.
This assertion that the war was fought to end slavery has also slandered the hundreds of thousands of Confederate soldiers who fought in the war, with many people today damning their own ancestors as having fought to “keep their slaves.” The reality is that only a tiny minority of Confederate soldiers even owned any slaves, and almost none were fighting to save the ugly institution.
Copyright © 2017 The New American