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In the Band’s popular song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” an ex-Confederate soldier refers to Robert E. Lee as “the very best.” It is difficult to think of another song that mentions a general by name. But Lee has always occupied a unique place in the national imagination. The ups and downs of his reputation reflect changes in key elements of Americans’ historical consciousness — how we understand race relations, the causes and consequences of the Civil War and the nature of the good society.
Born in 1807, Lee was a product of the Virginia gentry — his father a Revolutionary War hero and governor of the state, his wife the daughter of George Washington’s adopted son. Lee always prided himself on following the strict moral code of a gentleman. He managed to graduate from West Point with no disciplinary demerits, an almost impossible feat considering the complex maze of rules that governed the conduct of cadets.
While opposed to disunion, when the Civil War broke out and Virginia seceded, Lee went with his state. He won military renown for defeating (until Gettysburg) a succession of larger Union forces. Eventually, he met his match in Ulysses S. Grant and was forced to surrender his army in April 1865. At Appomattox he urged his soldiers to accept the war’s outcome and return to their homes, rejecting talk of carrying on the struggle in guerrilla fashion. He died in 1870, at the height of Reconstruction, when biracial governments had come to power throughout the South.
But, of course, what interests people who debate Lee today is his connection with slavery and his views about race. During his lifetime, Lee owned a small number of slaves. He considered himself a paternalistic master but could also impose severe punishments, especially on those who attempted to run away. Lee said almost nothing in public about the institution. His most extended comment, quoted by all biographers, came in a letter to his wife in 1856. Here he described slavery as an evil, but one that had more deleterious effects on whites than blacks. He felt that the “painful discipline” to which they were subjected benefited blacks by elevating them from barbarism to civilization and introducing them to Christianity. The end of slavery would come in God’s good time, but this might take quite a while, since to God a thousand years was just a moment. Meanwhile, the greatest danger to the “liberty” of white Southerners was the “evil course” pursued by the abolitionists, who stirred up sectional hatred. In 1860, Lee voted for John C. Breckinridge, the extreme pro-slavery candidate. (A more moderate Southerner, John Bell, carried Virginia that year.)
Lee’s code of gentlemanly conduct did not seem to apply to blacks. During the Gettysburg campaign, he did nothing to stop soldiers in his army from kidnapping free black farmers for sale into slavery. In Reconstruction, Lee made it clear that he opposed political rights for the former slaves. Referring to blacks (30 percent of Virginia’s population), he told a Congressional committee that he hoped the state could be “rid of them.” Urged to condemn the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorist violence, Lee remained silent.
By the time the Civil War ended, with the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, deeply unpopular, Lee had become the embodiment of the Southern cause. A generation later, he was a national hero. The 1890s and early 20th century witnessed the consolidation of white supremacy in the post-Reconstruction South and widespread acceptance in the North of Southern racial attitudes. A revised view of history accompanied these developments, including the triumph of what David Blight, in his influential book “Race and Reunion” (2001), calls a “reconciliationist” memory of the Civil War. The war came to be seen as a conflict in which both sides consisted of brave men fighting for noble principles — union in the case of the North, self-determination on the part of the South. This vision was reinforced by the “cult of Lincoln and Lee,” each representing the noblest features of his society, each a figure Americans of all regions could look back on with pride. The memory of Lee, this newspaper wrote in 1890, was “the possession of the American people.”
Reconciliation excised slavery from a central role in the story, and the struggle for emancipation was now seen as a minor feature of the war. The Lost Cause, a romanticized vision of the Old South and Confederacy, gained adherents throughout the country. And who symbolized the Lost Cause more fully than Lee?
This outlook was also taken up by the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers who idealized the slave South as a bastion of manly virtue in contrast to the commercialism and individualism of the industrial North. At a time when traditional values appeared to be in retreat, character trumped political outlook, and character Lee had in spades. Frank Owsley, the most prominent historian among the Agrarians, called Lee “the soldier who walked with God.” (Many early biographies directly compared Lee and Christ.) Moreover, with the influx of millions of Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe alarming many Americans, Lee seemed to stand for a society where people of Anglo-Saxon stock controlled affairs.
Historians in the first decades of the 20th century offered scholarly legitimacy to this interpretation of the past, which justified the abrogation of the constitutional rights of Southern black citizens. At Columbia University, William A. Dunning and his students portrayed the granting of black suffrage during Reconstruction as a tragic mistake. The Progressive historians — Charles Beard and his disciples — taught that politics reflected the clash of class interests, not ideological differences. The Civil War, Beard wrote, should be understood as a transfer of national power from an agricultural ruling class in the South to the industrial bourgeoisie of the North; he could tell the entire story without mentioning slavery except in a footnote. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of mostly Southern historians known as the revisionists went further, insisting that slavery was a benign institution that would have died out peacefully. A “blundering generation” of politicians had stumbled into a needless war. But the true villains, as in Lee’s 1856 letter, were the abolitionists, whose reckless agitation poisoned sectional relations. This interpretation dominated teaching throughout the country, and reached a mass audience through films like “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Klan, and “Gone With the Wind,” with its romantic depiction of slavery. The South, observers quipped, had lost the war but won the battle over its history.
As far as Lee was concerned, the culmination of these trends came in the publication in the 1930s of a four-volume biography by Douglas Southall Freeman, a Virginia-born journalist and historian. For decades, Freeman’s hagiography would be considered the definitive account of Lee’s life. Freeman warned readers that they should not search for ambiguity, complexity or inconsistency in Lee, for there was none — he was simply a paragon of virtue. Freeman displayed little interest in Lee’s relationship to slavery. The index to his four volumes contained 22 entries for “devotion to duty,” 19 for “kindness,” 53 for Lee’s celebrated horse, Traveller. But “slavery,” “slave emancipation” and “slave insurrection” together received five. Freeman observed, without offering details, that slavery in Virginia represented the system “at its best.” He ignored the postwar testimony of Lee’s former slave Wesley Norris about the brutal treatment to which he had been subjected. In 1935 Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography.
That same year, however, W. E. B. Du Bois published “Black Reconstruction in America,” a powerful challenge to the mythologies about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction that historians had been purveying. Du Bois identified slavery as the fundamental cause of the war and emancipation as its most profound outcome. He portrayed the abolitionists as idealistic precursors of the 20th-century struggle for racial justice, and Reconstruction as a remarkable democratic experiment — the tragedy was not that it was attempted but that it failed. Most of all, Du Bois made clear that blacks were active participants in the era’s history, not simply a problem confronting white society. Ignored at the time by mainstream scholars, “Black Reconstruction” pointed the way to an enormous change in historical interpretation, rooted in the egalitarianism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and underpinned by the documentary record of the black experience ignored by earlier scholars. Today, Du Bois’s insights are taken for granted by most historians, although they have not fully penetrated the national culture.
Inevitably, this revised view of the Civil War era led to a reassessment of Lee, who, Du Bois wrote elsewhere, possessed physical courage but not “the moral courage to stand up for justice to the Negro.” Even Lee’s military career, previously viewed as nearly flawless, underwent critical scrutiny. In “The Marble Man” (1977), Thomas Connelly charged that “a cult of Virginia authors” had disparaged other Confederate commanders in an effort to hide Lee’s errors on the battlefield. James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” since its publication in 1988 the standard history of the Civil War, compared Lee’s single-minded focus on the war in Virginia unfavorably with Grant’s strategic grasp of the interconnections between the eastern and western theaters.
Lee’s most recent biographer, Michael Korda, does not deny his subject’s admirable qualities. But he makes clear that when it came to black Americans, Lee never changed. Lee was well informed enough to know that, as the Confederate vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, declared, slavery and “the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man” formed the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy; he chose to take up arms in defense of a slaveholders’ republic. After the war, he could not envision an alternative to white supremacy.
What Korda calls Lee’s “legend” needs to be retired. And whatever the fate of his statues and memorials, so long as the legacy of slavery continues to bedevil American society, it seems unlikely that historians will return Lee, metaphorically speaking, to his pedestal.
[Eric Foner is the author of “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history. His most recent book is “Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History. Essays From The Nation.” ]