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Debating Robert Lee

There is much debate over how people today should remember the legacy of the Confederacy and the people who were involved in it, including Robert E. Lee. In the past few years, Americans, especially in the South, have been debating whether or not it is correct to remember them through school names and statues. Also, they discuss how the recent rise of white supremacy and the racism that is present in American history should factor into these discussions.

Debating Robert Lee

An Old-Fashioned Soldier in a Modern War? Robert E. Lee as Confederate General Gary W. Gallagher Much of the literature on the Civil War portrays Robert E. Lee as a grand anachronism. In a conflict often characterized, whether accurately or not, as the first great modern war,1 the Confederate commander frequently appears as a soldier of considerable martial gifts who harkened back to an earlier time. Lee is cast as a man who thought of the struggle in terms of protecting his own state rather advancing the cause of the entire Confederacy, forged a personal bond with his soldiers reminiscent of feudal relationships, focused on winning setpiece battles without taking in the broader political and social landscape of a modern war, and failed to understood the implications of new weaponry such as the rifle-musket. Historians and other writers have employed an array of images that tie Lee to a knightly tradition and an agrarian age, presenting him as a localist for whom kinship and ancestral place meant everything. This Lee functions as the perfect foil to Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, Union generals typically described as forward-looking officers who recognized the necessity of waging a modern war that engulfed entire societies, plotted their strategy accordingly, and changed the nature of the conflict. Two very different groups of authors have nourished the anachronistic image of Lee as an old-fashioned general: those who admire him and intend their chivalric portrayal to be positive, and those more hostile who describe a commander out of 1 Historians are fond of debating whether the Civil War was a modem "total" war or a more limited nineteenth-century conflict. See, for example, Robert A. Daughty, Ira D. Gruber, et al., The American Civil War: The Emergence ofTotal Warfare (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1996); Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); James M. McPherson, "Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender," Gabor S. Boritt, ed., Lincoln, the War President: The Gettysburg Lectures (New York: Oxford, 1992); Mark A. Neely Jr., "Was the Civil War a Total War?," in Civil War History 37 (March 1991); Charles Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (New York: Knopf, 1991); and Daniel E. Sutherland, The Emergence ofTotal War (Fort Worth: Ryan Place Publishers, 1996) Civil War History, Vol. xlv No. 4 1999 by The Kent State University Press 296CIVIL WAR HISTORY touch with much ofthe military reality of his time. There is irony in the fact that these two groups became unlikely accomplices in creating a fascinatingly flawed interpretive tradition. Before making a case for Lee as a general well attuned to the realities of midnineteenth century warfare, it is necessary to review some of the literature that portrays him as a throwback to an earlier epoch. These works divide conveniently into two types: those that describe Lee as a magnificent and admirable anachronism, and those that more critically insist he was unwilling or unable to adapt to the demands of a mid-nineteenth-century modern war. Titles of the first type began to appear almost as soon as the war ended and have continued to be published ever since. Many of the early ones nestle comfortably within the Lost Cause literature. Former Confederates such as Jubal A. Early described Lee as an exemplar of the South's antebellum agrarian civilization , a devout Christian of great humanity whose patriarchal bond with his soldiers helped forge a military record to which all white Southerners could look with pride. Early delighted in contrasting Lee and his band of underfed and poorly equipped Confederates to a modern Unionjuggernaut dependent on technology and backed by unlimited material resources. In a famous address delivered in 1872, at Washington and Lee University on the anniversary of Lee's birth, Early spoke of the confrontation between his hero and Grant. "For nine long months was the unequal contest protracted by the genius ofone man, aided by the valor of his little force," stated Early. Lee finally surrendered "the mere ghost of the Army of Northern Virginia, which had been gradually worn down... 041b061a72

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