[Marxism] The Making and the Breaking of the Legend of Robert E. Lee

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 17 12:36:24 MDT 2017

NY Times Sunday Book Review, Sept. 17 2017
The Making and the Breaking of the Legend of Robert E. Lee

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 

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 

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 

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.”

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