This Day (Lee the Redeemer Edition)

Published:January 19, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1806 or 1807, Robert Edward Lee was born at Stratford in Westmoreland County, the youngest son of Henry Lee III and Ann Hill Carter Lee. We have already indicated this week the ways in which Lee’s legacy has been long and troubled. The journalist and blogger James Fallows piles on, posting this letter from a United States Army officer:

Y’know, when I was growing up the “Solid South” was still a Democratic stronghold.  The whole region seems to bitch whomever depends on it.  But somebody ought to do a sociology Ph.D. on the love the US Army has for the Confederacy.

I drove in this morning behind a huge dualie with a rear windshield lovingly painted with a waving Confederate battle flag and an ornate “CSA” lettered across it.  Makes me want to throttle someone.  I remember the visiting officers’ quarters at Fort Sam Houston had a painting of General Lee and his fellows riding home from war — I’d look at it and think, yeah, they just shot a bunch of _us_.  It’s creepy, but there’s an awful lot of Confederate stuff on and around military bases.

For that matter, there are bases named for Confederates: Fort Lee, of course, and Fort Bragg, and Fort Hood … But Lee’s legacy is more complicated than that, as our yet-to-be-published Lee in Memory entry makes clear:

During his own life, Lee modeled himself after the courtly and self-controlled George Washington and cultivated a sense of himself as a character in a drama and a prisoner of fate. After his death, Lee was less likely to be branded a traitor; instead, he became a symbol of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war, transformed into a crucial agent of sectional reconciliation. The Civil War, according to the Lost Cause, was not about slavery but about states’ rights and, ultimately, the honor and bravery of white soldiers on both sides. In this regard, Lee served the needs not just of the Confederacy or of the South, but of all America. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s encouraged historians to engage a broader social and political canvas when writing about Lee, and this has led some scholars to challenge traditional conclusions about Lee’s significance and meaning. Like Washington, Lee is the seminal figure in a transformational moment, but of a different sort. He is the symbol of a vision that failed, and yet also the redeemer of a cause that has lived a long and often tragic afterlife.

Why tragic? This could serve as Exhibit A.

IMAGES: Left: General Robert E. Lee (2010) by Zach Franzen; top right: detail from postcard image of Stratford Hall (National Park Service); bottom right: a Chevy truck emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag

Discussion

7 Comments on “This Day (Lee the Redeemer Edition)”

  1. Marc

    I don’t think a true Yankee will ever fully understand Southern pride. Likewise, I’m not so sure a true Southerner truly understands Texas pride or California pride. But one thing is clear… most Southerners I know don’t give a damn about Yankee pride. I don’t think it is on a personal level… I think the South just resents having been invaded and ruthlessly devastated. Remember the Alamo.

  2. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Thanks for the response, Marc. I think perhaps you assume too much about me. I’m not sure what a “true Yankee” is and I don’t have anything I’d call “Yankee pride” — although if I did, I would certainly not require you to “give a damn” about it! I do have a somewhat irrational pride in my native Iowa, and I root for the Hawkeyes for better and, more often, for worse.

    That said, this post is not intended to criticize anyone with “Southern pride,” whatever that may mean. But I think there is a tendency for people who claim “Southern pride,” as you do, to define the South too narrowly. The Confederacy was not the entire South, for starters, and it was not supported by all those who lived within its borders. And many African Americans in today’s South simply don’t revere the memory of Robert E. Lee or the Confederate battle flag. They, too, get to be “true Southerners,” don’t they?

  3. Marc

    I don’t assume anything about you… the article refers to a blogger and an Army officer and speaks of “Solid South” etc. and the officer’s apparent offense of “creepy” Confederate icons. A true Yankee finds Southerness “creepy”. I can understand your Iowa pride as you can understand my Texas pride… its good that Iowa never invaded Texas tho’, otherwise we might could have an issue. Why the race baiting?

  4. Tom Wolfe

    It is hard for me to muster any great admiration for Lee, an active supporter of one of the cruelest and most humanly degrading systems in human history. We certainly would not want Germans or Russians today to esteem Hitler and Stalin the way so many Americans continue to elevate Lee, yet his cause was equally appalling. I join with that army vet who is upset at the garish displays of Confederate flags sometimes displayed, even in the North. Has history taught us nothing?

  5. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    My apologies for making assumptions. Your comment wasn’t clear. However, you still haven’t explained what a “true Yankee” is or why you must claim that “a true Yankee finds Southernness ‘creepy.'” And while we’re at it, what is “Southernness”? And, by citing the letter-writer quoted by Fallows as a “true Yankee,” are you meaning that even someone who grow up in the South can be a “true Yankee”? I’m confused!

  6. Marc

    Mr Tom… It matters not to me if you have any admiration for Lee at all… much less “great” admiration. I honestly can’t fathom why you equate the late General to Hitler and Stalin unless you also equate the war for Southern independence with National Socialism or Communism. I find that odd. Along that train of thought however I would consider Sherman’s march to the sea rather Nazi-like.

    Mr Brendan… It was not my reference to “creepy” it was in the article quoted from the Army vet. He also used the term “us” (I assume he meant NOT Southern but I don’t want to put words in his mouth). Yankeeness and Southerness (to coin phrases) are states of mind. I think it possible for someone to grow up in the South and assume a state of mind in sympathy to the Yankee “cause”. In a historical sense, I would consider them to be a Damn Yankee. And vice-verse of course for those growing up in the North and having sympathies for the Southern “cause”. Its rather like the difference between a modern Conservative and a Progressive.

    Do either of you seriously think that the Civil War was fought strictly over the issue of slavery and that anyone (such as myself) who might mention State’s Rights is just ipso facto a racist Craker that pines for the good old days of Hitler?

  7. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Marc, I’ll end my comments here. I do seriously think that the Civil War was fought over slavery and that states’ rights happened to be a convenient casus belli, just as the power of the federal government had been convenient in the decades prior, when slaveholders needed to defend their institution. For you to argue otherwise does not make you “a racist Craker,” as you put it. But your definition of “Southernness” as a state of mind makes no sense and doesn’t really further the conversation, at least where the history is concerned. One last thing: the “us” in the letter quoted above referred (I think) to the United States of America and not to any “Yankee” or “Southern” states of mind that you imagine.

    Thanks again for the comments. All the best …

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