From Traitor to Saint — The Remarkable Rehabilitation of Robert E. Lee

MARBLE MAN - Following the Civil War, Robert E. Lee went from being Public Enemy No. 1 to an All-American hero. One historian wonders why. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MARBLE MAN – Following the Civil War, Robert E. Lee went from being Public Enemy No. 1 to an All-American hero. One historian wonders why. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The lives of his own soldiers evidently mattered less to him than his own degenerate belief in Confederate honor.”

This article first appeared on Cognoscenti, the views and opinions page of the WBUR, Boston's NPR News Radio.

This article first appeared on Cognoscenti, the views and opinions page of the WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Radio.

By Thomas J. Whalen

EVEN AS AMERICA MARKED the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination last month, it’s astonishing that so many people in this country still celebrate, dare I say, even venerate the memory of his greatest enemy.

No, I’m not talking about George McClellan, the egotistical — if surprisingly timid — Union general who squandered several battlefield opportunities to crush the Confederacy in the early stages of the American Civil War. The “Little Napoleon” once uncharitably compared Lincoln to “a well meaning baboon” and unsuccessfully ran against him as the Democratic nominee in the 1864 presidential election.

I am referring instead to Robert E. Lee, the erstwhile commander of the Army of Northern Virginia around whom a cottage industry of flattering biographies, films and television documentaries have arisen in recent years.

“He sought, always, to do his duty, to guide others into doing the same, and to submit humbly to God’s will,” writes Michael Korda in his 2014 critically acclaimed “Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee.”

It doesn’t seem to matter that Lee, who turned down an offer by Lincoln to command the Union army before the actual shooting started, was by definition a traitor and a terrorist. Indeed, he is responsible for more American deaths than any foreign or domestic enemy in our entire collective past, including Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden combined. A little too harsh an assessment, do you think? Not really when all the relevant facts are examined.

Despite having sworn an oath of allegiance to defend our nation and Constitution against all threats, Lee unceremoniously decided to resign his commission from the U.S. Army in 1861. He then proceeded to take up arms with the Confederacy, a loose collection of rebellious Southern states who were committed to preserving the enslavement of millions of African-Americans.

Lee, who turned down an offer by Lincoln to command the Union army before the actual shooting started, was by definition a traitor and a terrorist.

Of slavery, Lee was far from the progressive racial thinker many of his apologists have painted him to be. While acknowledging the barbaric practice was “a moral & political evil” destined to be eradicated, Lee, an unapologetic white supremacist, was in no great hurry to expedite that day of reckoning. After all, his family owned several slaves and he had a sizable financial stake in maintaining the “peculiar institution.” Nor was he averse to having slaves whipped for attempting to run away from his cruel and often dehumanizing treatment of them. “The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare  & lead them to better things,” he wrote his wife in 1856.

A dramatized prortrayal of Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox, 1965. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A dramatized prortrayal of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, 1965. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Lee attempted to lead his Confederate army to “better things” by waging a bloody and ultimately doomed insurgency against the federal government. Hundreds of thousands on both sides died as a result, including an astonishing 51,000 casualties during the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Still, sympathetic biographers dismiss such casualty figures as mere inconvenient truths. To them all that matters is that Lee was a military genius and a man of believed deep religious and moral conviction. As the noted historian Jay Winik has written, Lee “was a testament to sweet humour and loyalty and duty and the ultimate virtue of action.”

Yet how morally upstanding can someone truly be, insisting as Lee did in the final desultory days of the war in 1865, that his bedraggled and starving army fight on in the face of insurmountable military odds. “We have yet too many bold men to think of laying down our arms,” Lee claimed. “The enemy do not fight with our spirit, while our boys still do.”

You’d expect such dogged fanaticism from modern day members of ISIS, not from a supposedly sainted figure like Lee. The lives of his own soldiers evidently mattered less to him than his own degenerate belief in Confederate honour. “I would rather die a thousand deaths [than surrender],” he candidly confessed.

Alas, Lee was never held accountable for these regrettable command judgments after the war. Thanks to the magnanimous peace terms offered by the victorious Union general and future U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant, he was allowed to reenter civilian life and become president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University of Virginia. There, he spent his remaining days defending the “Lost Cause” and decrying legislative efforts to give blacks the right to vote. “My own opinion is that, at this time, they cannot vote intelligently,” he told a federal congressional committee in 1866.

In the end, the great historian and man of letters Henry Adams may have come closest to the truth when he observed the following about the defeated Confederate icon: “I think that Lee should have been hanged … it is always the good men who do the most harm in the world.”

He certainly got the first part right.


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Thomas J. Whalen is an associate professor of social science at Boston University. He is the author of such books as Kennedy Versus Lodge: The 1952 Massachusetts Senate Race (Northeastern University Press, 2000), A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2007), JFK and His Enemies: A Portrait of Power (Rowman & Littlefiled Publisher, 2014).

This article originally appeared on Cognoscenti, the ideas and opinion website of WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio news station. Visit them online here or follow them on Twitter.

4 comments for “From Traitor to Saint — The Remarkable Rehabilitation of Robert E. Lee

  1. 25 May, 2015 at 12:54 am

    So much wrong with this article. Lee was no terrorist. Calling him that is calumny.

    He can be classified as a traitor.But then people laud the traitors Ellsberg, Snowden, and Manning. Lee, like those men, acted as his conscious as fit.

    Secession was not explicitly forbidden(or permitted) by the Constitution. If you believe in the concept of self-determination(a founding principle of the United Nations) then the South had a right to leave the Union. The complicating factor here, of course, is slavery. The South’s chosen economic system and culture was a based on a morality monstrosity. It was rightly destroyed in the calamity of the Civil War. But the destruction of slavery was not why the North went to war. It was to keep the Union united, an arguably illegitimate cause if you listen to Lysander Spooner, the abolitionist anarchist.

    To blame Lee for those deaths conveniently removes the responsibility of the politicians who instigated the war and the Union generals gross misuse of men(Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor)

    Dogged fanaticism? Hardly. Lee explicitly refused to resort to guerrilla warfare even when his generals advocated for it.. He saw nothing but economic and social ruin if such tactics were employed. His willingness to lay down his arms–as painful as it was to him–was crucial for the re-unification of the country.

    I also had to question holding his will to fight against him. Was not Grant and Lincoln equally as stubborn in their refusal to quit in the North’s darkest hour? Would they not understand Lee’s pain in defeat? Most certainly so. It was precisely because he was cut of the same cloth that Grant was able to empathize with Lee at the end of the war.

    We also cannot ignore the fact that the North benefitted economically from the slave system and were complicit in it’s sustenance. The North has no moral authority in this regard.

    This is a terribly unfair and biased article written by a professor who has purposefully ignored inconvenient aspects of Lee’s career in order to fire a broadside into Lee. This isn’t history. It’s an assassination.

  2. Steiner
    25 May, 2015 at 2:29 am

    Strange I thought the man most responsible for the deaths of 700,000 Americans was the jumped up lawyer who couldn’t concern himself with the fact that the Constitution was ratified with the stipulation granted to three states and endorsed by all, that they could leave the Union for any reason.

    Well a Union held by force of bayonets and war crimes is to be expected from those who cannot recognize true greatness.

  3. Jim Fleming
    8 June, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    wahlen,correct me if i am wrong. but were not most of the slave ships based in the New England states. And I guess W.Churchill should have given up during the dark days of ww2
    YOU ARE AN IMBECILE because he to faced nsurmountable odds.

  4. John
    10 September, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    This article is ridiculous, and very poorly written. Before the war it was common knowledge that secession was the right of any state.
    Henry Adams was a fool. There were some generals worthy of hanging for crimes against humanity their names are Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S Grant.

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