While the doc did touch on some of Lee’s shadow material (like being a violent slave owner quick to the lash) it mostly settled in on a lot of marble polishing. Once again, another opportunity to examine Lee’s feet of clay moves by. As bad as the PBS bow to the myth of Lee was, the discussion in the thread was great fun. I thought the idea from rickstersherpa to have a documentary comparing Robert E. Lee to George Henry Thomas was brilliant. That is something that I would like to see. I bet the story of these two Virginian Civil War Generals and the very different paths they took would make a great book as well. Thomas was by far a better General than Lee and there are many who argue that he was the best that either side produced during the war. That discussion was a fun part of the thread.
Now in my post I started this whole “who is the best general” when I said that Lee was the South’s best General and I further opened the door when I said of Lee that “he was not the best American General ever or even of his time–that honor would have to go to Grant.”.
I think that my praise of Lee as the South’s best General was more rhetorical than factual. A very strong case could be made for some of the others. Lee is the most over-rated figure in American history and I regret letting the myth of him seep into my prose. As for Grant, I still think he was the best General in the War, but the case for Thomas and Sherman are also strong. Sheridan and Farragut deserve a mention as do a few others, but I think that the North ended up with better leadership than the South ever had and that is why the traitors lost. And when one compares Lincoln and his Cabinet to Davis and his it is clear that the North just out thought and out fought the South on almost every level.
And yet, it is the Confederate traitors who are celebrated and the Union heroes who are dissed and forgotten. Such is the strength of the Lost Cause myth and white supremacy in American Culture. Perhaps the coming Sesquicentennial will offer fresh opportunities to relegate these myths to the dustbin of history where they belong. One can hope.
The “best General ever” thread of discussion brought in a few other names including an interesting discussion about Rommel. And if we want to discuss the whole “best General ever” thing–then I think the honors would have to go to Chinggis Khaan (or as he is known in the west, Genghis Khan). The introduction to Jack Weatherford’s excellent book on the Mongal leader (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World) describes Temujin’s accomplishments in American terms:
In American terms, the accomplishment of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by the sheer force of personality, charisma, and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents. On every level and from any perspective, the scale and scope of Genghis Khan’s accomplishments challenge the limits of imagination and tax the resources of scholarly explanation.
If one wants to open the field of play to all recorded human history, it would be hard to top Genghis Khan as a General.
All of this should make for a fine bit of over-night chatter.