In the wake of Richmond, VA removing the monument statue to Confederate General Robert E Lee this week, Trump decided to do one of his favorite things: issue a stupid statement rooted in his gleeful ignorance of just about everything. In this case he managed to max out the stupidity in regard to not only why the statue was put up in the first place, why it is coming down, but also why the US was unable to achieve a successful battlefield termination in Afghanistan. Trump’s statement, of course, has led to a tremendous amount of hot takes on Lee, on Confederate memorials that aren’t on Civil War battlefields, the Confederacy, and just about anything and everything in the US of 2021.
As a result of what I do professionally, I have a few thoughts regarding Lee.
The first is we don’t actually know a lot about Robert E Lee. Before everyone asks if I’ve lost the plot given all of the biographies, military histories, popular histories, historical novels, etc where he is either the singular focus or one of the major foci of the research and analysis, there’s a reason we know very little about Robert E Lee. Specifically, his descendants have restricted a significant amount of his professional and personal writings and those of his immediate family. Critical portions of his journals, notes, diaries, and correspondence have never been properly archived and made available to researchers, as have those portions of his wife’s and children’s concerning him. They’re not available to historians of any type, nor are they available to students of strategy or leadership or the Profession of Arms. As Glenn W LaFantasie, the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University, recounted in 2011:
It was during the late 1980s that I first encountered how protective the Lee descendants are about their great ancestor. Having gained some previous experience on some historical editing projects, I gave a great deal of thought to the possibility of initiating a Lee Papers project. In those days, I was working in Washington, D.C., and I learned that Lee’s granddaughter, Mary Custis Lee deButts, lived in Upperville, a tony little village in Virginia horse country, not far from the nation’s capital. So I wrote her a lengthy letter spelling out my plans and asking only for her endorsement of my efforts. A couple of weeks went by with no answer, and then those weeks turned into more than a month. I decided to call her, but that phone call proved to be one of the most bizarre I’ve ever had as a historian.
To the best of my recollection, the telephone conversation went something like this: She answered the phone, I explained who I was and mentioned my letter, and she said abruptly, “We are never, I repeat, never, going to let those papers out of the family. They are safe in a bank vault. I don’t even have them here. No one is ever going to see them.” She was polite enough not to hang up on me, but the conversation did not last more than a couple of minutes. It was, of course, the first clue I had that the Lee descendants were in possession of documents relating to Robert E. Lee that no one outside the family knew about.
As it turned out, my plans for a Lee Papers project never got off the ground. Since then, other historians have also attempted to launch such a project and, for various reasons, have failed. When deButts died in 1994, at the age of 94, I figured that the letters in the vault had been passed on to a trustworthy next-of-kin — someone who would also take the Lee family secrets to the grave.
Fast forward to 2002, eight years after deButts’s death. On Nov. 27, the Washington Post reported that after more than 80 years following the death of Robert E. Lee’s daughter, Mary Custis Lee, two steamer trunks full of her papers had been “found” in a bank vault in Alexandria, Va. The trunks “came to light” after E. Hunt Burke, the vice chairman of the Burke & and Herbert Bank & Trust Company discovered them in the silver vault of the bank’s Alexandria branch. Five years later, six Lee descendants, including Robert E.L. deButts and Robert E. Lee IV, formally deposited the trunks at VHS; two years later, two of the descendants, according to a VHS archivist, “donated a quarter share of the title to this collection to the Virginia Historical Society.”
Click across and read the whole essay, it’s fascinating. But Professor LaFantasie’s thesis should inform all attempts to understand Robert E Lee: we simply know too little about him from his own accounts and the accounts of his immediate family to really have a good understanding of him as a person and as a senior military leader.
The second point is that Lee’s reputation as a brilliant general who was both a strategic and tactical genius as well as a great leader of men, as LaFantasie recounts in his essay, is largely ahistorical and was largely made up as part of the creation of the Lost Cause mythology that ultimately becomes the Dunning School of American history. From LaFantasie’s essay:
But something strange later happened concerning the photostats at the Library of Congress (LC). In 1977, Thomas L. Connelly, who had already established himself as a historian with little good to say about Robert E. Lee, published his book, “The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society.” Connelly argued that Lee’s public image had been largely shaped after the Civil War by a “Lee cult” that worshipped the general like a god and rewrote history according to a Southern interpretation of the Lost Cause. In making his case, Connelly quoted the Civil War reminiscences of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee that revealed her sharp bitterness toward Lincoln and the Northerners who had defeated her husband. Through some administrative error at LC, Connelly had been allowed to see the reminiscences despite the restriction on the document’s use. According to LC records, after the publication of Connelly’s book, Mary Custis Lee deButts wrote again to LC and reiterated her intention and that of her sister that Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee’s reminiscences should be off-limits to researchers. In 1981, LC placed the document in a separate, restricted container, where it has remained ever since.
Despite the purposeful attempts by Lee’s children and descendants to obscure him as both Soldier and person, it is important to remember what we do know about Lee’s military career. That as the slave holding states were reaching the point of no return in their ultimatums regarding slavery, as well as how the entire US should be run to cater to their preferences, Lee was a US Army colonel. He was posted in the New Mexico Territory and he was disaffected and burned out. An excellent historical recounting of this period of Lee’s career, a period where he had basically given up and decided he was done with the Army, can be found in the beginning of Hampton Sides Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West. It was partially because of his disaffection that he was home in Virginia when John Brown raided Harpers Ferry. When the Great Rebellion does finally occur, he was offered a command in the Union army and he turned it down. When Virginia seceded from the Union he was offered a generalship in the newly forming Confederate Army, which he ultimately accepted. His first posting, however, was not as commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia. After a series of lackluster performances commanding Virginia troops in western Virginia and then mixed results in organizing the coastal defenses in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, Lee was brought to Richmond, VA. In Richmond he was placed in charge of the defenses of Richmond and served as a senior military advisor to Jefferson Davis. Lee hated this assignment. It seems that the disaffection and burn out that he had experienced in New Mexico was carried over to his initial service to the Confederacy. He was in an assignment he didn’t like, in a place he didn’t want to be in, and he was convinced he knew better than those commanding armies or parts of armies in the field. In the case of the latter he was most likely right.
But this isn’t the full story, given what we know with the limitations that his descendants have placed on what we can know about Lee, of his military reputation. Lee was a weird, transitional senior military leader during the Civil War. He was wedded to an understanding of the character and characteristics of war and warfare that had largely ceased to exist by the 1860s. So while he had a mastery of the classical literature on strategy and tactics and how to employ them, he was unable to transcend his now obsolete understanding and see what war had become and what it was becoming. This eventually came back to bite him in a big way, especially once President Lincoln was able to find a theater commander – Grant – who would carry out Lincoln’s strategic vision for the eastern theater. Specifically, find General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, fix them in place, and reduce their capacity to conduct any further operations. It took Lincoln a long time to find a theater commander who could do that. By all accounts LTG Reynolds could have, but he turned down command when his one requirement – that he not be micromanaged by GEN Halleck – was denied. As a result LTG Reynolds was the second general officer in the Army of the Potomac to arrive on the battlefield of Gettysburg where he was killed on the morning of the first full day of battle not far from his home.
Lee was a great leader. Specifically, in the sense that he had an ability to inspire his Soldiers to believe they could do things that they should never have been able to do. At the same time, however, he was also a terrible leader in that he was not a very good manager of talent within his command. This is related to his being a senior military leader stuck in a time that no longer existed. Lee was a general officer out of time and, therefore, out of place. The character and characteristics of war in the 1860s had passed him by. Here too the events leading up to and at Gettysburg bring Lee’s genius and his failings into focus. Prior to Gettysburg Lee relied on two subordinate general officers: LTG Longstreet and LTG Jackson. Jackson was, to be very blunt, nuts. He was a religious zealot, held all sorts of bizarre ideas about food and diet and health, and was a tactical savant. He worked the Soldiers in his command ruthlessly and they responded. Longstreet was different. He was quieter, more methodical. The jokes were that he was slow. The truth was he was deliberate. Jackson may have been a straight to the jaw you never saw. Longstreet was definitely the body blow that you saw, could not stop, and that ended the fight. Longstreet also had a strategic vision that neither Lee nor Jackson had. Longstreet understood that while the nature of war may be enduring, the character and characteristics of it had changed going into and during the Civil War.
Unfortunately for Lee, Jackson was killed prior to Gettysburg and Longstreet’s frustration with Lee’s inability to grasp what seemed to be intuitive to Longstreet placed them more and more at odds. Lee replaced Jackson with two other generals, neither of whom could perform at the corps commander level. But they were loyal men, Lee believed them to be good men, so no matter how badly they failed, he didn’t remove them. And at Gettysburg, they failed him miserably. Lee’s personal and professional understanding of loyalty and honor prevented him from managing his talent effectively. This is why JEB Stuart was never properly disciplined for leaving Lee functionally blind in regard to intelligence and information in the summer of 1863. It was also at Gettysburg where the head butting with Longstreet fully bloomed and bore tragic fruit for the Army of Northern Virginia. The mentee had finally outgrown his mentor.
There’s one final point I want to make about Lee and it is, frankly, somewhere between pure speculation and an informed guess. By 1863 Lee was at times erratic and this carried on throughout the war. It is well documented that he’d had some health issues and while there are professional medical disputes about what they were, it appears these included some form of cardiac condition. Whether it was angina and hypertension, just angina, or even something else is still in dispute and there will probably never be a settled history because almost none of the things we do to check for hypertension or angina or other cardiac conditions were done in the 1860s. I’m not a medical doctor, but in terms of the history, I’m in the camp of those that think that the description of Lee’s illnesses in 1863 and throughout the rest of his life seem to be cardiac related. If that is the case and he was experiencing they effects of cardiac problems, it would help to explain some of the decisions he made beginning in the spring of 1863 and carrying on through to the end of the war.
Until or unless his descendants finally make the bulk of his personal writings and those of his immediate family available to scholars and researchers, we will never have a comprehensive understanding of him as a person or as a senior military leader. What we do have is based on his and his family’s incomplete primary materials that have been made available, primary and secondary sources of those that knew him, the myth of Lee as a general par excellence created as part of the Lost Cause mythology and then put to use to fight Reconstruction, ultimately overturn it, and institute Jim Crow in its place. All of it filtered through the Dunning School of American history, which was itself created to institutionalize the Lost Cause mythology as the real and actual history.
We do, however, know some things about Lee that are not in dispute. He was an unrepentant and often cruel slave owner. That for all the tales of his vaunted personal and professional honor, when presented with the options of either upholding his oath of service or breaking it, he chose to break it. He did so in service of preserving the power to keep other humans as chattel slaves. That once he broke his oath he then willingly took up arms and led other oath breakers against his own former countrymen. That his understanding of the character and characteristics of war had been surpassed and made irrelevant by the reality of the changed character and characteristics of war in the 1860s. And that while he did have an amazing ability to inspire those under his command to do things as soldiers and as an army that they should never have been able to do, he was also a terrible manager of personnel. He was also blessed for three years with Union commanding generals who were not up to the tasks they had been assigned. Once Lee faced a commanding general of the Army of the Potomac who both understood and had the ability to execute Lincoln’s strategic vision, his ability to inspire his soldiers was simply no longer adequate to the task he had been assigned. From that point on Grant and the Army of the Potomac slowly and methodically chewed up the Army of Northern Virginia. We also know that after the war, despite being hailed for calling for reconciliation, Lee vehemently and publicly opposed Reconstruction. Finally, it is important to note that if it were not for the intervention of Grant, Lee would have been prosecuted for treason and most likely executed as a traitor to the United States. Instead, his citizenship was stripped – he was allowed to reside in the US until his death, though he was officially stateless – and it was not restored until 1975! The Richmond, VA monument erected in Lee’s honor was erected to memorialize him in 1890, twenty years after his death and twenty-five years after his citizenship as an American was revoked and purposefully not restored by President Johnson despite Lee’s signing the amnesty oath.