Saturday, September 18, 2021

The legacy of Robert E. Lee

Some posts on the legacy of Robert E. Lee

Let’s get real about Robert E. Lee and slavery , including the text:

Lee is sometimes defended as a “man of his times,” who, by the standards of the day, could not have concluded that slavery was wrong or that he could choose loyalty to the United States over Virginia. The former claim ignores the millions of Black Americans who were able to divine slavery’s evil at that time, not to mention White abolitionists and White Southerners such as Cassius Marcellus Clay, James Birney and Elizabeth Van Lew, who inherited enslaved people and freed them. As for the latter claim, it is worth noting that other high-ranking military officers from Virginia remained loyal to the United States, among them generals Winfield Scott and George Thomas.


By the time Lee officially freed the people his family held in bondage, the Civil War was in full swing and the Arlington estate had been seized by the Union army. In the end, Lee blew the five-year deadline by a handful of weeks, officially freeing them on Dec. 29, 1862. Three days later, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.


Robert E. Lee’s Legacy Proves Why He Deserves No Statues , including

Historians often fault Lee’s strategic judgment, in part because of his obsession with defending Richmond, and in part because of his two failed invasions of the North. These assessments are not sound, and fail to consider the strategic context. Lee understood (as did Grant) that Richmond was the Confederate center of gravity and that its capture might result in a collapse in resistance. Thus, defending the Confederate capitol against the Army of the Potomac, the largest and most formidable force available to the United States, was a clear imperative. But more importantly, he appreciated that the Confederacy could not survive with a defensive strategy. Grant was in the process of dismembering the Confederacy in the West as Lee invaded Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. Even if a defensive strategy had been able to force the North to give up on its effort to conquer Virginia, the Mississippi (and quite likely all territories west of the Mississippi) would have been lost forever; the Army of Northern Virginia might force Lincoln to cease hostilities, but it could not force him to give up territory already conquered. Moreover, Federal control of the Mississippi was an existential threat to the institution of slavery in the South, as it gave the Black population an easy highway to seek liberation.
The case against Lee’s decision-making in battle generally rests on the wisdom of Pickett’s Charge, an infantry assault on the center of the US Army line at the Battle of Gettysburg. The attack was a costly failure, but it is important not to read Lee’s decision to attack through the lens of World War I, when infantry assaults across open ground had become utterly suicidal. Confederates achieved numerical superiority at the decisive point and forced hand-to-hand fighting before being repulsed. Had they carried the US Army position, they would have inflicted a serious defeat on the Army of the Potomac. Similar assaults in other battles during the war succeeded, although the conditions at Gettysburg are not generally regarded as conducive to success. In any case, even great captains are allowed a mistake or two; the decision of Ulysses S. Grant to assault prepared Confederate defenses at Cold Harbor is altogether less sensible than the Gettysburg attack.

But we do not build statues of and pile honors upon people who are merely excellent at some skill. To understand the meaning of the removal of Lee’s statue, we must take into account the purposes to which he put his great skills. Lee was a traitor, and being a traitor is complicated. Treason is perhaps the least heinous of the mortal sins; Washington and Adams and Jefferson were all traitors, as was De Gaulle, and Alcibiades, and Brutus and Cassius, and a great many others who we may find admirable. But the evaluation of one’s treason depends on its purpose and its consequences. Washington’s treason is justified because it succeeded in creating something, and because we regard its purpose as noble. De Gaulle’s treason helped usher in the defeat of Nazi Germany; the jury remains out on Cassius and Brutus.

Lee betrayed his oath and his country for the principle that white people should be able to own black people. It was a principle he was willing to kill for, and he killed a very great number of Americans in his failed effort to maintain the South as a slaveocracy. We ought not to erect statues to men who are characterized only by their tactical and strategic military judgement, but not by any moral or ethical sense. Lee failed at his purpose, and it is an altogether good thing that he failed. Thus, there should be no hesitation about removing statues that were erected to the cause of white supremacy.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky.

--Of the reference to the Emancipation Proclamation, most people know that it did not free slaves in the border states not in the Confederacy. Fewer know that it did not free slaves in the Confederate state of Tennessee. Fewer still know that it did not free slaves in parts of Louisiana and Virginia. Note:

order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

--One notes that Alexandria County, VA was not on Lincoln's list, even though it was occupied by Union forces. For discussion of the impact of the Proclamation on Alexandria County (the county containing Arlington at the time), see Life after emancipation in Alexandria


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