The Generalship of Robert E. Lee Part Two

In this installment we’ll consider the image of Lee that’s come down to us. I’ll use another article by the late historian Thomas Connelly. This one is “The Image and the General: Robert E. Lee in American Historiography” in Civil War History, Vol. XIX, No. 1, March, 1973, pages 50-64.

Connelly starts by telling us, “In hundreds of biographies and reminiscences, as well as several hundred articles, commentators on Lee seem to have depicted every phase of his life, from his fourteenth century ancestors to the pet hen kept at his field headquarters. Yet Lee scholarship is still troubled by two problems which have existed since the first writings on the Virginian. First, what was Lee really like? This effort to depict his personality, to understand what motivated Lee’s conduct, is an old historical exercise. It has especially provided interest for twentieth century writers, beginning with the psychological-biographical efforts of Gamaliel Bradford.” [p. 50] After telling about several writers who tried to plumb Lee’s personality and failed, Connelly continues, “The difficulties in understanding Lee’s personality may be akin to a second enduring historiographical problem. The sensitivity of Lee partisans to any criticism of the General has enshrouded him in a protective mantle enjoyed by no other Confederate figure. This sharp dislike of criticism of Lee, which at times has resembled paranoia, dates from the early eighteen-seventies, when Lee partisans reacted sharply to the criticisms of James Longstreet, Joseph E. Johnston, the Count of Paris, and other early critics.” [pp. 50-51]

In his study of Lee historiography, Connelly finds three distinct periods: during the war, 1865 to 1900, and after 1900. He also identifies two major items that complicate the study. First, he tells us that throughout, Virginians controlled both confederate historiography and veterans/memorial organizations. Secondly, Lee’s image provided symbolism southerners needed.

“To assert that Lee became the hero of the South in the post-war period quickly produces dissent. It clashes with an idea implanted by the first cult of Lee writers, such as Jubal Early, Fitzhugh Lee, Emily Mason and J. William Jones, in the Reconstruction period. This view, still repeated in popular literature, holds that throughout the war, the South looked to Virginia as its main theater of operations and, at least by 1862, looked to Lee as its supreme hope and hero. However, a study of Confederate newspapers produces no convincing evidence that Rebel hopes were pinned to Virginia. Indeed, southerners appeared steadily regional in their strategic concern. … More important, did the wartime South consider Lee as its central hero and saviour [sic], or was this image a post-war production? The South during the war seemed to possess several major hero figures. Even after his death in 1862, Albert Sidney Johnston remained a strong emotional symbol. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston both possessed not only private cliques of civil and military admirers, but also boasted wide followings among the general populace. In fact, a strong argument can be made that if any single contemporary hero existed, it was not Lee but General Thomas Jackson.” [pp. 52-53]

Connelly identifies two phases through which Lee became the primary confederate hero: Reconstruction writers, from 1865 to 1885, and later romantic writers from 1885 to 1900. “The first, or Reconstruction cult of Lee writers, 1865-1885, is critical to an understanding of the development of Lee’s image. Here one glimpses the beginning of that dualistic pattern. In the 1865-1885 period, Lee partisans totally dominated both war writings and memorial organizations. Also, the image of Lee projected by these writers saw a tremendous appeal for the South, which saw in Lee needed rationales for both secession and defeat. Several factors produced the domination of Confederate letters during this period by Lee admirers. His eastern army had fought in a more restricted geographic area, had suffered far less command friction than other Confederate armies, and was heavily staffed with Virginians. These matters, coupled with the magnetism of Lee’s character, provoked a strong band of Lee admirers–a veritable cult–which was concentrated mainly in Richmond and Lexington, Virginia, and Baltimore. This cult or group was composed of Lee relatives, former staff and general officers, and other admirers. Too, this Lee group in the eighteen-seventies managed to gain control of the Southern Historical Society. This society, the most powerful organ of Confederate historiography in the late nineteenth century proposed to collect war documents and to publish in its Papers accounts of Rebel exploits in all theaters of the war. But the society was completely dominated by Virginians, such as its long-time president, Jubal Early, and its secretary and editor, J. William Jones. The Early-Jones combination established a pattern in the early issues of the Papers during the eighteen-seventies–praise of Lee and almost exclusive interest in the feats of the Army of Northern Virginia. The imbalance was aided by the society’s rule that only Virginia residents could sit on its governing executive committee. Hence this publication, generally accepted both in the North and South as the main post-war southern military publication, was dominated by staunch Lee advocates such as Early, G. W. C. Lee, Fitzhugh Lee, Walter Taylor, and others.” [pp. 53-54] Postwar literary fights among other former confederate officers such as John Bell Hood and Joe Johnston contributed to Lee’s ascension by damaging each other’s images.

Jackson’s image declined as well. “Jackson’s image simply was not what the South needed during the post-war years. Instead, more than any other figure, Lee seemed to provide the needed symbolism for the defeated South, in its search for explanations for defeat and justifications for secession. The publicity had been provided by the first Lee cult. In turn, the general South found balm in Lee. First, Lee was a symbol of victory in a defeated region. The war generation had believed their cause just; yet what does such a people do when they have done their best, expected God’s aid, and still have been defeated. … But gradually Lee, their most successful field general, became the strongest symbol of victory. The argument became consistent. Lee was never defeated. Sharpsburg and Gettysburg were strategic withdrawals, and Grant merely overwhelmed Lee with superior numbers. Thus Lee merged from the war undefeated. Lee was also appealing as a post-war symbol of chivalry. The search for a chivalric image would not reach its zenith until the more romantic southern writings of 1880-1900. Still, in the post-war phase, chivalry was a useful rationale. It helped to justify secession–that a superior gentry had fought to defend its honor. It helped to reconcile defeat–that the war was lost, but not honor, and that the southerners were the better men.” [p. 56]

Lee, through his connection to George Washington, also provided a justification for secession. The Lee cult depicted secession of 1861 as identical to the 1776 Revolution against oppression. This myth also paved the way for further mythologizing, such as portraying both Lee and Virginia as being against slavery and secession, and only joining the confederacy because of Lincoln’s call for troops. According to this mythologizing, “It was done from a sense of duty–from a conviction that an attempt to coerce a seceding state was wrong. The supreme factor in this image, beginning with the Reconstruction writers, was, of course, Lee’s decision at Arlington. Above all, Lee seemed to possess a post-war appeal as a Christ-symbol for a defeated South. Some religious symbolism seemed necessary to explain defeat.” [p. 58] Lee in this mythology became a Christ figure.

A second Lee cult emerged in the 1880s. This cult was made up of romantic writers who concentrated on Lee’s character as being the finest ever and did not focus as much on his military prowess. “Much irony is affixed to this romantic Lee cult, which included writers such as Thomas Nelson Page, Henry White and Randolph McKim. They did succeed in permanently sealing Lee as the South’s idol, in that the image they projected was that popularized in local-color novels and other means of expression. Yet perhaps they succeeded too well. For the second cult projected such an appealing image of Lee that after 1900 the nation seized upon him as a hero symbol. Again the pattern of Lee’s image best represented a people’s response to the meaning of the war seemed evident. For the climax of the romantic cult’s efforts was the 1904 publication of Captain Robert E. Lee’s [General Lee’s son] Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. As did other second cult writings, this biography stressed the individual traits of Lee’s character. Among many others mentioned were two that possessed a timely appeal to the nation. First, that Lee realized the Southern cause was probably doomed; still he joined the Confederacy because he represented the finer society’s devotion to principle. Second, this same sense of duty and high personal qualities had motivated Lee after the war to sacrifice personal interests in an attempt to lead his people back into the Union. These two arguments, the central theme of the second cult, struck sympathetic chords in the nation, and the pattern of Lee’s image best representing the nation’s attitude toward the war seemed evident. For these two virtues–Lee’s high personal values, and his attempt to mend the Union–embodied certain national aspirations. One such virtue was the fight of individual values against the machine age.” [pp. 60-61] All this led to Lee’s becoming a national hero figure, not just a hero figure for southerners.

This led to a third Lee cult–one dominated primarily by northern writers. Lee was put forward as someone to be admired. In a way his confederate past was whitewashed, and the stress was put on his helping to save the Union through his actions after the war. “Some writers, such as Gamaliel Bradford, concentrated upon Lee’s personal values. Lee’s post-war conduct was stressed by another group, dominated by Charles Francis Adams. In his 1901 address before the American Antiquarian Society and in later speeches and writings, Adams, as did others, argued that the nation owed Lee its gratitude. Secession was wrong, but Lee, trapped in an environment not of his making, had demonstrated high personal qualities in his 1861 decision which the nation could well imitate. More important, his post-war conduct had helped to heal the nation’s wounds and save the Union. This third cult is vital for several reasons. It does more than represent the continuation of the Lee historiographical pattern. For the first time, Lee was a national symbol, a transition which almost entailed his capture from the South. Later, in the reassertion of regional values in the Southern Renaissance era, one senses almost a counterattack, a conscious effort to regain Lee as a regional symbol. Probably this counter-thrust fell beneath the onslaught of the Centennial years, when a new group of writers would summon up the old arguments of the nationalistic cult. Also, this third nationalistic cult marked the expression of the last of the basic elements of Lee’s modern image. While Dr. Douglas Freeman’s biography would later give Lee’s image more academic respectability, he did not create it. Any listing is arbitrary, but there appear to be seven basic parts of the Lee image. All were introduced in the Reconstruction era except the last–that Lee helped to save the Union. The other six, dating from the first Lee cult, include (1) Lee the idol and hope of the South during the war; (2) Lee’s heroic decision at Arlington in 1861; (3) Lee, a brilliant war strategist bridled by his government; (4) Lee, the war’s greatest field commander; (5) Lee’s great character; and (6) Lee’s post-war conduct in sharing the South’s defeat and poverty by his moving to Washington College. No doubt there is some degree of truth in all of these image factors. Yet one might well question whether the long process of the construction of Lee’s image has not produced exaggeration and distortion, until the image has become larger than the man.” [pp. 61-62]

All of this points to the central problem with studying Robert E. Lee. His image has been manufactured and sold to the point where it’s difficult to find the real man beneath the marble man the myth built. Likewise, it’s difficult to evaluate the general when so many historians and others have written either in the light of or in pursuit of the mythological marble man. This difficulty is what led the late Alan Nolan to title his philippic against Lee Lee Considered, because he fairly said Lee hadn’t yet been truly considered. Unfortunately, his book was little more than a brief for the prosecution against Lee. While he brought out some good points to consider, he also failed to consider Lee fairly by concentrating so much on negatives. My goal for this series is a fair consideration of Lee, trying to understand both his strong points and his weak points.


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