Chipping Away at the Marble

Adam Serwer’s recent article on Robert E. Lee [see here] produced this response from the National Review’s Dan McLaughlin, an attorney who practices securities and commercial litigation, which is undoubtedly a lucrative field, especially since he practices in New York City.

McLaughlin starts with a popular view of Reconstruction that could use freshening with current scholarship. For example, while there were indeed some Radical Republicans who wanted to punish the former confederates for their rebellion, the one issue that united the Radicals was their commitment to equal rights for African Americans. Further, he claims, “The Civil War was not, as some would have you believe, fought only over the issue of slavery; it was the culmination of a series of disputes over ideas and policies, and seeing the war as a crusade to free the slaves was never more than the view of a sizeable minority faction in the North. Even Lincoln was willing, all the way to 1865, to make some concessions on the pace of abolition in order to end the war and preserve the Union.” This view is problematic. Slavery was at the root of the war. The reason the confederacy existed and fought for its independence from the United States was its desire to establish a slaveholding nation that would preserve and protect slavery in perpetuity. While there were a few other issues that contributed to the sectional conflict, none of those issues had the power slavery had to drive the nation to war with itself. The series of disputes over ideas and policies revolved around issues regarding the institution of slavery. He does recognize the primacy of slavery in bringing on secession: “But slavery was unquestionably the main cause of the rupture between North and South, without which there would have been no war. The debates and resolutions adopted by Southern states when they seceded made it extraordinarily clear that the South was leaving mainly to protect the institution of slavery. (Moreover, many of the secondary disputes between the two sides were connected to the nature of the Southern slave economy).”

McLaughlin agrees with much of Serwer’s article, though he differs primarily with the view of Lee as a general. “However, Serwer’s attack on Lee as a strategist completely ignores two vital points. One, Lee wasn’t in charge of grand strategy, and in reality wasn’t even a theater commander until June of 1862, when he was put in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia in time to halt a Union advance on the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lee had spent the year before that fighting relatively peripheral battles and supervising the construction of defensive trenches around Richmond. The Confederacy was a democracy, and its elected government was headed by Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate, former Secretary of War and a colonel in the Mexican War who took an active role in military strategy. It wasn’t Lee who decided to locate the new capital so close to the Union lines, necessitating the commitment of extensive resources to defend Eastern Virginia. It was Davis and his government, not Lee, who imposed the political imperatives that drove Confederate strategy.” This view, of course, ignores the fact that Lee had served as Davis’ military adviser in Richmond and Davis still regularly consulted Lee on strategy. Thomas Connelly went into this in detail [see here]. Lee in fact, had a great deal of say in grand strategy, though McLaughlin is right that Jefferson Davis made the decisions.

McLaughlin continues, “More broadly, Serwer wholly fails to consider the moral consequences of a purely defensive war of Fabian retreats and guerilla fighting on Confederate turf. Such a war – which Lee never wanted during the war, and which he rejected as a path of insurgency after Appomattox – would have been one of scorched earth and embitterment, not only wrecking the South even in victory but making any permanent reconciliation vastly more difficult in defeat. The human toll of such a war could be seen from the places where it had erupted during the Revolution, like North Carolina. Sherman would ultimately bring scorched earth to Georgia, and the results hardly recommend a deliberate strategy to invite that for the entire war.” There are a number of problems with this paragraph. First, Lee didn’t reject guerrilla warfare at Appomattox. That’s a popular misconception based on a misreading of what Edward Porter Alexander wrote in his memoirs. Here’s what Alexander wrote: “For about a year now there had been no exchange of prisoners. So, to me either capture or surrender meant going to prison for an indefinite period, maybe for years, & with all sorts of hardships & persecutions. So I had made up my mind that if ever a white flag was raised I would take to the bushes. And, somehow, I would manage to get out of the country & would go to Brazil. Brazil was just going to war with Paraguay, & I could doubtless get a place in their artillery, if only captain or lieutenant of a battery, & then I would send for my wife & children. And judging from the map, then for once I would be on the winning side. So, when the general said in effect that it was impossible to cut our way out, I was glad of the unexpected opportunity, & spoke from the fullness of my heart as follows: ‘Well, Sir, then we have only two alternatives to choose from. We must either surrender; or, the army may be ordered to scatter in the woods & bushes & either to rally upon Gen. Johnston in North Carolina, or to make their way, each man to his own state, with his arms, & to report to his governor. This last course is the one which seems to me to offer us much the best chances.’ ‘Well,’ said Gen. Lee, ‘what would you hope to accomplish by that?’ ‘Well, Sir,’ I said, ‘If there is any hope for the Confederacy it is in delay. For if the Army of Northern Va. surrenders every other army will surrender as fast as the news reaches it. For it is the morale of this army which has supported the whole Confederacy. And Grant if necessary could move successively on each with 100,000 men & they would go like a row of bricks. If there is any hope of help from abroad, we stand the chances by delay. But if the news of the surrender of this army crosses the water it ends every possible chance from there. Meanwhile, the one thing left us now to fight for is to try & get some sort of terms; not to be absolutely helpless, & at the mercy of the enemy. The Confederacy will never be recognised in a treaty, & never can get terms, but there have been intimations that the states might be recognized. That Vance might make peace for North Carolina, & Brown for Georgia. That is why I suggest sending the men to their states instead of to Johnston, that the governors may make some sort of show and get some sort of terms.’ ‘But General,’ I said at the last; & now I was wound up to a pitch of feeling I could scarcely control: ‘if there is no hope, & no terms possible, & if this is just the end, & the wreck of all things; there is still one thing that the men who have fought under you for four years now have the right to ask you. You don’t care for military fame & glory, but we are proud of your name & record & the record of this army. We want to leave it to our children. Its last hour has come and a little blood more or less now makes no difference. And the men that have fought under you for four years have got the right to ask you to spare us the mortification of having you ask Grant for terms & have him reply ‘Unconditional Surrender.’ They call him that: U.S. Unconditional Surrender Grant. General, spare us the mortification of having you receive that reply.’ Usually I stood very much in awe of Gen. Lee but now I was wrought up & words came to me as never before. And as I made my points they seemed to me unanswerable. And at the end when I made, on top of all my good logic, an appeal that I knew the soldier in him must respond to I believed firmly that I had him, & he would do it. He had listened very patiently until I finished & then he said, ‘If I took your suggestion & ordered the army to disperse how many do you suppose would get away?’ I answered: ‘Two thirds of us I think would get away. We would scatter like rabbits & partridges in the woods, & they could not scatter so to catch us.’ ” [Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy, Gary Gallagher, ed., pp. 530-532] There’s no talk of guerrilla warfare there. Alexander is suggesting two options: First, unite with Johnston’s army; Second, return to their states and become part of an organized state militia. The idea that Alexander suggested guerrilla warfare is simply wrong. Lee responded, “There are here only about 15,000 men with muskets. Suppose two thirds, say 10,000, got away. Divided among the states their numbers would be too insignificant to accomplish the least good. Yes! The surrender of this army is the end of the Confederacy. As for foreign help I’ve never believed we could gain our independence except by our own arms. If I ordered the men to go to Gen. Johnston few would go. Their homes have been overrun by the enemy & their families need them badly. We have now simply to look the fact in the face that the Confederacy has failed.” [Ibid., p. 532]

It’s here that McLaughlin gets his misstatement about the moral consequences. According to Alexander, Lee continued, “And as Christian men, Gen. Alexander, you & I have no right to think for one moment of our personal feelings or affairs. We must consider only the effect which our action will have upon the country at large. Suppose I should take your suggestion & order the army to disperse & make their way to their homes. The men would have no rations & they would be under no discipline. They are already demoralized by four years of war. They would have to plunder & rob to procure subsistence. The country would be full of lawless bands in every part, & a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover. Then the enemy’s cavalry would pursue in the hopes of catching the principal officers, & wherever they went there would be fresh rapine & destruction.” [Ibid.] Again, there is no talk of guerrilla warfare. Lee is rejecting the idea that the army disperse and either go to unite with Johnston’s army or go to their home states to offer their services to their governors.

Lee did reject the Fabian tactics of Joseph E. Johnston, but not for moral reasons but rather for cold, calculated, military reasons. We’ll get to those reasons in a later post.

Another problematic portion is the next paragraph: “Related to this is how little credit he gives Lee’s eminence and gentlemanly surrender for preventing a long-term insurgency, avoiding an aftermath like the French Revolution, and enabling the country to return to being a single, functional political whole in time enough to see the vast rise in American prosperity and power between 1870 and 1945. If the old histories of Reconstruction were myopic in forgetting African-Americans, Serwer’s view is myopic in considering no one else, not even the majority of the population. Looking back at Jim Crow, he cannot see how anything could have been worse, why national reconciliation after the war had any value, or why anyone would have wanted peace in the America of 1865-76. We can use the distance of history to judge the national decision to fight no further, but we should have some understanding of what costs the people of the day had paid already, and what they spared by laying down the sword.” Mr. McLaughlin needs to read about the violence perpetrated during Reconstruction, because that met the definition of a long-term insurgency. He would do well to read George C. Rable’s excellent But There Was No Peace [review here]. The murders, rapes, beatings, and outright terrorism in place prior to Jim Crow was definitely worse than Jim Crow, yet Mr. McLaughlin doesn’t appear to know it existed. Do I blame Lee for this? No. But Lee also did not prevent it, as Mr. McLaughlin seems to think.

McLaughlin says, “Lee was no hero; he fought for an unjust cause, and he lost. Unlike the Founding Fathers (even the slaveholders among them), he failed the basic test of history: leaving the world better and freer than he found it. And while he was not responsible for the South’s strategic failures, his lack of strategic vision places him below Grant, Sherman and Winfield Scott in any assessment of the war’s greatest generals. We should not be building new monuments to him, but if we fail to understand why the men of his day revered him, we are likelier to fail to understand who people revere today, and why. And tearing down statues of Lee today is less about understanding the past than it is a contest to divide the people of today’s America, and see who holds more power. That’s no better an attitude today than it was in Lee’s day.” Actually, taking down statues today is simply the local community determining who and what they as a community believe is worthy of being honored.

McLaughlin concludes, “As much as I value history – understanding it is essential to understanding our own world today – one should be suspicious of people looking to make a contemporary political cause out of the American Civil War, the most bloody and divisive episode in our nation’s past. The results are often more racial division and less understanding of history. Serwer’s interest in attacking General Lee is transparently about the present, not the past. That myopia is how he ends up down a blind alley.” Well, then, we should be suspicious of every politician, since they all look to make a contemporary political cause out of history. We should be very suspicious of one of the candidates for governor of Virginia, as he is definitely making a contemporary political cause out of the American Civil War. We should also be very suspicious of the people who erected these monuments to start with, because in most cases they were making a contemporary [at the time] political cause out of the American Civil War. Erecting the monuments to start with was transparently about what was then the present, not the past. It was in most cases a statement that white supremacy had triumphed. The erection of the monuments was a political act, just as the movement to either take them down or move them is a political act–one that should belong to the local communities in which the monuments were placed.

Adam Serwer responds to McLaughlin in “Lee’s Reputation Can’t be Redeemed” [see here]. Serwer says, “McLaughlin does not dispute that the myth of Lee’s grace is a central part of the Lost Cause ideology used to justify racial apartheid in the South after Reconstruction, or that monuments, including the recently removed statue of Lee in New Orleans, were erected as symbols of white supremacy. One might [think?] that, believing all of this to be true, McLaughlin would agree with me that Lee is not worthy of a statue in a place of honor, and that removing such statues is no tragedy. Instead, McLaughlin defends Lee’s record as military strategist. Even if he were correct on every point, it would say nothing about whether Lee himself is worth honoring. Benedict Arnold was also a talented general; Americans do not erect memorials to him in their public squares.” This is a good point. Had Benedict Arnold been killed at the Battle of Saratoga, he’d be remembered today as one of our greatest generals.

Serwer continues, “McLaughlin insists that Lee wasn’t in charge of grand strategy, and that ‘it was Davis and his government, not Lee, who imposed the political imperatives that drove Confederate strategy.’ This is only half correct. Lee was not a passive recipient of Davis’s orders; as James McPherson writes in This Mighty Scourge, it was Lee who insisted on the invasion of Pennsylvania as necessary to break the will of the North, and it was Lee whose tactics there were employed in pursuit of that goal, leading to his decisive defeat at Gettysburg. That was a strategic decision that Lee pursued and lobbied for; he was the architect of his own greatest defeat.” That’s a matter of dispute, which we’ve looked at in a previous series of posts [Search “Evaluating Lee at Gettysburg” in this blog] Lee, as I said previously in this post, had input into the strategic decisions Davis made. Lee did argue for the invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863, and in my opinion he had good reasons to do so, and he was right.

Serwer next takes on McLaughlin’s assertions regarding Reconstruction: “Stranger is McLaughlin’s crediting ‘Lee’s eminence and gentlemanly surrender for preventing a long-term insurgency, avoiding an aftermath like the French Revolution, and enabling the country to return to being a single, functional political whole in time enough to see the vast rise in American prosperity and power between 1870 and 1945.’ I don’t give Lee credit for this because it would be like giving the security at Ford’s Theater credit for preventing a presidential assassination. The country returned to a ‘single, functional political whole’ in large part because white supremacist paramilitaries restored the dominance of the Democratic Party in the South by fire and the sword, before the eyes of a Republican Party that was unwilling go any further than it already had to protect the rights of black Americans. This outcome destroyed the brief attempt at non-racial government in the American South, leading to the apartheid of Jim Crow and the neo-slavery of convict leasing. The rise in American power between 1870 and 1945 offered scant comfort to the people of Tulsa, Rosewood, and Atlanta. If I were to give credit to Lee for this outcome, it would serve only to lengthen the already interminable case against revering him.” Serwer again makes some great points here, many of the same points I made above.

Serwer considers the end of Reconstruction: “Early in his response, McLaughlin persuasively argues  that too much early scholarship on the Civil War and Reconstruction suffered ‘from the myopia of considering only the relationship between white Northerners and white Southerners.’ But in his description of the end of Reconstruction, McLaughlin replicates that mistake. The so-called “Redemption” that ended Reconstruction did not come from weary Americans wanting to lay down the sword, it came from the champions of the white South reddening their swords with the blood of the emancipated, and the white North making a conscious decision that the cost of protecting the freedmen’s rights was not worth paying.” Both men have some valid points here. The terrorist campaign by white southerners, combined with the Supreme Court’s decisions in US v. Cruikshank and the Slaughterhouse Cases, combined with the rapid demobilization of the US Army led to the weariness Americans had with Reconstruction. President Ulysses S. Grant recognized the lack of public support for continuing to fight the terrorism. Combine that with the fact that by 1877 all but three southern states were under Democrat control and the army could do very little to suppress the violence. Indeed, with Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, there was little hope of any legislation that would do anything to help. I don’t think we can blame Lee for any of that, but likewise, it’s part of the insurgency Lee didn’t prevent, something McLaughlin claimed he did prevent.

We next look at the idea that Lee was a man of his times. “While McLaughlin agrees that ‘the cause Lee fought for was inseparable in every particular from slavery’ he describes Lee as possessing ‘the retrograde racial attitudes of his time.’ McLaughlin does not mean this as a defense of Lee, but it minimizes Lee’s views, and I have received many messages from others offering this argument in Lee’s defense. The suggestion is that Lee, in thrall to his era, could not have been expected to know better. Lee was a man of his time. So was George Henry Thomas, a son of Virginia who chose to fight for the Union over fighting for slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a man of his time, as was Frederick Douglass. Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln were men of their time. Wesley Norris, whom Lee had tortured for escaping his plantation, was a man of his time. The hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Union, including the black soldiers murdered and humiliated by Lee’s lieutenants, were men of their time. We do not, in the main, build statues to people about whom the best that can be said is that they were of their time.  We build them to people who rise above their times, and like many other men of his time, as a farmer, a general, a statesman, and an educator, Lee failed this test in every respect.” While it’s true each of those were men of their times, they were also men of very different life experiences and backgrounds. George H. Thomas was a white Virginian like Lee. According to the historian Christopher Einolf, “Thomas was a slave owner before the war, but his experience commanding African American soldiers led him to change his views, and he became a staunch defender of civil rights during Reconstruction (1865–1876).” As we saw in an earlier post, Lee’s views on emancipation also evolved somewhat due to military realities.

Serwer next makes the same point I made above regarding the monuments: “These statues were erected to commemorate white dominance over black Americans; removing them is a reflection of progress toward the nation’s unfilled promise of racial equality.” He says, “The Lee monument in New Orleans went up not in 1876 but in 1884, as racist paramilitaries like the White League helped the Democratic Party re-establish its political dominance over the city; these statues are commemorations of those victories, not politically neutral commemorations of fallen warriors. They were raised to, in the words of the historian David Blight,  help ‘construct a story of noble sacrifice for a holy cause of home and independence, and especially in the service of a racial ideology that would sustain white supremacy.’ ”

Serwer ends strongly: “The myths both about Lee and the Confederacy, his supposed hatred of slavery, his non-ownership of slaves, and his conduct during the war and his reasons for fighting it, are all sustained by the statues and monuments that honor him. The reverence for the people represented by those monuments interferes with the proper remembrance of history, it does not enhance it. You don’t need a statue of Lee to understand why white Southerners revered him, you need a book. The statue can go in a museum.” The marble fortress around Lee has a number of chips in it now. Perhaps even some parts missing.

I think in this article Serwer is on much stronger historical ground. He still goes a bit over the top in criticizing Lee, but he scores more good points here.



  1. Good analysis, Al. (BTW, there is a partial monument to Benedict Arnold at Saratoga; it’s to his right foot, where he was wounded twice, as the only loyal part him or some such thing.)

    1. Thanks, Jim, and as I recall there is no identification of Arnold at that monument.

  2. Al, I am not certain that Lincoln was willing to make concessions on the pace of abolition all the way to 1865, as McLaughlin asserts. After all, he was pressing for passage of the 13th Amendment while the war was still raging.

    1. On August 17, 1864, Lincoln wrote, “If Jefferson Davis wishes for himself, or for the benefit of his friends at the North, to know what I would do if he were to offer peace and reunion, saying nothing about slavery, let him try me.” If Alexander Stephens is to be believed, at the Hampton Roads Conference in 1865, Lincoln proposed the confederate states ratify the 13th Amendment prospectively for it to take effect in five years.–hampton-roads-peace-conference-a-final-test-of-lincolns?rgn=main;view=fulltext

      1. “At this point, Seward produced a copy of the proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which had not been seen by the commissioners. He declared that if the South abandoned the struggle, the amendment probably would fail to receive the necessary approval of three-fourths of the states for ratification. Seward inferred, according to Stephens’s account of the conference, that if the Southern states quickly rejoined the Union, they could assist in voting down the amendment.[57]”

        That doesn’t sound like ratifying it “prospectively;” it sounds like Seward was suggesting they could vote it down.

        My take on this is that Lincoln was engaging in some posturing. He knew that Davis would not approve of any sort of settlement based on reunion, so he could theoretically make all sorts of promises in order to look good to the public when the details came out, as he knew they would.

        1. Point being, of course, Lincoln said, or at least was alleged to have said, some things contradictory to the idea he wanted slavery ended as quickly as possible.

        2. Oops—just saw the reference to a “prospective ratification”. If you can do so, just delete my above comment.

          1. I think it complements the prospective ratification portion.

  3. Mike Musick · · Reply

    Serwer writes: “[Lee’s] decision to fight a conventional war…is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.” Who are these historians? Perhaps only Serwer can say. This may be intended as a reference to the erroneous view of some (e.g. Daniel Boorstin) that the American Revolution was successful because small individual bands of colonial marksmen picked off British regulars.

    1. I think he’s talking about taking the offensive instead of using Fabian tactics as well as not using more guerrilla tactics.

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