Richard Cohen
Richard Cohen
Opinion Writer

Dispelling the myth of Robert E. Lee

It has taken a while, but it’s about time Robert E. Lee lost the Civil War. The South, of course, was defeated on the battlefield in 1865, yet the Lee legend — swaddled in myth, kitsch and racism — has endured even past the civil rights era when it became both urgent and right to finally tell the “Lost Cause” to get lost. Now it should be Lee’s turn. He was loyal to slavery and disloyal to his country — not worthy, even he might now admit, of the honors accorded him.

I confess to always being puzzled by the cult of Lee. Whatever his personal or military virtues, he offered himself and his sword to the cause of slavery. He owned slaves himself and fought tenaciously in the courts to keep them. He commanded a vast army that, had it won, would have secured the independence of a nation dedicated to the proposition that white people could own black people and sell them off, husband from wife, child from parent, as the owner saw fit. Such a man cannot be admired.

Richard Cohen

Cohen writes about politics in a weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog.

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But he is. All over the South, particularly in his native Virginia, the cult of Lee is manifested in streets, highways and schools named for him. When I first moved to the Washington area, I used to marvel at these homages to the man. What was being honored? Slavery? Treason? Or maybe, for this is how I perceive him, no sense of humor? (Often, that is mistaken for wisdom.) I also wondered what a black person was supposed to think or, maybe more to the point, feel. Chagrin or rage would be perfectly appropriate.

Still, even I was not immune to the cult of Lee. I kept thinking I must be missing something. I imagined all sorts of virtues in his face. He is always dignified in all those photos of him, dour, a perfect pill of a man yet somehow adored by his men. They cheered him when he left Appomattox Court House, having just surrendered to the far more admirable U.S. Grant. They shouted, Hooray for Lee! Hooray for what?

Now comes Elizabeth Brown Pryor, author of “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters” who in an essay for the New York Times gives us a Lee who is at odds with the one of gauzy myth. He was not, as I once thought, the creature of crushing social and political pressure who had little choice but to pick his state over his country. In fact, various members of his own family stuck with the Union.

“When Lee consulted his brothers, sister and local clergymen, he found that most leaned toward the Union,” Pryor wrote. “At a grim dinner with two close cousins, Lee was told that they also intended to uphold their military oaths. . . . Sister Anne Lee Marshall unhesitatingly chose the Northern side, and her son outfitted himself in blue uniform.” Pryor says that about 40 percent of Virginia officers “would remain with the Union forces.”

After the war, the South embraced a mythology of victimhood. An important feature was the assertion that the war had been not about slavery at all but about state’s rights. The secessionists themselves were not so shy. In their various declarations, they announced they were leaving the Union to preserve slavery. Lee not only accepted the Lost Cause myth, he propagated it and came to embody it.

Lee was a brilliant field marshal whose genius was widely acknowledged — Lincoln wanted him to command the Union forces. In a way, that’s a pity. A commander of more modest talents might have been beaten sooner, might not have taken the war to the North (Gettysburg) and expended so many lives. Lee, in this regard, is an American Rommel, the German general who fought brilliantly, but for Hitler. Almost until Hitler compelled his suicide, Rommel, too, did his duty.

L.P. Hartley’s observation that “the past is a foreign country” cautions us all against facile judgments. But in that exotic place called the antebellum South, there were plenty of people who recognized the evil of slavery or, if nothing else, the folly of secession. Lee was not one of them. He deserves no honor — no college, no highway, no high school. In the awful war (620,000 dead) that began 150 years ago this month, he fought on the wrong side for the wrong cause. It’s time for Virginia and the South to honor the ones who were right.

cohenr@washpost.com

 
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