“It is for us the living … to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” Lincoln said. “It is … for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
The soldiers interred beneath the soil that the crowd stood beside were fighting to defend the United States against an insurrection fomented by separatists who aimed, above all else, to protect their economic reliance on enslaved Africans. They were part of an army that repelled the forces of the Confederacy under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee, curtailing the South’s efforts to surge into Union territory and force the North to end the war. The South’s loss at Gettysburg was a first step toward its eventual surrender, but not before some 110,000 American troops were killed in combat — often fighting against troops commanded by Lee — and another quarter-million died of disease, in prisons or in accidents.
Put another way, there are very few people born in the United States who have been responsible for as many American deaths in combat and who have played larger roles in the near-dissolution of the country than Lee. This remains true despite decades of effort to whitewash his legacy, to cast the Civil War as a dispute not about slavery but about state sovereignty and to insist that Lee only grudgingly joined that cause.
Former president Donald Trump appears not to be familiar with this reality.
On Wednesday evening, he released a statement praising Lee, a response to the removal of a statue of the general from a central street in the former Confederate capital of Richmond. The removal of such monuments — generally installed not in immediate tribute to the service of rebel leaders but later, in concert with moments of perceived threat to White Americans — has become intertwined with politics in recent years. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement drew attention to institutional demonstrations of racism that arguably include such monuments, spurring calls for their removal. Trump made his opposition to both BLM and such changes a central theme of his recent political career, leveraging perceptions of a changing country to his advantage. After the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 — violence centered on a protest defending a statue of Lee in that city — Trump tried to pivot attention to the removal of the monuments generally. The issue has become a political safe space for him.
But even given that, his statement this week was a marvel. He wrote:
“Robert E. Lee is considered by many Generals to be the greatest strategist of them all. President Lincoln wanted him to command the North, in which case the war would have been over in one day. Robert E. Lee instead chose the other side because of his great love of Virginia, and except for Gettysburg, would have won the war.”“ ... Our culture is being destroyed and our history and heritage, both good and bad, are being extinguished by the Radical Left, and we can’t let that happen! If only we had Robert E. Lee to command our troops in Afghanistan, that disaster would have ended in a complete and total victory many years ago. What an embarrassment we are suffering because we don’t have the genius of a Robert E. Lee!”
Let’s be upfront about the fact that Trump is understood not to be a student of history. (Asked by Stephen Colbert in 2011 what the 13 stripes on the American flag represented, Trump said he didn’t know — as he was embroiled in a fight to install a giant flag at one of his golf courses in Florida.) This summation of Lee’s life would be found most readily not in history books but in Facebook posts from groups called “SaveOurMonumentsMAGA.” Trump presents a nuanced depiction of Lee’s role and background, treating him the way he sought to treat the coronavirus last year: claiming that people were wrong about how bad it was so that he could score some political points.
Just consider that phrase “chose the other side”! The “other side” was the side that wanted to overthrow the United States government. This isn’t a family picnic tug-of-war. This was an existential threat to the country, and Lee chose the have-it-not-exist side. Not to mention Trump’s almost wistful presentation of the outcome at Gettysburg. Ah, but for the Union soldiers having given their lives on that battlefield, Lee would have actually gotten the job done! So much for resolving that those soldiers not have died in vain.
Then Trump incongruously and clunkily pivots to Afghanistan. The former president clearly thinks that the withdrawal from that country is a huge opportunity for him to undermine his successor (and possible opponent in 2024). The Washington Post reported on Wednesday evening that Trump had even “been briefed recently by former officials … about what he did in Afghanistan as president and what they viewed as missteps by the Biden administration.” One apparent desired outcome is for Trump to have talking points he can use to undercut President Biden. (Such briefings were not always a priority when he was president.)
Notice, too, that Trump implicitly blames American generals on the outcome in Afghanistan. For want of a nail the shoe was lost! Trump was president for one-fifth of the duration of the conflict in Afghanistan and his team negotiated the deal calling for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan this year. But, you know, if Trump had been able to call on the resurrected remains of ol’ Bob Lee, he’d have figured out how to defeat an opposition that was mostly rooted in cultural and not military influence.
This is what Trump has done since he first ran in 2015. He criticized the war in Iraq in part because it offered him a way to criticize the Republican establishment — and the presidential family of former Florida governor Jeb Bush in particular. He claimed to have opposed the war from the start, which wasn’t really true. Instead, it generally tracked with public opinion. Which is the point: Trump often takes the position that he thinks will generate the most support, particularly from his base. So last year it was that we should get out of Afghanistan ASAP and, now, that Biden withdrew from Afghanistan too hastily. The rationalizations for such an evolution will be provided upon request. The point is simply to keep his voters energized by agreeing with them in the moment, the real estate magnate aiming for the signature on that contract.
By now it should be obvious why this article began with Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg. He demanded that Americans honor the sacrifice of Union soldiers by themselves working to defend the United States as an ideal. While there were certainly presidents sympathetic to Lee in the years after the Civil War, sometimes overtly, it’s hard to imagine any aw-shucksing about his defeat at Gettysburg. But, then, there has been no other president who has worked so fervently in opposition to government by the people, which is to say a government selected through free and fair elections.
Were the Confederacy’s most infamous general in fact resurrected, it would be interesting to see if Trump’s expressed respect was reciprocated.