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Patrick Walsh

The Lie of Lee and the Lost Cause

Back in May, I decided to re-read The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s creative rendering of the battle of Gettysburg. The book received the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, soon becoming a canonical text on reading lists within American military schools and training programs. I first read it in 1988 as one of the required books in ROTC at St. Bonaventure University.


Classified as “historical novel,” and, hence, fiction, The Killer Angels lays claim to creative nonfiction. Neither the events nor characters are invented; Shaara creates believably likely discussions between key leaders on both sides, as well as their surmised thoughts. Especially compelling are the exchanges between Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, as well as the troubled ruminations of Longstreet and the battle’s eventual hero, Union Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain. 


In description and dialogue, Shaara depicts Lee as a man of great personal dignity and composure, a white-haired elder who seems, at times, like a benevolent grandfather among impetuous children. Still, without any attempt to disparage Lee, Shaara makes clear that it was Longstreet, not Lee, who understood the battle at hand, as well as the overall strategy that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia should have pursued against Union forces. (To his credit, Lee took full responsibility for the loss at Gettysburg.)


Nevertheless, this final version of Lee, the venerable (he was 56 at Gettysburg), imperturbable general, has lodged in America’s collective memory, in part because the Civil War was the last and largest stage upon which he moved. But it’s also the methodical work of generations of hagiographers, defeated Confederates and their ancestors who sought to re-write the facts of history.


The cult of Robert E. Lee—the myth of Lee as a brilliant general, lee1as well as a man of integrity and honor—arose as a way a certain kind of Southerner dealt with the triple shame of slavery, starting a war over slavery, and then losing that war. Faced with such overwhelming culpability, such disgrace in the cause of one of the most repugnant human practices, men like Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s deposed President, and former Confederate General Jubal Early began to spin an elaborate lie, a retroactive attempt to win the war in the history books that came to be known as “The Lost Cause.”


The central lie of the Lost Cause was that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, but that the Southern states seceded over “states rights,”a lie instantly repudiated by reading any number of Confederate states’ declarations of secession or the Confederate States Constitution, specifically Article I, Section 9(4), to wit: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”


In less abstract terms, the speeches of the Confederacy’s ringleaders make it crystal as to why secession was necessary. In March 1861, roughly a month before war’s outbreak, Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, delivered his infamous “Cornerstone Speech” in his home state of Georgia. Lest anyone think that the South went to war over the canard of states rights, here is Mr. Stephens to set the record straight:


    Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.


Stephens would certainly have occupied high office in Nazi Germany and would have justly received a short drop and a hard stop at the end of a hangman’s noose. Alas, like Jefferson Davis, he was pardoned and, incredibly, served as a U.S. Congressman and briefly as Governor of Georgia. Great country, America, isn’t it?


Four years after such incriminating speeches—their words permanently transcribed for posterity—Jefferson Davis and his ilk began a propaganda campaign to make Americans forget why the Civil War was fought.


“Spin” is hardly a modern phenomenon.


States rights is the ideological smokescreen of the Lost Cause, but the face of the movement was and remains that of Robert E. Lee—not that Lee chose to involve himself in the conspiracy.


With his capitulation at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, Lee’s life was essentially over. In keeping with his personal code of conduct and lifelong penchant for reticence, Lee tried to keep to himself, desiring a quiet exit from the public sphere. In private and on the record, he counseled reconciliation, even testifying before the Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction in 1866 in support of President Andrew Johnson’s plan for the South.


Offered the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia in 1865, Lee made the job his swan song, admirably improving and expanding the college’s curriculum, as well as directing its outlook toward a future in a unified America. The school was renamed Washington and Lee University after his death in 1870.


So why did Lee become the Lost Cause poster boy? The short answer is because he wasn’t all bad. Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens were fire-breathing proponents of slavery and the South’s arch secessionists; no one was going to forget that those two scoundrels started the Civil War. But Lee was a lifelong soldier and soldiers only carry out the orders of politicians.


Moreover, Lee’s past stood up to scrutiny far better than the outspoken racists Davis and Stephens. Graduating second in his class at West Point, Lee married Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of George and Martha Washington. For his strategic ability and personal bravery, he emerged from the Mexican War as the U.S. military’s anointed one; General Winfield Scott proclaimed Lee the best soldier in the American Army.


And Lee had a quality, recognized even in his own lifetime, that has perplexed historians and biographers: he was very hard to know.


Along with his taciturn nature, he harbored great ambivalence towards the two defining events of his career. Like his future Civil War nemesis, Ulysses S. Grant, Lee had strong misgivings about the Mexican War, writing in his letters that he wished to be “better satisfied as to the justice of our cause.” Ultimately, though, he concluded that “the Mexican War was a chance to gain distinction and honor, and therefore not to be regretted.”


Honor—Lee will place enormous weight on his notion of it a second, irreversible time.


More profoundly, Lee was torn over the possibility of secession. He had premised his entire life on the oath all Army officers take: to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In January 1861, as crisis loomed, Lee wrote a letter from Fort Mason, Texas to a relative, stating: “As an American citizen I prize my government and country highly and there is no sacrifice I am not willing to make for their preservation save that of honor.”


There’s “honor” again. But what does he mean by it? Despite decades of service to his country, despite a solemn oath, Lee’s “honor” resided in Virginia—as did his estate at Arlington with its 200 slaves. In April, Lee declined President Lincoln’s offer (tendered by Lincoln’s advisor, Francis Blair) to command the forces defending the capital, replying in writing:


    “Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”


Two days after his reply, Lee resigned his commission as a U.S. Army officer, donned the uniform of a Confederate commander, and became a traitor in defense of his so-called honor.


Lee’s apologists argue that it’s unfair to judge the man by 21st century standards—as if no one at the time decried slavery for the evil that it was. In his Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, the former commander of the Union Army describes the famous meeting at Appomattox Courthouse. Grant’s recollection reaffirms the composure that made Lee almost unknowable, but it also renders a contemporaneous judgment, not one from a hundred years down the line:


    “Whatever his [Lee’s] feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” [boldface mine]


Ironically, Grant’s reputation as a general suffered as an indirect result of the Lost Cause; in portraying Lee as the wily fox whose army succeeded despite being outnumbered and under-supplied, Grant, by default, became a brute who won by dint of sheer numbers, bludgeoning his adversary at the price of enormous Union losses.


Once again, Lost Cause adherents conveniently ignore the truth. Grant’s grasp of the war was unparalleled, his brilliant campaign to take Vicksburg and, thereby, split the Confederacy by controlling the Mississippi but one example. As Michael Shaara deftly highlights in exchanges between Lee and his subordinate, James Longstreet, Lee operated under an antiquated notion out of Napoleonic warfare: he believed that he could maneuver the Union Army into a massively decisive engagement, a single, climactic battle which would bring Lincoln to the negotiating table.


Once again, Lee was wrong.


The post-Civil War South’s shameful history amply demonstrates how America would be better off had Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens paid full-freight for their treason. Lee did not deserve such a fate, but he received an especially stinging punishment from the Union Army’s Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs.


Meigs, though a Georgia native, strongly opposed secession. His hatred of the Confederacy intensified with the combat death of his son, Lieutenant John Rodgers Meigs, in October 1864. By that year, existing Union cemeteries could not hold all the dead, so Meigs devised a poetic and lasting solution: he turned Lee’s Arlington estate—the home within the home for which Lee fought, his seat of “honor”—into a military cemetery, what we know today as Arlington National Cemetery.


Immediately after Lee’s death, the mythmaking began. Particularly curious were praises of Lee as a Christian. With only lightly-veiled racism, President Theodore Roosevelt called Lee “the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth.”  (Call me crazy, but my vote goes to George Washington.) Even Teddy’s more patrician-aired cousin, Franklin Delano, said of Lee: “We recognize Robert E. Lee as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentleman.” Perhaps F.D.R. was courting votes from “the Solid South”?  There’s no other way to explain the perversion of such a statement.


Only former slave Frederick Douglass had the clarity borne of unassailable experience to declare Lee for what he was: “We can scarcely take up a newspaper . . . that is not filled with nauseating flatteries [of Lee.] It would seem that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian and entitled to the highest place in heaven.”


Tragically, the lie of Lee and the Lost Cause is not a topic of interest solely for historians and Civil War buffs. The campaign by Lost Cause propagandists continues to ooze its poison into American society. On June 17, 2015, a craven gunman entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered nine congregants. The shooter, a 21 year-old white man, had a Website on which he posted a manifesto of racist ideas and sentiments, largely cobbled together from other white supremacist sources, and a picture of himself brandishing a pistol.


The background of that photo was the Confederate battle flag—the same flag that flew over the South Carolina Confederate Monument in front of the state house that very day.

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Patrick Walsh’s articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
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He is a columnist and Senior Writer for Scene4.
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September 2015

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