Confederate Monument Protest Charlottesville (copy)

The Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee monument in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va.  AP Photo/Julia Rendleman

Although the degree of political discord in today’s world is profound, there have arguably been times in U.S. history when it has been worse and even more vitriolic. At any rate, President Donald Trump is being used as a convenient touchstone by some to advance their own views (understandably), however reactionary in some cases, out of context or misleading.

For example, and although a divisive figure, elusive, not fully understood and contradictory in some ways, the Marble Man himself, aka Gen. Robert E. Lee, de facto leader of the Confederate Army and Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, was recently referred to by U.S. Sixth District Representative Jim Clyburn as “a loser” on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos.

This was a sort of angry reaction to President Trump’s comments after the deadly clash in Charlottesville, Va., almost two years ago and his subsequent defense of Lee, saying “whether you like it or not he was one of the great generals.”

In the interview several weeks ago, Clyburn made it clear that Lee “was a great tactician” but “not a great person,” “a slave-owner and brutal slave master. Thankfully he lost the war.” The congressman said he found it “kind of interesting that the president is now glorifying a loser. He always said that he hated losers. Robert E. Lee was a loser.”

Lee also has been described over the years as a traitor to the United States.

The general was a product of his era and had conflicting views about many things including, evidence suggests, disunion and slavery, a deep wound which penetrates so terribly and from which we’re still trying to heal.

Before throwing terms such as “loser” around, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a useful exercise for people to ask how they might have behaved had they been born under similar circumstances as Gen. Lee? How are they absolutely certain they would have been game changers as opposed to assimilating into the world they knew? A tough question, that one.

It’s painful for many to accept the reality that many of our earliest statesmen and presidents were slave-owners, including George Washington (who freed his slaves at the end of his life), Thomas Jefferson (despite once calling slavery “an assemblage of horrors”), James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk and Gen. Zachary Taylor. Slaves helped build the White House and eight presidents held slaves while in office.

It’s only fair to Gen. Lee, who died in 1870, that his reputation be interpreted in the context of his times and his positive traits and accomplishments should not be swept under the broader rug with the word “loser” stamped all over it.

Lee’s life and character have been appropriately re-evaluated over the past three decades or so and now includes added layers of complexity. This would be in contrast, for example, to the seminal work of Douglas Southall Freeman, whose 4-volume biography of Lee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935, and is virtually without any hint of flaw or imperfection whatsoever, a work some might describe as fulsome hero-worshipping.

Indeed, as James M. McPherson, Professor Emeritus of U.S. History at Princeton, noted in a forward to a 1997 abridgment by Richard Harrell of Freeman’s biography on Lee, there is in the index of the original four-volume biography a heading titled “Personal Characteristics. ” They include: abstemiousness, alertness, amiability, boldness, calmness, charm of manner, cheerfulness, courage, courtesy, dignity, diligence, fairness, faith in God, friendliness, generosity, goodness, good judgment, good looks, grace, heroic character, humility, integrity, intelligence, justice, kindness, mercy, modesty, patience, poise, politeness, resourcefulness, sincerity, tact, thoughtfulness, and wisdom.

That kind of talk 65 years previously, shortly after the death of Gen. Lee, was the sort of thing that practically sickened abolitionist and former slave Fredrick Douglass. A recent Newsweek article recalls an editorial Douglass wrote for The New National Era, in which he asked, “Is it not about time that this bombastic laudation of the rebel chief should cease?” Even The New York Times, according to the article, wrote in Lee’s obituary, “His personal integrity was well-known, and his loyalty and patriotism was not doubted.”

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And yet, as McPherson noted in his famous single volume treatment of the Civil War, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” Lee was the son of a Revolutionary War hero, scion of the First Families of Virginia, outwardly without discernible fault, second in his class at West Point, had an outstanding record in the Mexican-American War, whose experience as an engineer officer, as a cavalry officer, and as superintendent of West Point earned him promotion to full colonel. He was considered by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott to be the best officer in the army as of March, 1861.

In an 1856 letter to his wife Mary Custis, Lee described slavery as “a moral and political evil,” although he never spoke out against it or freed his slaves. Until the day Virginia left the Union he opposed secession, writing, in January 1861, “The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It is intended for 'perpetual Union,' so expressed in the preamble.” 

With Virginia’s decision, everything changed. “I must side either with or against my section,” Lee told a northern friend, according to McPherson’s book, which states that Lee’s choice was foreordained by birth and blood.

“I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children.” He told his friend Gen. Scott that not only must he decline the offer of Union command, but further resign from the army. “Save in defense of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword.” Scott was saddened but knew it was coming. “You have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared it would be so.”

General Robert E. Lee remains, at the very least, a titanic figure in American history and brilliant military commander who, by virtue of his tragic flaws as a human being, deserves criticism, but not oversimplified insults.

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@comcast.net.

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