Monday, December 03, 2007

The Other Robert E. Lee

Maybe Robert E. Lee is not a big deal in that part of your mind's eye that looks back over American history. He wasn't at the center of my study of Southern history at Duke, but I understood something like he was the greatest man the South ever produced, etc. I did enjoy Grant's biography, which I read a couple of years ago, but I guess, from the South's perspective, Grant's best use was as a slightly disreputable, cigar smoking foil for General Lee, and that the best thing one could say about Grant was that he treated General Lee well and let the rebels keep their guns at Appomattox.

In the September 2007 issue of The New Criterion, Daniel Mark Epstein has it out for Lee, as he reviews Elizabeth Brown's Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. His review, entitled "Who Cares About Robert E. Lee?" presents the revisionist view of the great man.

For example: Lee married well, or it looked like that initially. But when he was 49, his father-in-law died, "naming him as executor in charge of a debt-ridden estate and 196 slaves on several plantations". The father in law stipulated in his will that the slaves should be liberated, and they all expected to be. But Lee didn't liberate them and, instead, leased out the able-bodied ones to raise money for the estate. He broke up families to do so and "most of these families had been together since General Washington's time". Two of the slaves ran away when they learned they would not be freed, a young man and a young woman, brother and sister, but they were apprehended and brought back. Lee supervised 50 lashes for the young man and 20 for the young woman.

This is only one part of the indictment. The indictment also alleges that he was not such a great general, that he was silent when the Virginia legislature might have stayed in the union had he spoken up, and that he resigned his commission, thereby renouncing an oath, and took up arms against the US, all out of pride and not out of a true sense of duty to Virginia. The worst charge of all (to my mind) was that he was an engineer and thought like one. Now, as a liberal arts major, I can concede that that criticism may have some merit to it.

But first Beowulf, and now General Lee. I just don't know what to say,

6 comments:

Jana said...

I can spot an engineer a mile away!!! :) We tend not to get along very well.

Paul said...

Some of my best friends are engineers.

Jana said...

oh. :)

Paul said...

:)

Scott said...

Such are the spoils of the "victor" to (re)define the players in a manner best fitting their worldview....

Alas....

Paul said...

Somebody said, "It is the victor who counts the dead and writes history."