Do not praise the heroes of slavery

If you know anything about Robert E. Lee, it’s probably a mythic image, constructed by apologists for the Confederacy. He’s a heroic figure mounted on a horse, and at least in my head, his story is narrated in the honeyed voice of Shelby Foote, and he spins a story about a noble, courtly, gentle man, beloved by his troops, who only made the decision to lead the southern army because of his strong principles and love for his native Virginia.

He’s defended even now.

Nevertheless, I do not believe Lee deserves only censure and denunciation. I am not an expert on Lee, but to the extent I have read and learned about his life, I cannot object to the admiration many believe he earned as a man of dignity, honor, reserve, and duty. He was a devoted husband and father, an accomplished engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, a hero in the Mexican-American War, a competent superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and a man who earned the esteem of his contemporaries because of his competence, his accomplishments, his seriousness of purpose, and his overarching aura of personal dignity and honor. His superior during the Mexican-American War, General Winfield Scott, stated that Lee was ‘the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.’

That’s the standard myth. Maybe you ought to take a clue from the phrase I highlighted, and look to people who are experts on Lee. Maybe you ought to be suspicious when a human being is so thoroughly deified. This is why you have to respect honest historians, because they expose the truth. Lee was not a good man.

Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington plantation, Pryor writes, nearly lead to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property, one that lasted until a Virginia court forced him to free them.

When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”

He may have respected his men, but only when they were white.

Lee’s cruelty as a slavemaster was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading The Man, historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

Reminder: the Father of our Country, George Washington, and his wife Martha, were also horrible people who kept slaves, but they weren’t quite as vile to them as Robert E. Lee. We praise them all with faint damns.

In summary, then, rather than the courtly gentleman, he was a terrible racist who treated human beings like animals. Worse than animals; we don’t condone abuse of farm animals, but he was a man who thought his black slaves needed brutal corrective discipline.

Lee had beaten or ordered his own slaves to be beaten for the crime of wanting to be free, he fought for the preservation of slavery, his army kidnapped free blacks at gunpoint and made them unfree—but all of this, he insisted, had occurred only because of the great Christian love the South held for blacks. Here we truly understand Frederick Douglass’ admonition that “between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

But then he lost his war. He was ‘punished’ for his treachery by being allowed to return to private life, and was even rewarded by an appointment to the presidency of a university. Surely he was chastised and softened his views? No, that’s not how psychology works.

Publicly, Lee argued against the enfranchisement of blacks, and raged against Republican efforts to enforce racial equality on the South. Lee told Congress that blacks lacked the intellectual capacity of whites and “could not vote intelligently” and that granting them suffrage would “excite unfriendly feelings between the two races.” Lee explained that “the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.” To the extent that Lee believed in reconciliation, it was between white people, and only on the precondition that black people would be denied political power and therefore the ability to shape their own fate.

Lee is not remembered as an educator, but his life as president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee) is tainted as well. According to Pryor, students at Washington formed their own chapter of the KKK, and were known by the local Freedmen’s Bureau to attempt to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from the nearby black schools.

There were at least two attempted lynchings by Washington students during his tenure, and Pryor writes that “the number of accusations against Washington College boys indicates that he either punished the racial harassment more laxly than other misdemeanors, or turned a blind eye to it,” adding that he “did not exercise the near imperial control he had at the school, as he did for more trivial matters, such as when the boys threatened to take unofficial Christmas holidays.” In short, Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence towards blacks carried out by his students as he was when they was carried out by his soldiers.

Why were statues erected to this bigot in the first place? There’s always the danger of lapsing into a Whig view of history, judging people by our modern enlightenment rather than the by the primitive standards of their own time, but this was a traitor who fought for slavery at a time when people were willing to fight a bloody war to end that oppressive institution, in which 2% of the population would die, which says that he was not simply a man of his time. It was also a time when the views of those black slaves were discounted, and they clearly thought he was a monster.

If you want to believe in a real conspiracy theory, here it is: defeated Southern leaders engaged in a successful campaign to rewrite the history books and venerate the villains in the Civil War, and they’ve largely accomplished their goals. They don’t say “Hail Hydra”; it’s “The South will rise again.” They also don’t whisper it to only their confederates; they shout it out loud, proudly.


  1. Saad says

    He was a devoted husband and father, an accomplished engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, a hero in the Mexican-American War, a competent superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and a man who earned the esteem of his contemporaries because of his competence, his accomplishments, his seriousness of purpose

    [Insert whichever high ranking Nazi was also a devoted husband and got badges for being good at killing other countries’ people]

  2. Saad says

    inb4 Godwin

    [Insert whichever high ranking Khmer Rouge figure was also a devoted husband and got badges for being good at killing other countries’ people]

  3. says

    Yeah. It always gets me how one can focus on one laudable aspect of a man’s character, and completely neglect the fact that he enslaved people, whipped them, and tore apart their families.

    “But he loved puppies!”

  4. weylguy says

    I’ve always lamented that Lincoln and Sherman didn’t burn the entire South to the ground and export all those Southern traitors to Siberia. They did not, and with the rise of the KKK and cries of “The South Shall Rise Again!” the hillbillies who slaughtered Emmett Till and thousands of other blacks still worship Lee and pretend to worship Jesus are now running the entire country. And what’s worse, they have all the guns this time.

  5. says

    [quote]Reminder: the Father of our Country, George Washington, and his wife Martha, were also horrible people who kept slaves, but they weren’t quite as vile to them as Robert E. Lee. We praise them all with faint damns.

    There’s always the danger of lapsing into a Whig view of history…[/quote]

    I do not believe this to be a danger. Every one of the United States’ presidents has been despicable and totally unworthy of reverence. Washington, Jefferson, and the other Virginia Dynasty presidents were guilty of slavery and built their wealth on the trade of human beings. Lincoln censored the press, deported a political critic, suspended habeas corpus, and brutally seized land from Native Americans, among other horrid civil liberty transgressions. Teddy Roosevelt was a war monger and was notoriously anti-immigrant (going so far as to say that hyphenated Americans were not American at all), and illegally annexed Panama. FDR put Japanese people into internment camps, tried to expand the Supreme Court to get around their objections, and was so obsessed with a “balanced budget” that he likely kept the Depression going for far longer than he needed to.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love America, but we can absolutely judge the horrible human beings and leaders we’ve had in our past.

  6. thirdmill says

    Weylguy, the North made the same error that the Bush administration did in assuming the Iraqis would greet us with flowers and kisses once we invaded their country: They simply overlooked the depth of the rage, the hatred, the fanaticism and the animosity that was there. With superior firepower, winning a war is easy; it’s replacing it with something better and keeping the peace that’s hard.

    As soon as the Northern troops left, the South returned to what it had been before. Slavery was abolished in name only but continued in the form of sharecropping. And the only way there would have been a different result would have been to leave a standing federal army there indefinitely. The North didn’t want to do that for the same reason most Americans would like us out of Iraq. And we see from the rise of Trumpism that that rage and hatred never really went away; it was still there, just waiting for a chance to boil back up again when the time was right.

  7. peptron says

    @2 Saad :
    Godwin himself brought precisions to his “law” and its intentions. He said that he didn’t want people crying wolf over nothing, so that when the wolf comes, people will still believe you. He said that calling the journalist who kicked refugees a Nazi was in order and not an abuse of the term.

    So, calling people who beat and abuse slaves Nazis is certainly not an abuse of the term.

  8. Larry says

    He was a traitor to his country. That is more than enough to condemn him. Throw his treatment of his slaves into the mix and you move him into sadistic monster category.

  9. kevskos says

    He, along with other high level military and political leaders of the traitorous rebellion should have been hung by the neck after the war. We would be a much better nation now IMHO if we had.

  10. mykroft says

    My mother was raised in the South, and I remember her once saying “The South will rise again!”. As a teenage boy with the usual hint of sarcasm for that age, my response was “How can they rise again, when they couldn’t get it up the first time?”.

  11. vucodlak says

    One who knowingly and willingly serves evil is evil, no matter how “honorably” they did so, how much dignity they comported themselves with, or (especially) how well they did so.

    My education didn’t include much lionization of Lee, but at least one teacher did go on about how great he was. My not particularly intelligent response was basically, “Yeah, but he was a bad guy. It doesn’t matter how well he fought, because he fought for slavery; that makes him a bad guy.” Like I said, not exactly a nuanced take, but I stand by it.

    In a word full of complex and difficult moral issues, this is a rather refreshingly simple matter. Slavers are evil. Those who fight on behalf of slavers are evil. Evil is to be stopped. Not punished, not revenged against. Stopped. At the very least, Lee and the rest of the slavers should have been imprisoned after the war, if only to prevent them for continuing to spread their poison.

    We (still talking about the U.S.) made a similar mistake after WWII, in that we didn’t clean up the Nazis here at home. Everyone who provided materiel support to the Nazis should have been locked up for a long, long time, if not hanged. Every adult who marched in Nazi parades, donated to the American Nazi Party, or wrote a positive word about the Nazis should have been tried in a court of law for crimes against humanity. Instead, we swept it under the rug with the help of J. Edgar Hoover and HUAC.

    We have a bad habit of not cleaning up our messes in this country. We didn’t do it after WWII, we didn’t do it after the Civil War, and now the vermin who breed in the garbage dumps of our history are back to bite us on the ass. I hope that (assuming we survive this at all) men like Trump, Sessions, Pence, Ryan, McConnell, et al face a trial and real consequences for their treason. I’m not at all optimistic that they will, but if they don’t, we’ll be right back here again before you know it.

    Slavers are evil. Genocidal zealots are evil. Evil must be stopped. This much, at least, is simple.

  12. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    granting them suffrage would “excite unfriendly feelings between the two races.

    Yep. Almost exactly like granting women the ability to deny sexual consent would excite unfriendly feelings between the two sexes.

    And people wonder why there are those who would still revere the confederates…

  13. monad says

    @5 weylguy: I don’t doubt the clemency to the ringleaders after the war went awful, but do you think Lincoln and Sherman causing more destruction would have helped? I mean this as a genuine question; it seems like it helped break them at the time but gets used to somehow excuse sympathy for slavers to this day, and I don’t know enough to guess how things might have gone differently.

  14. says

    sez pz: “…rather than the courtly gentleman, [Lee] was a terrible racist who treated human beings like animals.”
    Seems to me that the phrase ‘rather than’ could be replaced with ‘in addition to’ without losing any truth-value.

  15. microraptor says

    mycroft @13:

    My grandmother was also Southern (though she’d moved to Pennsylvania before I was born) and she expressed similar sentiments. I actually got in trouble one summer when we took a family trip to Gettysburg and I dared to express sentiments that weren’t about how the South should have won.