Mar 13, 201708:05 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Understanding Robert E. Lee
A Monumental Task
Robert E. Lee is a complex figure, molded by a complex time, who tried to do right. Like the founding fathers that preceded him by less than a century, including Washington and Jefferson, his family had slaves, a common practice in a pre-mechanized agrarian economy. He never purchased any though. Those that he had were handed down through the family. In his comments and writings he had contempt for the practice, which he saw as something that was tolerated by Providence that would one day be ended likewise. In a letter written as early as 1856 he said this about slavery: “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.”
What was important to Lee was not the cause but the place, and that place was Virginia. Early in the war Lee, as the military’s brightest star, was offered control of the Union Army. Had he accepted, the Civil War would have likely ended quickly. (For one reason, the Union would not have had to contend with Lee on the other side.) Lee himself would have been a heroic figure and likely the frontrunner to succeed Lincoln as President. But then there was Virginia.
Lee lived in an era when the nation was seen as being secondary to the states that created it. Indeed the upstart country was given a utilitarian name: the “United States.” Of those states Virginia had the right to feel particularly smug. It had already produced four presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. The nation’s capital city was carved from a slice of Virginia. Jefferson, a Virginian, wrote the Declaration of Independence; Madison was the mastermind behind the constitution. The key vote on Independence back in 1776 was in response to a resolution introduced by Virginia through the politicking of Richard Henry Lee, part of the extended family. Robert E. Lee’s father, Lighthorse Harry Lee, served as Virginia’s ninth governor.
It would not have been hard for a Virginian, especially one raised around so much history, to look at his state and to feel it as being greater than the nation. What his ancestors had done, leading a rebellious region in breaking away from a mother country (Great Britain), was in the spirit of what this so called "civil war" was doing. This was just the progression of history.
Militarily, Lee is remembered as being a great battlefield strategist who was also well respected by his troops. Where he should be most admired though was for his performance after the war. He more than anyone else, likely saved the south.
Imagine the post-war roads and hills of the South being jammed with young men walking or riding home. Drawn into the war during their teenage years, fighting and shooting was what they knew best. Many could have fled to the woods and become guerilla fighters. Some, such as young Jesse James, returned to Missouri and became outlaws. From Maryland through Texas the land could have been ablaze with vigilantes fighting without the discipline of a commander. Lee made it his mission to convince his solders to go home and rebuild their lives. He is perhaps the one person that troops, wearied and defeated, would listen to. Without Lee, the Civil War may have never ended and just become a continuation of renegade disturbances like in today's Middle East. The states of the south might have become Balkanized. Louisiana might be part of a lesser nation.
Reconstruction would be difficult but amazingly the wishes of the martyred Abraham Lincoln prevailed and the emphasis would be on recovery rather than revenge. (Curiously the South would emerge as the most super-patriotic section of the country—its people more prone to wave the American flag and to proudly belt out the anthem.)
Race would remain as an issue though with stutter steps of progress through the years—several steps forward, one step backward. Nevertheless there is an inherent decency in the American people. Most want good will for all.
We will feel this more in the future: students who have graduated from college over the last two decades don’t even understand what all the racial tension from the past was all about. Maybe that’s good.
Nevertheless, those students should understand history and that there are some characters from the past who stood at historic crossroads. Those characters should not be washed away by wholesale stereotypes; rather they should be understood for the ways that they were unique.
Who gets a monument built in their honor is largely a political decision influenced by the emotions of the times.
I suspect that Robert E. Lee is now facing his loneliest battle. If the old soldier cannot be remembered for the war that he fought he should be respected for the war that he ended.
This article was adapted from a blog that first appeared in 2015 at a time when the monuments removal controversy was first introduced.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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