The Myth of the Kindly General Lee
June 7, 2017 9:31 AM   Subscribe

The strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee is how few of the qualities his admirers profess to see in him he actually possessed.
posted by Chrysostom (101 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 


Good. The Leeaboo nonsense about a traitor and oathbreaker needs to be countered.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:38 AM on June 7, 2017 [10 favorites]


Over the decades, my family has piled up a lot of books, acres of them, without regard to whether they're good or bad. Nonetheless, I was taken aback to find out, while digging around in their old shelves, that there is such a book as Robert E. Lee's Lighter Side: The Marble Man's Sense of Humor.

I refuse to open it, but as a curio, like a taxidermied monkey, it is worth keeping, I suppose. Every day I am learning how the mythology of the gentle Confederate, the Lost Cause, poisoned our soil like arsenic.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:40 AM on June 7, 2017 [16 favorites]


The only General Lee worth commemorating

Qualities:
* Can do jumps
* easily outruns dispshit sheriff

Downsides:
* Haunted by racist ghost
posted by Artw at 9:45 AM on June 7, 2017 [37 favorites]


Lee proposed an exchange of prisoners with the Union general Ulysses S. Grant. “Grant agreed, on condition that blacks be exchanged ‘the same as white soldiers.’” Lee’s response was that “negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange and were not included in my proposition.”

He refused to exchange his own prisoners because that would require that he consider black soldiers to be equivalent to white soldiers. There's probably a German word about sticking to your ludicrous principles and hurting yourself more than others as a result.

I think that judging people in the past by the standards of today is dangerous. Men and women are, to a large extent, a product of their times. If history cares enough about me to judge me then I hope it does so by 20th-21st century standards and not those of the 25th century.

That said, Christ, what an asshole.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:52 AM on June 7, 2017 [30 favorites]


I would paraphrase a bit and say history is written by the survivors...
posted by Samizdata at 9:54 AM on June 7, 2017


From the article: "Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. That ideology is known as the Lost Cause, and as historian David Blight writes, it provided a 'foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system.'"

I argue--usually not so much to disagreement, but to mute incomprehension--that the resentment of those who culturally identify with the Confederacy is absolutely essential to understand most of the major strands of what passes for "conservatism" in American politics to this very day, including virtually all of the issues subsumed under the category of the "culture wars".

I would go as far as saying that the moral and pragmatic bankruptcy of this resentment-driven politics has been a boil on the body politic that has burst forth with the election of Trump. About half the country, those most susceptible to the propaganda campaign in its contemporary guise, decided that saying "fuck you" to the ideological descendants of the North was more important to them, more gratifying, than electing someone who actually could maintain the systems central to our constitutional government.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:57 AM on June 7, 2017 [52 favorites]


I am glad you posted this. I am from Virginia where I was fed the Lee myth in school as gospel truth--and this was in a program that generally avoided any kind of "it wasn't reeeallllyyyy about slavery, it was about states' rights!" evasiveness. It is giving me that uncomfortable backfire effect sensation, which means I should be paying attention.
posted by capricorn at 9:57 AM on June 7, 2017 [6 favorites]


National Review hack responds to Serwer with a bunch of yeahbuts, Serwer is not impressed:
Lee was a man of his time. So was George Henry Thomas, a son of Virginia who chose to fight for the Union over fighting for slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a man of his time, as was Frederick Douglass. Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln were men of their time. Wesley Norris, whom Lee had tortured for escaping his plantation, was a man of his time. The hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Union, including the black soldiers murdered and humiliated by Lee’s lieutenants, were men of their time. We do not, in the main, build statues to people about whom the best that can be said is that they were of their time. We build them to people who rise above their times, and like many other men of his time, as a farmer, a general, a statesman, and an educator, Lee failed this test in every respect. [...]

McLaughlin concludes that I am making a “contemporary political cause” out of the Civil War, and that my “interest in attacking General Lee is transparently about the present, not the past.”

This, I’m afraid, is correct. My contemporary political cause is demonstrating that white supremacy is a monstrous ideology that has cost hundreds of millions of Americans very dearly over centuries, and that its greatest champions are not heroes worthy of admiration. I’m sorry that’s a fight we’re still having in the present, and that it did not end with Appomattox. The cult of Lee is party to blame.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:05 AM on June 7, 2017 [111 favorites]


Lee also wasn't all that great of a General and tactician, either. He wasn't *horrible* per se, especially when you count how many Generals on both sides were political appointments that really were more often than not horrible, but he was nothing all that special. He got lucky with some early wins in the war, essentially defeating McClellan, which made his reputation soar, but his fixation on getting "the decisive battle" and on winning a war through individual-battle-focused maneuver methods that were quickly being demonstrated to be ineffective (Grant, by contrast, waged an overall campaign rather than focusing only on solitary battles, and that's a large point of why Lee lost) should be considered a negative, not a positive.
posted by mystyk at 10:05 AM on June 7, 2017 [6 favorites]


“Neither the man who really existed, nor the fictionalized tragic hero of the Lost Cause, are heroes worthy of a statue in a place of honor.”

Whatever the realities, his final dilemma was either fight against his home or with it.
I’d be hard pressed to take arms against the city of Chicago no matter what was wrong with it, and there are some serious problems, including overt institutional racism, in Chicago.
I do and would fight to end that.
But going so far as to start shooting my neighbors? That’s a pretty tall order. No matter how committed to a cause, whether the cause itself is good or evil, you are.

“I think that judging people in the past by the standards of today is dangerous.”

I wholeheartedly agree. But lots of mefites seem to take up a contrary position.

I don’t think we should have statues for anyone who sheds blood no matter how righteous the cause. Look at Washington during the Indian war -
“The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.” - Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, May 31, 1779)

Davy Crockett massacred native Americans, Capt. Frémont, Gen. Sherman ("during an assault, the soldiers cannot pause to distinguish between male and female, or even discriminate as to age.”), Oliver Otis Howard, all participants in American Indian genocide, all lauded as heroes with statues.

Our monuments should be to the peacemakers, healers, freedom fighters like Mandela or King, or Salk. Wars not make one great (to quote Yoda).
posted by Smedleyman at 10:12 AM on June 7, 2017 [12 favorites]


Men and women are, to a large extent, a product of their times.

Winfield Scott, David Farragut and George Henry Thomas concur.

Longstreet was a better general, but you lead a militia against the White League (and fail) in New Orleans and somehow the Lost Causers forget about you...
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:14 AM on June 7, 2017 [7 favorites]


Whatever the realities, his final dilemma was either fight against his home or with it.
I’d be hard pressed to take arms against the city of Chicago no matter what was wrong with it, and there are some serious problems, including overt institutional racism, in Chicago.
I do and would fight to end that.
But going so far as to start shooting my neighbors? That’s a pretty tall order. No matter how committed to a cause, whether the cause itself is good or evil, you are.


This is my favorite thing about Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels: It forces me to confront the seeming paradox of understanding and even, in some way, sympathizing (or is it empathizing?) with the very people with whom I strongly disagree, against whom I am morally opposed, without ever suggesting I am wrong in my opposition.
posted by timdiggerm at 10:22 AM on June 7, 2017 [7 favorites]


Since the South mythologized the entire war, as noted above and called The Lost Cause, Gen. Lee was just one more item in that perspective. It is not till very recently that a number of those from the South have accepted the war as caused not by a states rights issue but by slavery. Yes, Lee was a slave owner, but then so too were some 10 of our presidents, either while in office or out of office. And if we want to look back at a hero with another side to him, Pres Wilson "As president, Wilson oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices. It’s a shameful side to his legacy that came to a head one fall afternoon in 1914 when he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office."
posted by Postroad at 10:28 AM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


Whatever the realities, his final dilemma was either fight against his home or with it.

I think this is missing the point. That is indeed a difficult choice, but the problem isn't how Lee resolved that dilemma. It's that Lee has been framed, as part of a deliberate propaganda campaign, as a kind, noble, military genius who did nothing wrong for a cause that was really about liberty. It's this propaganda campaign that, as others have noted, has (maybe irrecoverably) poisoned the American body politic and has served as the foundation for almost everything wrong with it today.

It's really less about what Lee the man did than how he and the Civil War have been used politically.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:29 AM on June 7, 2017 [33 favorites]


"The greatest efforts made by the defeated insurgents since the close of the war have been to promulgate the idea that the cause of liberty, justice, humanity, equality, and all the calendar of the virtues of freedom, suffered violence and wrong when the effort for southern independence failed. This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government, thus wiping out with their own hands their own stains; a species of self-forgiveness amazing in its effrontery, when it is considered that life and property—justly forfeited by the laws of the country, of war, and of nations, through the magnanimity of the government and people—was not exacted from them."

— George Henry Thomas, November 1868.
posted by bwvol at 10:42 AM on June 7, 2017 [29 favorites]


It really is hard to understate how prevalent the belief that Lee was a loyal soldier is in the South, in my totally-hippy, everyone wears tiedye, MLK day (not Lee-Jackson or Virginia heroes day) is a community service day, Virginia middle school, I remember one of the parents talking about how Lee was a really good person, and did a lot of good things after the war.
posted by phack at 10:42 AM on June 7, 2017 [4 favorites]


I’d be hard pressed to take arms against the city of Chicago no matter what was wrong with it, and there are some serious problems, including overt institutional racism, in Chicago.

I love Minneapolis, but if they ever took up arms against the United States to preserve slavery, I would take up arms against my city. Even, and I know this will be an unpopular opinion, against Garrison Keillor.
posted by maxsparber at 10:44 AM on June 7, 2017 [29 favorites]


Good. The Leeaboo nonsense about a traitor and oathbreaker needs to be countered.

Not wrong at all, but I wonder if this will be read by anyone who needs to be convinced. Dan McLaughlin at NRO, for instance, responded with “Was Robert E. Lee A Hero Or A Villain?” This got him dragged by the usual suspects on Twitter, but those remain unimportant people.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:46 AM on June 7, 2017


This quote of Lee's really struck me:
I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.
What struck me is that there are many people out there today who still believe this, and not just white supremacists. They would of course never say that black people should be slaves again, but they truly believe that "the painful discipline they are undergoing" - be it poverty, incarceration, violence, etc. - exists because they deserve it.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 10:47 AM on June 7, 2017 [14 favorites]


If history cares enough about me to judge me then I hope it does so by 20th-21st century standards and not those of the 25th century.

Really? But you're dead by then. Maybe society moves to a better place by reflecting on your actions and finding them not up to snuff. There's a street I drive on everyday and a county in my state who is named after a General in the U.S. Army who was decorated and venerated for murdering American Natives. He also whipped to death someone else's black slave – he went to court but was acquitted and served no time.

Sometimes I think monuments to dead white men are done because they have done bad things and our culture will be damned if we can't do what we want, including venerating white men who have done despicable things. It's a show of power in and of itself. The money and power to make monuments to whoever we want. And such, I have no problem judging them by the standards of today.

When I think of a Native American driving through that county named after a "heroic" killer who honed modern military tactics on the backs of innocents. When I think of a black person walking or driving on that street and knowing the history. I think his name and story should have a place in our books but not memorialized in our place names.
posted by amanda at 10:48 AM on June 7, 2017 [12 favorites]


Leeaboo
NoxAeternum

This, by the way, is genius and should rightly be celebrated and used by future generations.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:48 AM on June 7, 2017 [7 favorites]


Whatever the realities, his final dilemma was either fight against his home or with it.
I’d be hard pressed to take arms against the city of Chicago no matter what was wrong with it, and there are some serious problems, including overt institutional racism, in Chicago.
I do and would fight to end that.
But going so far as to start shooting my neighbors? That’s a pretty tall order. No matter how committed to a cause, whether the cause itself is good or evil, you are.


But there were thousands of people who didn't. What is now West Virginia is the result of that, and many of the northern Virginia counties that surrounded his estate had large populations of abolitionists. And many of them were commanders just like Lee. Here's Serwer in response to the National Review response posted above:
Lee was a man of his time. So was George Henry Thomas, a son of Virginia who chose to fight for the Union over fighting for slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a man of his time, as was Frederick Douglass. Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln were men of their time. Wesley Norris, whom Lee had tortured for escaping his plantation, was a man of his time. The hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Union, including the black soldiers murdered and humiliated by Lee’s lieutenants, were men of their time. We do not, in the main, build statues to people about whom the best that can be said is that they were of their time. We build them to people who rise above their times, and like many other men of his time, as a farmer, a general, a statesman, and an educator, Lee failed this test in every respect.
“I think that judging people in the past by the standards of today is dangerous.”

I wholeheartedly agree. But lots of mefites seem to take up a contrary position.


Because it's a logical response? He didn't even meet the standards of his time, let alone exceed them in a fashion that merits celebration. And talking about judging him by the standards of today ignores the fact that pretty much every other world superpower had already taken steps to abolish slavery or had already done it by the time he turned traitor. He was far more of a supporter of slavery than the sycophantic historians who have perpetuated the Lost Cause mythology have tried to whitewash from his biography. He was a cruel slavemaster who blocked the manumission of his father-in-law's slaves and tortured them by whipping them and literally pouring salt in their wounds.

It is far past the time where excuses like "but he's a product of his time" and "but he was an honorable man" and "but he wasn't totally pro-slavery" should have ceased to become acceptable. That they not only continue but are trotted out in the defense of monuments to his memory, and in particular against the people for whom the legacy of the cause he fought for is still felt as painfully as any whip, is absolutely horrifying.
posted by zombieflanders at 10:49 AM on June 7, 2017 [39 favorites]


It really is hard to understate how prevalent the belief that Lee was a loyal soldier is in the South

Indeed. The State of Alabama still has a state holiday for Robert E. Lee's birthday on the same day as MLK day, and both of my historian colleagues have pictures of Lee on their office walls.
posted by fogovonslack at 10:50 AM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


About half the country, those most susceptible to the propaganda campaign in its contemporary guise, decided that saying "fuck you" to the ideological descendants of the North was more important to them, more gratifying, than electing someone who actually could maintain the systems central to our constitutional government.

Given that the original post is about judging public figures based on what actually happened rather than stories people tell in order to support a particular ideological point, it's worth remembering that the US Census Bureau estimates that U.S. population in 2016 at about 323 million. About 20% of that number, nowhere near "about half the country," voted for Trump in the November.
posted by layceepee at 10:52 AM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


[Friendly nudge, thread is about Lee and that specific history, let's not drive in the direction of arguing about the recent election/current administration.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:56 AM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


Borrowed from another thread: Robert E. Lee Monuments Are Symbols of Neo-Confederacy, Not the Confederacy
By his surrender at Appamattox, and his much-honored postwar career, Robert E. Lee was very much a symbol of the idea that in losing the Civil War the white South had given up slavery but maintained its “honor,” its “states’ rights,” and its self-determination in choosing to subjugate ex-slaves and deny them the rights for which the war was allegedly fought, at least in northern eyes. The postwar white terror that afflicted the South until the United States wearily abandoned Reconstruction was invariably treated as a product of Reconstruction rather than what is actually was: a partial victory for the “lost cause” that lasted much longer than the Confederacy.

It’s this neo-Confederacy that must be acknowledged and finally repudiated by people in all parts of the country, in no small part because all parts of the country were complicit in the horrible betrayal of African-Americans (and the white people who died and sacrificed on their behalf) that occurred when Reconstruction was abandoned and white supremacy reigned supreme in the former Confederacy. Anyone who is nostalgic for Jim Crow should probably keep those views to themselves.
posted by zombieflanders at 10:56 AM on June 7, 2017 [10 favorites]


fogovonslack, I just looked Lee-Jackson day up, because I thought VA had gotten rid of it a few years ago. Apparently they just moved it so that it isn't on MLK day anymore.
posted by phack at 10:57 AM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


(Judging me by the standards of the future when I'm dead)

Really? But you're dead by then.

Fair point, I guess I won't care. Still, I can imagine that in a hundred years or so, people will no longer eat animal flesh (synthetic meat? Maybe) because vegetarianism is perfectly healthy and makes more efficient use of resources and factory farming is horrible and a dozen other reasons that I'm sure you can come up with. I can imagine that a century after that it would be viewed as horrifying to eat animal flesh. I don't think it's particularly fair to view me (and my fellow meat eaters of the 21st century) as evil and disgusting just because I did something that was viewed, by the large majority of people alive when I was, as perfectly acceptable.

And I didn't want to excuse Lee in any way. My thoughts were more directed at people like Washington and Jefferson. Jefferson was strongly anti-slavery and called it a moral depravity and worked to abolish it, while simultaneously owning slaves. Today we'd view someone like that as straight up evil. You don't own people. Period. And believing that owning people is wrong while simultaneously profiting from the owning of people? That's crazy.

So does that make Jefferson a horribly evil person? Kinda. He wasn't a perfect person, but by the standards of the time he was a better person on this issue than most people alive then, so we have to give him credit for that.

Lee, even by the standards of the time, was pretty much a dick. Hence my comment.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:03 AM on June 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


I don't think it's particularly fair to view me (and my fellow meat eaters of the 21st century) as evil and disgusting just because I did something that was viewed, by the large majority of people alive when I was, as perfectly acceptable.

As a vegetarian, I have no problem with this. We are capable of making moral choices despite the time we live in.
posted by maxsparber at 11:09 AM on June 7, 2017 [6 favorites]


Not that I think meat eaters are horrible and disgusting. But in the future, I have no problem with them looking back and questioning our behavior toward animals.
posted by maxsparber at 11:10 AM on June 7, 2017 [4 favorites]


So does that make Jefferson a horribly evil person? Kinda. He wasn't a perfect person, but by the standards of the time he was a better person on this issue than most people alive then, so we have to give him credit for that.

Giving someone credit for their relative progressivism is fine, but it shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction when someone says a bad thing about them. It’s not that the nuance shouldn’t exist - it’s that that nuance seems to often be invoked in order to cloud the issue. With Lee, of course, it seems that some of the nuance is being created out of whole cloth.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:11 AM on June 7, 2017 [12 favorites]


It's funny. One of my favorite books, as I mentioned here recently, is Guns of the South. This definitely portrays Lee in a positive light.

I guess the salve for my conscience is to tell myself that I can still like problematic things, and remind myself that the premise of that book begins with something as outlandish as the myth of kindly Robert E. Lee. :)
posted by Alensin at 11:12 AM on June 7, 2017


This, by the way, is genius and should rightly be celebrated and used by future generations.

I wish I could take credit for it, but it's a term that I heard elsewhere that really sums it all up.

Jefferson was strongly anti-slavery and called it a moral depravity and worked to abolish it, while simultaneously owning slaves. Today we'd view someone like that as straight up evil. You don't own people. Period. And believing that owning people is wrong while simultaneously profiting from the owning of people? That's crazy.

So does that make Jefferson a horribly evil person? Kinda. He wasn't a perfect person, but by the standards of the time he was a better person on this issue than most people alive then, so we have to give him credit for that.


No, he really wasn't. And the fact that we think he was is because American historians hid the truth about Jefferson from us.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:17 AM on June 7, 2017 [8 favorites]


Lee also wasn't all that great of a General and tactician, either.

No, he wasn't.
posted by TedW at 11:20 AM on June 7, 2017 [4 favorites]


[Leeaboo] by the way, is genius and should rightly be celebrated and used by future generations.

I had never heard of leaboo before, so I had to look it up.

It is a sort of mad genius--a good example of how sustained culturally-entrenched belief can bring something into being. To some extent, the Confederacy did win the Civil War. They might have lost the hot part of it, but the century and a half cold part was a resounding success, greatly accelerating since the 60's. I just have to go back to simple cultural icons like country music and the rebel flag: growing up in northeastern Ohio in the 70's, these things were pretty much absent in my environment. Now, they've been exported to every rural part of the entire country. On such minor cultural preferences are deeper ideological commitments built.
posted by mondo dentro at 11:28 AM on June 7, 2017 [5 favorites]


I've always wondered why Virginia, which has a Lee Highway and a Jefferson Davis highway, hasn't given a similar honor to Benedict Arnold.
posted by bcarter3 at 11:41 AM on June 7, 2017 [6 favorites]


Benedict Arnold was born in Connecticut. To a Virginian, being a Yankee is worse than being a traitor.
posted by peeedro at 11:51 AM on June 7, 2017 [4 favorites]


At least he got a drink named after him.
posted by Artw at 11:52 AM on June 7, 2017


> "negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange...

Wow. Woooowwwwww. That is nuclear-level irony.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:59 AM on June 7, 2017


Benedict Arnold might not have a lot of monuments in the US, but he does have a boot.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:02 PM on June 7, 2017 [1 favorite]


I’ve always wondered why Virginia, which has a Lee Highway and a Jefferson Davis highway, hasn't given a similar honor to Benedict Arnold.

Benedict Arnold was born in Connecticut. To a Virginian, being a Yankee is worse than being a traitor.

Something of a derail, but I found the “Benedict Arnold’s Leg” episode of the Rumblestrip podcast to be an interesting take on this, as it stressed the notion that Arnold isn’t exactly a one-sided figure but rather a complicated mess like everyone else. Notably, he’s someone who is hard to memorialize because he was both heroic and a traitor, and who engaged in both actions when we were creating the founding myths of our country. (The Boot Monument, from which the episode takes its title.) It is telling that right now the story we need to tell about Lee is one that hides all of his merits - the apologia on the other side of the ledger have been too strong. Arnold, in contrast, seems to have just faded away.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:02 PM on June 7, 2017


Whatever the realities, his final dilemma was either fight against his home or with it.

Or, you know, just not fought.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:17 PM on June 7, 2017 [4 favorites]


Whatever the realities, his final dilemma was either fight against his home or with it.

You mean the home to which he had sworn an oath of loyalty and which had been his only employer ever? Or the home in which he had spent less than a fifth of the 36 years between swearing that oath and breaking it?
posted by Etrigan at 12:44 PM on June 7, 2017 [12 favorites]


To a certain extent, I've always been conflicted about Robert E. Lee.

On the one hand, I've been proud to call myself a Connecticut Yankee, even though I'm a first-generation US citizen: my very, very few ancestors here during the 1860s were brickmakers in Philadelphia, no rich or even semi-rich folks, and definitely no slave-holders. On the other hand, I've spent time in Virginia schools, where Lee is still held up at an honorable man: especially Alexandria, Va., home to the Lee family and R.E. Lee himself's boyhood home. (Open to the public, it's now a museum.) Plus my father was part of the original crew of the only US Navy ship named after Lee: SSBN-601 Robert E. Lee, whose keel was laid in Newport News, Virginia and was commissioned by one of Lee's granddaughters. Lee was pictured on the pamphlet at that commissioning ceremony, on the welcoming pamphlet for incoming crewmembers throughout the '60s, and on the boat's official logo. I remember seeing Lee's portrait in the wardroom of that boat when they'd have tours for the families. And this doesn't even count how those crude Union soldiers chased his poor wife out of her own home and started what became Arlington National Cemetery in her rose garden (cue evil cackling), just to steal the property.
posted by easily confused at 12:48 PM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


That's a perfect example of how the Lost Cause Movement works, easily confused. Which is why it's so utterly corrosive.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:02 PM on June 7, 2017 [4 favorites]


Alexandria, like much of northern Virginia, is pretty liberal. Last year, the city council voted unanimously to rename Jefferson Davis Highway, so I wouldn't say it's place where Lee is "especially" held to be an honorable man anymore.

Unfortunately, flying the traitor's rag and removal of monuments is under the control of Virginia's General Assembly, a political body that tried (unsuccesfully) to bring back an actual three-fifths rule for African American voters just a few years ago.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:06 PM on June 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


bcarter3: "I've always wondered why Virginia, which has a Lee Highway and a Jefferson Davis highway, hasn't given a similar honor to Benedict Arnold."

FWIW, they're going to re-name the Jefferson Davis Highway.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:07 PM on June 7, 2017 [1 favorite]


That's awesome news about the Jefferson Davis Highway, thank you both for linking it! That's where I learned to drive, and I've always been so uncomfortable with that name. And trying to remove the Confederate soldier again! Even if that damn thing will never be removed, we should be bringing it up year after year after year.
posted by capricorn at 1:18 PM on June 7, 2017


The only General Lee worth commemorating

That General Lee also did not posses the qualities it was portrayed as having. Unless you are talking about the frame they show bending irreparably on every jump's landing. It's as if getting away with hundreds and hundreds of lies led to the point where we all pretended not to see what was right before us. We wanted to believe that car could do something horrible to itself and then drive away as if nothing had happened.

And I am writing a high school essay. Damn you to hell metaphors!
posted by srboisvert at 1:30 PM on June 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


> bring back an actual three-fifths rule for African American voters just a few years ago.

So this is a total derail, but I want to nitpick some of the rhetoric in that blog post. (The proposal it discusses is disgusting and abominable, of course.) Almost every time I see the three-fifths compromise mentioned, its significance is misinterpreted.

The three-fifths compromise was bad not because enslaved people should have been counted as a whole person and weren't, but instead because they shouldn't have been counted at all; not counting them is the policy that was favored by Northern states; it is a policy that would have greatly reduced the political influence of white Southerners and possibly averted the Civil War.

It's not about the power of the Black vote, because enslaved people weren't allowed to vote. But the amount of power a state has in Congress is determined by the size of its population. Counting enslaved people as part of a state's population for this purpose greatly inflated the amount of political power available to slaveowners, allowing them to perpetuate the practice of slavery.

It's not that Southerners saw Black people as "three-fifths of a person." To say that is to give them far too much credit. They didn't see Black people as people at all. They saw them, and treated them, as subhuman. Effectively, Southern whites wanted to co-opt the Congressional representation of their enslaved populace in order to perpetuate the legal system that was subjugating these very people; the three-fifths compromise was the unsuccessful result of an attempt to stop this.
posted by a mirror and an encyclopedia at 1:30 PM on June 7, 2017 [24 favorites]


I am glad to see the ideology about Lee being challenged. The cloud of historical obfuscation is and has been so immense.

As an example of just how well this propaganda campaign has worked, let me tell you about my grandmother. She graduated from college at a time when few women did, first in her family to do so, a scholarship student who worked her way through. She went into politics, a lifelong Democrat, who spent so many terms in her state's Senate that the thought of her losing an election simply never came up. She worked tirelessly against racism, sexism, and, well before the word had been coined, ableism; she singlehandedly built the law that required universal free TTY in her state and shoved it through with all her political capital against gigantic resistance. I never went out to dinner with her without encountering a grateful constituent, who just wanted to thank her for all she had done. At her funeral, literally hundreds of people told me that her work had been life-savingly necessary to them.

Her battle cry, her slogan, her 'this is who I am and what I work for'?

"For God, General Lee, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.!"

And she saw no contradiction in that sentence.

She saw no contradiction.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 1:33 PM on June 7, 2017 [10 favorites]


So does that make Jefferson a horribly evil person? Kinda. He wasn't a perfect person, but by the standards of the time he was a better person on this issue than most people alive then, so we have to give him credit for that.

Slave rapist.

If you ever asked me what's worse than being a slaver or a rapist, the answer that springs immediately to mind is "slave rapist".

Thomas Jefferson: Slave Rapist.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 1:33 PM on June 7, 2017 [15 favorites]


On "Jefferson owned slaves but..." remember that Jefferson didn't just own slaves, he owned his own children as slaves, as well as his sister-in-law who was their mother. At least let's be clear on exactly what he's being excused of with the "man of his times" absolution.
posted by XMLicious at 1:35 PM on June 7, 2017 [10 favorites]


but if they ever took up arms against the United States to preserve slavery,

Well... it scales though, doesn't it? Look at the laquan mcdonald shooting. That was an absolute travesty of justice deliberately covered up by the mayor and other officials. And they're still in office. There's been a police torture scandal and an off-the-books holding facility scandal. All mostly racially focused.
There's little question black folks are systemically oppressed and labor is exploited.
It's not exactly slavery, but it scales to the modern equivalent (prison labor, et.al)

Now, put yourself in Lee's shoes. He's from Northern Virginia. Slavery is going on. You're (Lee is) in the loop so you know the president is going to suspend habeus corpus and declare martial law. He's been asked to lead the Union army. He doesn't support secession, OTOH, his legislature (Virginia) democratically decided to do so. And indeed, if Virginia had decided to stay with the Union, he (as he'd written) would have too.

So consider - you're a National Guard general, say you live in Chicago. Donald Trump, fed up with the murders and corruption decides to "send in the feds" as he's threatened to do so.

Do you enforce martial law on the city? Bear in mind, if you stand with the Chicago government you're protecting proven racists. Whereas if you enforce the presidential order, well, you're with Trump. And there would certainly be bloodshed. Doing nothing just means it's in slow motion (which is the current status quo).
And it could easily spill into national violence.

Wouldn't be the first time violent skirmishes proceeded a big blow up.

So either way it's sort of a shit-sandwich, is what I'm saying, regardless of the issue of slavery.

But as to that:
" in particular against the people for whom the legacy of the cause he fought for is still felt as painfully as any whip, is absolutely horrifying."

So you're actively shooting and killing people who engage in human trafficking and the prison labor industry?
Because not doing so is morally wrong, is it not?

That's the dilemma. Not whether Lee should be honored (I don't think he should be). But, from his perspective, does he go and start destroying those institutions and killing people connected to them in his backyard.
This isn't a nebulous or abstract point. He would be literally firing cannon into his neighbors houses. Killing the sons of people who live next door, down the street.
(Although Farragut, and a few others blasted the hell out of their hometowns)
And bear in mind, he'd be commanding - by force (in that they're conscripts) other local people into doing so too. It's not like he's toting cannon around by himself.

For comparison, Mayor Emanuel demonstrably engages in racist practices and actively supports institutional racism, as one example the McDonald cover up.

Should I go kick in his door and shoot him? Gun down those cops? Shoot the people who support them? Would you? Round up folks in the area and force them, under threat of jail, to destroy their own neighborhood because some local people passively support the mayor?

Lee's cause was wrong. Perhaps he knew he was or didn't. But, at the very least, he had the decency to recognize an ending was preferable to any other circumstances. Plenty of southerners wanted to continue a guerilla war and Lee shut those ideas down.

And indeed, plenty of Union members wanted to continue fighting and punishing the south. Their cause was right, but that doesn't make further bloodshed and suffering right.

It's a balancing act in many ways. And not fighting is not always the answer either. I wonder what future generations will say about us sitting passively (non-violently) by while so many people of color are brutalized and exploited.

Or, you know, just not fought.
He would have been one of the very few with that luxury.
John C. Breckinridge advocated peaceful means to preserve the union and got his ass handed to him. Quakers were violently persecuted and even executed by both sides.

Frankly, considering how less than one third of southern families (wealthy ones) owned slaves and how poor most draftees were, I’m more inclined to see the civil war more in terms of groups of elitists using poor soldiers as fodder for their disagreements in property and investments.
Grunts had more in common with each other and indeed, slaves, than they did with the ruling class. “the war could have been over in ten days if the question had been left to the soldiers.” – James Dinkins

Most of the people who wank over generals and ideals and strategy do so because they'd never get their own hands dirty in the realities of blood and shit.

I mean, yeah, ideals. But 1816 (and prior) to 1850 people were fine with states being admitted in slave/free pairs (missouri compromise). Suddenly in 1861 people realized out of the blue how wrong slavery was? Or they just all of a sudden decided it was worth killing for?

So yeah, if we're not going to look at Lee as a man of his time, and class, than we can't cut breaks to all the people who, prior to 1861, were perfectly fine with not fighting against slavery.

Sherman works for the “final solution of the Indian problem” killing Indians whether they're women and children or not, segregating the pauperized survivors on remote reservations.
Oh, but he's a big hero because he fought against slavery. His directorship of the Ohio railroad and partnership with Durant had nothing to do with conscripting Union troops into socializing the costs of building the Union Pacific. Nothing to see here. Just ending slavery. Move along.

It doesn't matter what Lee thought, I mean, there are letters of him talking about how slavery is an abomination, but he went with his home - and indeed, his pocketbook too since he owned slaves.

And everyone from both sides who didn't have a big enough wallet took the hit.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:36 PM on June 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


I mean, yeah, ideals. But 1816 (and prior) to 1850 people were fine with states being admitted in slave/free pairs (missouri compromise). Suddenly in 1861 people realized out of the blue how wrong slavery was? Or they just all of a sudden decided it was worth killing for?

The South saw the writing on the wall, that political power (and with it the ability to sustain slavery) was swinging from them to the North. Lincoln's election was the final sign.

Lee's cause was wrong. Perhaps he knew he was or didn't. But, at the very least, he had the decency to recognize an ending was preferable to any other circumstances. Plenty of southerners wanted to continue a guerilla war and Lee shut those ideas down.

No, he didn't. Ever hear of the Klan? The story of the Civil War is one of a 5 year declared war, followed by a 15 year guerilla war.

But, from his perspective, does he go and start destroying those institutions and killing people connected to them in his backyard.
This isn't a nebulous or abstract point. He would be literally firing cannon into his neighbors houses. Killing the sons of people who live next door, down the street.
(Although Farragut, and a few others blasted the hell out of their hometowns)
And bear in mind, he'd be commanding - by force (in that they're conscripts) other local people into doing so too. It's not like he's toting cannon around by himself.


Yes, because he swore an oath to defend the United States, and because it would be the right thing to do,. And there were men who did make the right and honorable choice, like George Henry Thomas, so you can't even argue that the choice was impossible.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:49 PM on June 7, 2017 [7 favorites]


Sherman works for the “final solution of the Indian problem” killing Indians whether they're women and children or not, segregating the pauperized survivors on remote reservations.
Oh, but he's a big hero because he fought against slavery. His directorship of the Ohio railroad and partnership with Durant had nothing to do with conscripting Union troops into socializing the costs of building the Union Pacific. Nothing to see here. Just ending slavery. Move along.


Sherman (who was born with the first name Tecumseh, he chose William after being christened, maybe on his kind of sort of conversion to Catholicism, I can't remember the specifics), is a fascinating and horribly flawed human being. I'm not going to say he was a good person, because he wasn't. He was horribly racist, a mediocre businessman and only began to show real skill in commanding military forces midway through the Civil War. (Once he showed that skill, he was incredibly effective.) He was, however, smart enough to not become president of the United States (he could easily have won running against someone other than Grant), something I do give him credit for. (He was actually quite liked and remembered fondly by the South until the Lost Cause myth really vilified him.) I'd personally lay more responsibility for the massacres of the Indian Wars at the feet of Sheridan, another Union Civil War hero, but Sherman definitely did not take any action to restrain him. There's a gorgeous statue to him in Central Park in New York. It shouldn't be there. But then again, the statue of Christopher Columbus, on a giant plinth, just outside Central Park in Columbus Circle, shouldn't be there either, given that condoning the rape of little children was one of his lesser crimes.

Unfortunately, Native Americans have enough trouble getting racist team names changed, let alone getting statues of genocidal "heroes" removed. They are at the point of there being a team named after the N word. Luckily, African Americans have had more success in their civil rights struggle. Sherman is not much better than Lee. That doesn't mean we should honor Lee. It means we should stop honoring Sherman. I will take whatever victories I can find. I will be happy with the removal of monuments dedicated to those who were both traitors and monsters and hope that we can get the monuments dedicated to those who were simply monsters or just horrible people removed eventually. (How many statues of Andrew Jackson are kicking around?
posted by Hactar at 2:03 PM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


The only General Lee worth commemorating
posted by Faint of Butt


Related
posted by the phlegmatic king at 2:03 PM on June 7, 2017 [4 favorites]


I noticed in one of the articles that there is a statue of Lee next to the highway that they cannot take down as it is on private property. My immediate reaction is to create statues that look equally majestic of others like Lee: the previously mentioned Benedict Arnold, Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, and Martin James Monti (who defected to Nazi Germany during WWII and played a role in their propaganda campaigns). Maybe one of Tokyo Rose, although her part in the Japanese propaganda was exaggerated. We got a bumper crop of traitors during 1860-65, but that doesn't mean there aren't others to honor as well.
posted by Hactar at 2:16 PM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


phlegmatic king, will that play The Internationale when the horn is pressed? (ok, I'm leaving the thread now.)
posted by Hactar at 2:17 PM on June 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


Sherman works for the “final solution of the Indian problem” killing Indians whether they're women and children or not, segregating the pauperized survivors on remote reservations.
Oh, but he's a big hero because he fought against slavery.


Sherman doesn't have thousands of famous statues all over the place, nor does he have every third road in the Union named for him. Sherman's birthday isn't a major holiday in the United states, let alone one celebrated in favor of a civil rights icon for the better part of half a century and that gets the thumbs up from "heroes" like John McCain. Sherman isn't memorialized by the second-tallest obelisk in the world behind the Washington Monument, nor in gigantic "fuck you" monuments for racist shitheels to honor more than they do the 14th Amendment. Sherman has been treated by unbiased historians and textbooks as an efficient if brutal general at best, and is still the bogeyman in large swaths of the country.

The Sherman-Lee comparison, like every time it's brought up as a defense for Lee's horrors, is a false equivalence. He's not the Southern Marse Robert, and it's a shameful dodge to keep on trotting him out as such.
posted by zombieflanders at 2:24 PM on June 7, 2017 [11 favorites]


will that play The Internationale when the horn is pressed?

Mildly offended that you even had to ask
posted by the phlegmatic king at 2:24 PM on June 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


My grandfather was a white farmboy born in Wisconsin in 1916. He was a quiet, introverted man who loved history and his country. At the end of his life, he succumbed to Parkinsonian dementia, an early symptom of which is repeatedly telling the same stories, often with nearly identical phrasing in each retelling. These stories are often ones which are most meaningful to the person's sense of self-identity, and their personal narrative of their life, and the ones which persist the longest are reflections of the person's core beliefs. During the final fifteen years or so of his life, beginning long before we had any idea there was anything wrong, I heard all of these core stories numerous times, and developed a good sense of how he saw his life in the context of 20th century America, and how he saw American history, and especially the sin of slavery, echoing through those times.

He was a good student in high school; not the top of his class, and certainly not college bound in the era before college was seen as an essential rite of passage for the middle class, but intelligent and diligent. But history was his strongest and favorite subject, and for his final exam in high school U.S. History, he earned nearly a perfect score. He missed only a single question, but this one question remained with him, an irritation he would repeatedly return to for more than seventy years, until his dementia finally robbed him of speech in the final year of so of his life. This question was, "What was the cause of the Civil War?" My grandfather, as a teenager, wrote that it was slavery. The examiner marked this as incorrect, and wrote in response that the correct answer was "state's rights." My grandfather, telling this story to me when I was a teenager, would say "I spent the rest of my life trying to understand this. As best I can tell, I was right."

My grandfather came of age when the Civil War and Reconstruction were well past, but still in living memory. His story about this high school exam is a story of how the myth of the "lost cause of the South" was created and propagated, even outside the South, as a tool for whitewashing history in the name of political unity for White Americans. Suppose my grandfather had been less intellectually curious, less passionate about historical truth, and less committed to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and other founding documents than to the flawed people who wrote them and the compromised government they created. He would probably, as I'm sure many of his classmates did, simply accepted the "correct" answer, and raised his children and grandchildren not to question this national myth.

After high school, my grandfather moved to Washington, D.C. to join the civil service and spend his career serving the country he loved. He frequently described it as "a sleepy Southern city," often with a wry smile while we were stuck in busy D.C. traffic, very different from what he was used to in Wisconsin. D.C., unlike his hometown, had a significant Black population, and my grandfather was, in his late-life telling, always bothered by the segregation which was taken for granted when he arrived. A watershed moment for him came in 1939, when the legendary contralto Marian Anderson was refused permission to perform for a non-segregated audience in the DAR's Constitution Hall. With the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson instead sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of tens of thousands of Black and White Americans, and my grandfather was among their number. I believe my grandfather experienced this as something transcendental, not only from Anderson's beautiful voice, but as an example (if only a fleeting one) of America living up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence, of being the American ideal he loved instead of the deeply flawed America he saw at every drinking fountain, bus, and restroom in D.C.

After marrying, my grandfather and his new wife settled across the Potomac in Alexandria, which later in life he loved to describe (perhaps somewhat controversially) as "the most historic city in the United States." As other commenters have noted, Alexandria was and remains filled with monuments and idols of Confederate leaders who fought and died for the legal right to own human beings. Today Alexandria is an extremely liberal city, but even in the 1940s it was much more noticeably part of the Old South. My grandmother (on the other side of the family) was a native Alexandrian, the daughter and granddaughter of native Alexandrians, and although she was a lifelong liberal Democrat, she still spoke to me derisively of "damn Yankees" in her later life, praised what great men Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee had been, and had been raised with the bitter memory of Union occupation of the city. My Alexandrian grandmother was a Southern woman, who, unlike my Wisconsan grandfather, fully absorbed the myth of the "lost cause."

After a long career in the civil service, my grandfather retired to garden, help raise his grandchildren, and read books of American history. He filled his copies of Common Sense, the Federalist and Anti-federalist, and histories of the Revolutionary and Civil wars with marginalia, attempting to reconcile the truth, which he held to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, with the reality that the men who wrote and swore oaths to defend those ideas owned slaves, denied women their rights, and in his own time, fought to maintain Jim Crow and segregation. Despite his efforts, I think he never found that reconciliation, because I think there was none to be had.

And yet, the end of his life saw a very different America than the one he grew up in. The final year of his life in which he was capable of being politically aware, before dementia stole even that from him, was 2008. A proud member of his retirement community's chapter of the League of Women Voters, my grandfather's last experience of America was of a Democratic presidential primary between a black man and a woman. He was, in the end, a partisan for Clinton. But when he spoke, haltingly and with somewhat limited comprehension through a clouded mind and an uncooperative tongue, of the choice we'd been offered, he wept tears of joy.

The myths of good-hearted Confederate generals, an Old South of gentlemanly noblesse oblige, and infallible Founding Fathers, these are ideas that my grandfather helped me to understand as comforting poisons, seductive barriers to America becoming the America he believed in but which never truly was. I think in his final political consciousness, he saw America finally shaking off these fever dreams and becoming what he had always believed it could be. I miss him terribly sometimes, but I am glad he did not live to see the rise of Trump's America.
posted by biogeo at 2:30 PM on June 7, 2017 [41 favorites]


These arguments about judging slavers by the standards of their time don't really hold water in light of the existence of people like John Brown. It is not anachronistic to hold whites to any lower standard than raiding an armory, killing slavers, and arming a rebellion of enslaved people.
posted by Krawczak at 2:37 PM on June 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


And "their time" included a strong abolitionist movement. It's not like judging, say, Cicero for not freeing his slaves. Lots of people were saying this was appalling. Lee, after careful consideration, said he thought slavery was worse for whites than blacks.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:47 PM on June 7, 2017 [7 favorites]


I suppose it applies to all generals:
"Military glory - that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood - that serpent's eye, that charms to destroy..." - Abraham Lincoln

Ever hear of the Klan?
No. I've never heard of the Klan.

So Lee didn't surrender at Appomattox? Hn. News to me.
He didn't advise other confederates to take the oath to support the Union and the U.S. constitution when he was at Washington college?
Didn't oppose battlefield monuments where the confederacy fought the union "I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered"?
No?

Why not just say HITLER! all the time? Why examine nuance in character and look at the differences between mending a divided country and amending history? The difference between good intentions and flawed implementations that can lead to historical inaccuracy and forgetting the lessons of the past?

And there were men who did make the right and honorable choice, like George Henry Thomas
The right and honorable choice of murdering and starving out Seminole?

The Sherman-Lee comparison, like every time it's brought up as a defense for Lee's horrors, is a false equivalence

Well but completely ignoring all the civil war generals who participated in genocide is sort of a big "fuck you" to native americans and truth in history. I mean look at wikipedia on Thomas: "Thomas's first assignment with his artillery regiment began in late 1840 at the primitive outpost of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the Seminole Wars, where his troops performed infantry duty. He led them in successful patrols..."

Just doing "infantry duty" and "successful patrols" not "burning down farms and systematically spreading disease and murdering women and children." That's not whitewashing?

Sherman doesn't have thousands of famous statues all over the place,

He's got a big enough one in Central Park.

But look - Gen. Curtis Lemay doesn't have a statue. But it's all the worse isn't it, that unjustified (and racist) bombing and napalming the hell out of non-military targets in North Korea for three years got about zero press in the 50's?
Even now - contrast MiG alley with saturation bombing in a search on the Korean war. Say "napalm bombing" and everyone thinks Vietnam. It's a forgotten war crime from a forgotton war.

I'm not going to debate which is more egregious, the absence of history or a distortion, but damn can we recognize that pointing out one is not defense of the other?

You're arguing the wrong point, if you're taking issue with mine. While I think there is a right an honorable choice, I don't think any generals deserve monuments.
People always deify generals (and other warfighters) and rewrite history to favor them.

The racist shitheels and war mongers always gloss over the past. This whole romanticism of Lee. They're always going to do that. What scares me more is seeing otherwise decent people ignore and forget horrors done in their name. That can't be opposed like a monument to Lee because no one even knows there's a problem. It's an omission, not a statue.

War is sometimes necessary, but it's too dirty a business even with the most laudable of goals to warrant fond remembrance.
No general should have a statue. Wars should be remembered warts and all. None of it should be considered noble or glorious because its only ever, at it's best, necessary. And only good when it's over.

Our moral obligation is in accuracy and paying attention to whats done in our name in a democracy (or republic if we want to quibble) regardless of who/what we support.

It is also the way to avoid repeating immoral mistakes in misrepresentation of the past (in the case of people like Lee) and omission of it.
We can do both.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:08 PM on June 7, 2017 [1 favorite]


So Lee didn't surrender at Appomattox? Hn. News to me.
He didn't advise other confederates to take the oath to support the Union and the U.S. constitution when he was at Washington college?
Didn't oppose battlefield monuments where the confederacy fought the union "I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered"?
No?


And none of that fucking mattered. The guerilla war occurred anyway, carried on by other Confederates like Forrest, and the statues went up as a form of social control in the Jim Crow South.

And the point is that it was easy for Lee to play the statesman after the war - but when he was given the choice before it, he chose to become a traitor and oathbreaker in defense of a barbaric institution that he himself profited from.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:53 PM on June 7, 2017 [5 favorites]


I don't know why you keep on accusing us of "whitewashing" anything, Smedleyman. No one's doing that. We're telling you that the way that Lee is treated and the way all the generals you keep on throwing against the wall to compare him to are treated are several orders of magnitudes of difference. You have come up with no one who is venerated to the extent that Lee is, so the comparisons still continue to be moot. There's a single statue of Sherman in Central Park that is largely unnoticed? Well whoop-de-fuckin-doo. Lee has hundreds of statues in his honor, multiple ones in some cities. He has thousands of streets, houses, monuments, tourist attractions, and other locations dedicated to his glorification--and in a good chunk of the country, it's goddamn deification--looming over the people whom his cause still hurts every day of their lives. There are no giant statues to Sherman that are in in every city he burned, or on every reservation of the people he killed. There aren't millions of white people marching in parades or coming heavily armed to Central Park to defend him.

Claiming that ignorance of what Sherman did is a greater moral crime than opposing what Lee did is wildly missing the point. All the post-war stuff Lee did? It wasn't enough, and everything that has come since is a result of that. In most cases he did what you claim was his duty reluctantly, and if we're going to be brutally honest here, many times he didn't do it at all. This is central to the points that Serwer is making, and brushing that aside to score points over Sherman and Thomas belies a historical ignorance all its own. Your claims that a PoC like Serwer is whitewashing history because he's talking specifically about the Confederacy in the context of the view of millions of Americans immersed in white supremacy reads like reflexive defensiveness that is completely unnecessary.
posted by zombieflanders at 4:41 PM on June 7, 2017 [14 favorites]


"We're telling you that the way that Lee is treated"

And I'm agreeing.

"and the way all the generals you keep on throwing against the wall to compare him to are treated are several orders of magnitudes of difference."

As in their war crimes are absent from history lessons. Which is a problem.

"You have come up with no one who is venerated to the extent that Lee is, so the comparisons still continue to be moot... it's goddamn deification--looming over the people whom his cause still hurts every day of their lives."

And the absence of a Curtis Lemay statue sort of speaks volumes on my point. It's a forgotten lesson of history we're repeating even now.

My point is about US not about them. We say, lets give no respect to scumbags like Gen. Lee, but let's give props to heroes like Sherman.
My point is that neither deserve a monument. Because both sides committed war crimes.

Anyone who deifies Lee can be answered with one word: "Andersonville (Ft. Sumter)"
There's nothing to say after that. Lee could have been every inch a hero the white supremacists believe he is, but the absolute dereliction of duty to the prisoners at Andersonville utterly destroy any high ground any southern general could lay claim to.

In fact, I will say there is one appropriate war memorial for General Lee, Arlington National Cemetery. Where he had planned to live out his days in peace, we snatched that land from him and covered it in honored dead.

"If Lee and other Confederates escaped punishment because of pardons or paroles, Meigs hoped that Congress would at least banish them from American soil."


His beloved home at Arlington was taken from him and used to bury honored Union dead in a nice "go fuck yourself Robert" from the Union government.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:22 PM on June 7, 2017 [1 favorite]


My perspective of The Civil Wars is mostly filtered through Ken Burns and 'The Killer Angels', so I tend to view General Lee as someone who is talented at winning battles, until he reaches the crest of his hubris and looses his most important battle, and the entire war. General Longstreet seemed to be a decent person and a good commander.
posted by ovvl at 5:52 PM on June 7, 2017


Apologies in advance if I'm mansplaining Smedleyman's thrust, but I believe he's saying that while we're striking down monuments to Lee, maybe we should reconsider the deification of all the other bringers of war who haven't (so far) been demonstrated to be problematic. I think it's a valid point. It's not that he's lessening Lee's failures but encouraging us to acknowledge the shortcomings of the "good guys" as well so that they can all be object lessons to students of history.

We ought to consider that we praise Union generals despite the atrocities they committed against the aboriginal people of the US without a whiff of hypocritical discomfort.

Is this good news in general? Should we be glad that we're exposing the lies & myths surrounding Lee? Absolutely! Like the takedown of Columbus before him, we are better as a nation every time we put these whitewashed, alternative histories to bed. But with every victory like this, we do well to recognize the work still to be done. Celebrate, yes! Then let's get back to work.

tl;dr: It's weird to laud the takedown of the South's hero in Lee (and moan about how come the other side can't understand that in reality, he wasn't a sterling character) but then fail to accept that our side's heroes aren't free of blame or assert that they do deserve statues.



I think this all suggests a larger philosophical question re: how we should honor folks who did objective good despite or concomitant with personal failures of judgment & otherwise bad behavior. Clearly (as in Lee's case), the hero of a regressive & oppressive worldview who also managed to be equally bankrupt personally is easy to pass over. "That guy? No statues." But how do we honor (or should we even honor) people whose achievements aren't controversial when their lives were? Can we separate the art from the (wo)man?

I like Woody Allen movies & Roman Polanski films. Mel Gibson is an incredible actor. Bill Cosby is hilarious. Led Zeppelin is an amazing band. Wagner's music is stirring. Picasso's art is sublime. Etc., etc., etc. I don't know the answer & this thread probably isn't the right forum, but I think it's a question we shouldn't swat away when it arises. I'm grateful that Smedleyman raised the issue. And, as always, that Metafilter hosted such thoughtful discussion.
posted by narwhal at 6:22 PM on June 7, 2017


It's weird to resist the takedown of others ... until you realize that that is not now, and has never been, the point of that exercise.

This post is about Lee. Moving the goalposts to talk about all the other people we should be bashing is a way of whitewashing the topic we should be discussing. When you shower everyone else with shit, suddenly the man we're discussing doesn't sound that bad after all.

Except, of course, that he is. Lee had a choice at the start of the Civil War. It wasn't a good one, but it was a choice. And the decisions he made were decisions that led to the destruction of his state. He could have left Virginia. He could have refused to fight. He could have deliberately chosen to lose battles. He did no such thing.

That flowerbed? That flowerbed was planted by slaves. Those weren't his flowers. And I bet you that the Union soldiers nearby (some of whom would have been former slaves themselves) knew it.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 6:32 PM on June 7, 2017 [8 favorites]


Right now there is an energetic movement to remove monuments celebrating treason committed in defense of slavery and white supremacy. These are not monuments celebrating the positive achievements of people who were terrible for reasons unrelated to their achievements. These are monuments that celebrate the evil that people did. They were primarily erected to reinforce that evil.

The movement to remove these monuments is achieving some modest success.

Criticizing that movement for not trying to solve the problem of militarism is back seat driving at best, and sabotage at worst. If you want to launch a massive and unpopular program to take down all war memorials everywhere while challenging our national self image, have at it. But do your own work instead of sniping at people who are making a positive change right now.
posted by burden at 6:55 PM on June 7, 2017 [11 favorites]


These arguments about judging slavers by the standards of their time don't really hold water in light of the existence of people like John Brown. It is not anachronistic to hold whites to any lower standard than raiding an armory, killing slavers, and arming a rebellion of enslaved people.

John Brown was a terrorist and a revolutionary, and good riddance to him. If we wish to consider Lee and other slave holders honestly, we must consider him honestly as well.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:58 PM on June 7, 2017 [1 favorite]


but then fail to accept that our side's heroes aren't free of blame or assert that they do deserve statues


You know, I'm not too bright, so if you could link the comments in this thread specifically calling for more monuments and stating who specifically is free of blame, I would personally find it very helpful.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:09 PM on June 7, 2017 [8 favorites]


John Brown was a terrorist and a revolutionary but his cause was just.

Also, he was a bit nuts.
posted by rdr at 7:17 PM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


burden: "Right now there is an energetic movement to remove monuments celebrating treason committed in defense of slavery and white supremacy. These are not monuments celebrating the positive achievements of people who were terrible for reasons unrelated to their achievements. These are monuments that celebrate the evil that people did. They were primarily erected to reinforce that evil."

This is well said. Statues of Thomas Jefferson are a problem because, of course, he was a rapist slaveowner. But it can't be denied that he did a bunch of other stuff like writing the Declaration of Independence, serving as president, etc., etc. And the statues are exalting him because of *those* things, not the slaveowning bit.

The statues of Lee, etc., are of people who led a rebellion against the United States for the purpose of defending the practice of enslaving human beings. And that's why the statues were raised, to celebrate THAT aspect of them. Not because they helped old ladies cross the street or were kind to dogs or whatever, but because they violently supported the ne plus ultra of white supremacy.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:35 PM on June 7, 2017 [8 favorites]


John Brown was a terrorist and a revolutionary, and good riddance to him.

He inspired a profound American painting by John Steuart Curry.
posted by ovvl at 9:12 PM on June 7, 2017


John Brown was a terrorist and a revolutionary but his cause was just.

The number of terrorists who believe their causes are just is truly shocking, as are the large numbers of the population who are inclined to agree. I’m not going to go out of my way to laud the few who happened to get lucky, especially if they also happened to be mentally ill. If anything, mental illness makes him less a hero and more of a tragedy.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:23 PM on June 7, 2017


Related to understanding the Lost Cause in our own time, we have Antonia Noori Farzan in The Phoenix New Times: “Here’s the Real History Behind Arizona's Confederate Monuments” (The shock is that they were erected quite recently.)
posted by Going To Maine at 12:32 AM on June 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


It's weird to laud the takedown of the South's hero in Lee (and moan about how come the other side can't understand that in reality, he wasn't a sterling character) but then fail to accept that our side's heroes aren't free of blame or assert that they do deserve statues.

No one here has done this. Y'all can keep on making this accusation, but every time you do, it comes off as more and more defensive and in bad faith.

I like Woody Allen movies & Roman Polanski films. Mel Gibson is an incredible actor. Bill Cosby is hilarious. Led Zeppelin is an amazing band. Wagner's music is stirring. Picasso's art is sublime. Etc., etc., etc. I don't know the answer & this thread probably isn't the right forum, but I think it's a question we shouldn't swat away when it arises. I'm grateful that Smedleyman raised the issue. And, as always, that Metafilter hosted such thoughtful discussion.

You're correct that this thread wasn't the right forum for the side discussions about Sherman et al, especially because all it's led to is repeated unfounded accusations like the ones you made. But here's the thing about these discussions: MeFi has probably dozens of threads on Allen and Polanski and Cosby, and on the "art separate from the artist" issue in the last couple years. Trying to derail the conversation with "yeah but" whatabout-isms has been pretty common in them, as was accusations of censorship and nonsense about jumping to conclusions or "guilty before being proven innocent." It was shitty when it happened then, and it's shitty when it happens now.
posted by zombieflanders at 3:06 AM on June 8, 2017 [5 favorites]


The evidence for Johm Brown being mentally ill by the standards of his own day is incredibly scant. The accusations of mental illness were largely made after the fact, by neo-Confederate historians who wanted to diminish his role in the lead up to the Civil War.

He was a terrorist, perhaps, but he was a terrorist in a time and location closer to that of Nazi Germany than of the United States as we view it today. Men and women were kept in chains and sold apart on a whim. Women were raped by their owners regularly. The people he killed were not just complacent in the system-- they were effectively prison guards.

The Civil War, by all rights, should be remembered as a very clear-cut, black and white (pardon the pun) war. One side fought for the right to rape women and separate families. The other side did not. The fact that people defending the Confederacy do their best to erase this distinction is all the more reason it should be kept in mind. And that goes true for the historical context around John Brown as much as anyone else.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 3:34 AM on June 8, 2017 [16 favorites]


You're correct that this thread wasn't the right forum for the side discussions about Sherman et al,

I don't know man. But for slight twist in fate, Lee would have been the leader of the union army.
I think it's a fair point to not oversimplify history to make "our guys" into flawless icons and utterly demonize the other side. Certainly slavery was evil. But people aren't as cut and dried.
Even Lincoln was willing to let slavery slide if it meant avoiding a break in the Union: "This is a stand that will not sit well with those modern readers who prefer luxuriating in the purity of their ideals (especially if those ideals don’t cost them anything) rather than trying to understand the difficult compromises a pragmatic politician is forced to make. But in Lincoln’s day a refusal to compromise led to the terrorism of John Brown — just as in our own time it leads to other kinds of fanaticism. "

The question of whether we should have monuments to Lee is an entirely different thing than remembering our history.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:24 PM on June 11, 2017


I think it's a fair point to not oversimplify history to make "our guys" into flawless icons and utterly demonize the other side. Certainly slavery was evil. But people aren't as cut and dried.

No.
One.
Is.
Doing.
This.

Multiple people have pointed this out. Railing against it is not only bad faith at this point, it's dancing on a stage with "BAD FAITH" going off in fireworks behind you.
posted by Etrigan at 3:28 PM on June 11, 2017 [4 favorites]


I don't know man. But for slight twist in fate, Lee would have been the leader of the union army.

It wasn't fate. It was a choice, and he made that choice because of his devotion to maintaining the institution of slavery, an institution in which he was not an unwilling participant. Others in his same position made the choice not to do so.

I think it's a fair point to not oversimplify history to make "our guys" into flawless icons and utterly demonize the other side.

No one has--y'know, I've said it, Etrigan has said it, many others have said it, so at this point I'm just assuming you're having this particular argument with an alternate-universe thread.
posted by zombieflanders at 4:00 PM on June 11, 2017 [6 favorites]


Garrett Epps in The Atlantic: “The True History of the South Is Not Being Erased”
posted by Going To Maine at 7:40 PM on June 11, 2017


> I don't know man. But for slight twist in fate, Lee would have been the leader of the union army.

I like you, and I respect your experience and knowledge and your recounting of it, and this is some bullshit. It wasn't a "twist of fate": other men in similar positions made completely different choices, choices which were available to Lee. He. Chose. Differently. Him. The guy we're talking about. No giant hand came out of the sky and made him do a thing: he made the choices he made; fate didn't "make" him do something. Give him that respect, at least.

> The question of whether we should have monuments to Lee is an entirely different thing than remembering our history.

And that's an excellent point that we should tangle with much more frequently than we do, but when "we" (you, dude, right in this thread) do it in a context like this, it really comes off like dismissing (again and endlessly again) acknowledging the very necessary hard and painful reality of what the Civil War was. When you and people like you use opportunities like this, where some number of us are trying to confront the difficult and long-denied history of how the Civil War and participants like Lee are framed in our national history, to say things like "let's talk about how we talk about war and war 'heroes' in general" you sound like...dismissive assholes. Sorry. But you do. You want to talk about how we handle - broadly - war, its remembering and history, and its participants? I am in favor of that! But for the love of everything, look at context and maybe consider that a context like this one is not the place to do that. If you haven't understood by now why this isn't the place to do that, then I have misjudged you.
posted by rtha at 9:04 PM on June 11, 2017 [7 favorites]


“You want to talk about how we handle - broadly - war, its remembering and history, and its participants? I am in favor of that! But for the love of everything, look at context and maybe consider that a context like this one is not the place to do that.”

I think we make either inhuman monster caricatures or inhuman superheroic figures out of people like Lee. I have a problem with that because it helps to perpetuate war.

I thought that was an open topic of discussion the same way John Brown was or the way mondo dentro connected it to Trump.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:56 PM on June 15, 2017


The problem seems to me that you're counting coup on the arguments against absolving Lee of responsibility for decisions he made—by for example dropping false dichotomies like "He would be literally firing cannon into his neighbors houses" and "Why not just say HITLER! all the time?"—and you vaguely imply that to make the criticisms of Lee expressed in the OP and thread are to "utterly demonize" him, but then rather than engaging and defending the claims you appear to be making about the specific topic of the thread, you instead go haring off into making more straightforward, easily founded, and defensible statements about other conflicts and military wrongs that have been done.

Then when probed on what exactly you're really saying about Lee you rhetorically wrap everything you've said into "I'm condemning them all" and no one should get monuments, and it's easy to respond to people who would deify Lee... all of which makes it appear as though you're erecting a forest canopy of valid, but unrelated statements, under which to secrete and shelter the same basic arguments opposed in the OP, that Lee was as sympathetic a character as anyone else in the 19th century or anyone else who might claim to be fighting for their country and cannot be held responsible as someone today would be for his opposition to abolition and his active participation in slavery.
posted by XMLicious at 3:05 PM on June 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


“The Civil War, by all rights, should be remembered as a very clear-cut, black and white”

...So that’s not oversimplification?

I’m not sure why I come off that way. 90% of the people on here seem to be writers or lawyers or communications professionals so I’m not at that level.
Same deal here. I’m not sure what I said that made anyone think I was in favor of keeping up statues of Lee.

Matter of fact, I was going to make a larger point about Arlington and the fact there’s no statue of Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top or at Gettysburg, and that if there’s any American soldier from that time who’s qualities should be celebrated it would be him (not a career officer, volunteer at a time when educated, wealthy men could buy out their duty to go to war, had to fight his own college faculty to join, etc) but I got sidetracked defending the not “judging people in the past by the standards of today”argument.

“No giant hand came out of the sky and made him do a thing:”

Well, he was a devout Christian…another tangent tho.

“I like you, and I respect your experience and knowledge and your recounting of it, and this is some bullshit.”
“and people like you”

Who’s arguing in the alternate reality thread? Who the hell is people like me?

I’m not arguing a point, I’m detailing a reality of history.

Every moral position taken against Lee I have – apparently not explicitly enough – completely agreed with. mondo dentro made about the perfect point and I saw no need to reiterate it over and over.

But Lee wasn’t offered command of the Union army? So his magical hatred hypnotized everyone because racism?

This is what I’m talking about. No one is oversimplifying history – BECAUSE NO ONE NOTICES IT’S BEEN DONE.
The ISSUE was clearly moral right vs moral wrong. Lee’s deification – well, again, mondo’s comment.
But the FIGHTING of the war, the reality was a complex, absolute horror with literal brothers fighting each other and families torn apart with strife such were the differences in values and perspective.

Any idea what it feels like to pull a trigger with intent to kill? Any idea what it feels like to order men to kill on a battlefield? No one since 1865 knows what it feels like to order Americans to kill their countrymen your men to kill much less try to kill officers they had served with.
I’m not the only vet here, but goddamn can’t you imagine what that must have felt like?

Of course union officers were tearing their hearts out too. But the topic is Lee.

What I’m giving him is not being an inhuman caricature monster figure, but a pivotal human figure in history – and that’s not a compliment any more than just to say he had a major role
What I didn’t feel needed to be pointed out was his defenders who make him into a heroic caricature. I thought that went without saying.

But – I mean it’s history. Just basic history that the Confederacy offered Lee command and he blew them off. Lee had already spoken about secession as being treasonous, and Lincoln tries to resupply Ft. Sumter in Charleston against the secessionists, and he offered, through Lee’s former commander Winfield Scott, command to suppress rebellion.

Virginia had not yet seceded, although they would very shortly after, publicly over half of their delegates to the secession convention opposed seceding.

If Lee took command of the army suppressing the rebellion at Ft. Sumter, he’s a Union general. It’s as simple as that. (He resigned his commission instead and become a major general of the Virginia troops. Two days later Virginia secedes and he’s #3 in the Confederacy.)

What part of that is hard to get? 'Twist of fate' Yes. The Virginia delegates CHOSE to secede. The Virginia voters CHOSE to go with it. Many people CHOSE many things and this tide of history - or 'twist of fate' changed the environment in which Lee made his choices.

He would have fought singlehandedly against the Union because he was just so evil?
Why would Lincoln have asked him to put down the rebellion if he thought Lee was irretrievably pro- Confederacy?

*sigh*

It's one of the most basic core questions of history - Does the man create the history or does history create the man?
Little of both I think. But I go with Tolstoy on the basic overall - Napoleon didn't do it alone.
And it's a discourse I guess I assumed given the intellectual level on mefi.
So I take my little piece of it - went to war, I get how people get trapped by circumstances and can compound a bad thing into something worse, I've seen how general staff are less human and more essentially mechanisms of command. The frontman for the boys in the back.
The button men (racketeer, gangster) for capitalism.
I see how - with a lot of firepower behind you or rather, men willing to employ firepower at your command, you can become a very bad guy very quickly with just a few choices that seem normal to you.
Most especially though that, lacking examples of human complexity people, particularly Americans, turn warfighters into stock characters in well worn narratives - hero, villain, or victim.
And I think that it's this shopworn narrative that is incredibly harmful and part of the situation with Lee. And I'm pretty emotionally attached to making that statement, yeah.

...Look, I get how in context you can read my explication of this fact as argumentative or disingenuous. Or rather, I don't (due to my own inability, no offense intended) but I accept the explanation.

But the main rapprochement on metafilter seems to be that the person making a point is arguing in bad faith. Happened as far back as fucking Paris Paramus for Christ sake. And as much as I argued with that guy, I hated this bad faith legalism bullshit. So if you really think that I keep coming here just to troll, up yours.

And maybe I do this "you people" to other people on metafilter. But if I have, I can’t remember it, and if I have, I was a complete asshole and I’m sorry.
I try to make explicit when I’m arguing against a proverbial “you” and I wasn’t doing that here because I didn’t realize there was any possible point of contention.
OF COURSE Lee was a bastard. And OF COURSE the people iconizing him are racist shits. And OF COURSE the people here get that. It's not youtube.

What’s the discussion beyond detailing that further or asking that we look into ourselves and ask, well, how can we avoid these kinds of mistakes?

“it really comes off like dismissing (again and endlessly again) acknowledging the very necessary hard and painful reality of what the Civil War was…But for the love of everything, look at context and maybe consider that a context like this one is not the place to do that”

You know, I tend to bring my experience and knowledge of war and military history to these kinds of threads. If a discussion of Lee isn’t the place to talk about how absolutely brutal war is and how there shouldn’t be ANY monuments in fond remembrance of it, I don’t know what to say.

If you actually know me you’ll know that if I’m wrong I’ll apologize. I’m not wrong for wanting to discuss history in depth or point out the complexities involved in the Civil War.
Whole books are written on just thin slices of the Civil War. I thought to bring some intricacies and details about it people might not know or remember from history class, or might not even have been taught. Though again, I assumed a basic desire to discuss it.

I own that mistake.
I’m wrong for disrupting the thread. My apologies. I assure you that was due to my ignorance of the social niceties and enthusiasm to participate.

But that’s diminishing more and more. I’ve gotten email from people leaving the place.
I’ve always felt you learn more from a different perspective or (didn’t even know I was) disagreement.

I don’t know how many times I’ve commented on metafilter detailing the realities or outlining the complexities of warfare or the truth from experience only to be shouted down by keyboard professionals who feel it necessary to scream at me how bad war is.

Probably should have taken all this to the blue. Well...no perhaps about it.

But I don’t know what else to say other than my views are sincere, they are my own and not serving some idiot agenda, and again my apologies for the misunderstanding. (and the all caps. can't do italics etc. here)
I earnestly thought this was an aspect of the personality cult of Gen. Lee that y'all didn't see and earnestly thought maybe you'd want to hear about it.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:09 PM on June 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I try to make explicit when I’m arguing against a proverbial “you” and I wasn’t doing that here because I didn’t realize there was any possible point of contention.
OF COURSE Lee was a bastard. And OF COURSE the people iconizing him are racist shits.


There is a history of people on Metafilter, knowingly or unknowingly, spreading white supremacist and neoconfederate propaganda, including and certainly not limited to the mythologizing of Robert E. Lee. It is not an "of course" that everyone reading and commenting understands the several moral and leadership failures of Lee.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:28 PM on June 15, 2017 [7 favorites]


Any idea what it feels like to pull a trigger with intent to kill? Any idea what it feels like to order men to kill on a battlefield? No one since 1865 knows what it feels like to order Americans to kill their countrymen your men to kill much less try to kill officers they had served with.
I’m not the only vet here, but goddamn can’t you imagine what that must have felt like?


There's a Mefite that's tried this whole "how dare you talk about this, I'm a veteran and you don't know what you're talking about" bullshit line in previous discussions on the unwarranted and extremely offensive glorification of the Confederacy, its legacy, and the trappings that white supremacists are clinging to. They, and a few others, have also made a habit of trying to move the discussion away from Lee and other Confederate generals, and they have also tried the false equivalence of Lee to Sherman, often by referencing Lost Cause and/or neo-Confederate historians that have been debunked over and over again over almost 150 years. It's just as horrifying a derail here as when they've done it. That these are shameful arguments to make in the context of these conversations should be clear. And as far as I can tell most other Mefites, including those who are veterans, agree that this (often literal) whitewashing and whataboutism and yeah-but-Sherman nonsense does is, unintentionally or not, doing far far more to contribute to the problem than solving it.

What part of that is hard to get? 'Twist of fate' Yes. The Virginia delegates CHOSE to secede. The Virginia voters CHOSE to go with it. Many people CHOSE many things and this tide of history - or 'twist of fate' changed the environment in which Lee made his choices.

I really don't understand how you can go from calling things that you acknowledge are choices "twists of fate." It's muddying the concepts of both "choice" and "fate" to the point where they don't resemble the actual definitions of those words.
posted by zombieflanders at 3:57 PM on June 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


If Lee took command of the army suppressing the rebellion at Ft. Sumter, he’s a Union general. It’s as simple as that. (He resigned his commission instead and become a major general of the Virginia troops. Two days later Virginia secedes and he’s #3 in the Confederacy.)

What part of that is hard to get? 'Twist of fate' Yes. The Virginia delegates CHOSE to secede. The Virginia voters CHOSE to go with it. Many people CHOSE many things and this tide of history - or 'twist of fate' changed the environment in which Lee made his choices.


And Lee CHOSE to break the oath of allegiance he swore as an officer in the US Army, in defense of a horrid practice (and please don't insult my intelligence by claiming that he didn't know what the whole fight was about, given his history as a slave owner and an educated man. He knew, and he chose to defend it.) And again, your arguments about the difficulty of raising one's arms against their home state would hold water if it wasn't for the fact that there were other Virginia born US Army officers who did choose to uphold that oath they swore.

Your argument is one that demeans Lee, turning him into just a puppet of fate, refusing to allow him to own his choices for good or ill. But my initial complaint to you was over your argument that Lee stopped a guerilla war from happening, which is provably false - the guerilla war did, in fact happen, despite Lee's weak attempts to stop it.
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:01 PM on June 15, 2017 [7 favorites]


90% of the people on here seem to be writers or lawyers or communications professionals so I’m not at that level.

On the contrary, I think it's because you display quite a bit of sophistication in rhetorical tactics that people can get frustrated while interacting with you, sometimes—it's certainly the case on my part.

For example, I'd hope that you can see that you are literally using rhetorical questions to create a narrative where you can respond to questions that haven't been asked and points which haven't been made.

For the record, I'm a software engineer, and we're hardly thin on the ground here on MeFi.

I've had friends and relatives who have served in armed forces in combat zones going back to WWI, and I don't think direct acquaintance with the gritty realities of war would automatically cause anyone reading an article describing Lee as someone who beat slaves and broke up all but one of the slave families on his estate before the civil war even began, and making very specific criticisms about Lee himself and his conduct during peace and war, to feel a need to talk about caricatures and stock characters of military figures and of understanding of how with a lot of firepower behind you or rather, men willing to employ firepower at your command, you can become a very bad guy very quickly with just a few choices that seem normal to you.
posted by XMLicious at 4:35 PM on June 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


"There is a history of people on Metafilter, knowingly or unknowingly, spreading white supremacist and neoconfederate propaganda"

I'm in the white-ish skin colored human costume. But about as far as that goes. Don't have an anglo name.

"They, and a few others, "

I'm not comparing Lee and Sherman in terms of defense for Lee. I'm bringing it up as monuments to generals as bad period. Because it short circuits thinking about the war, any war, in complexity.

"I really don't understand how you can go from calling things that you acknowledge are choices "twists of fate.""
Poor choice of words. Imprecise.
My bad.

"It's muddying the concepts of both "choice" and "fate" to the point where they don't resemble the actual definitions of those words."

You're familiar with the Great Man theory? So mondo makes the Trump reference above, I mentally key to this article
http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/12/donald-trump-is-making-the-great-man-theory-of-history-great-again/
I'm not -endorsing- great man theory but it's a thing that exists.

So Lee is either subject to socio-economic and political movements or he stands alone as Napoleon did. Hence the Tolstoy reference.

I disagree that it muddies the concept of choice - "fate" as a poor choice of words on my behalf - but historians argue this.
I'm not equipped to debate that in depth here. But I disagree that I'm arguing "how dare you talk about this, I'm a veteran and you don't know what you're talking about" bullshit line in previous discussions on the unwarranted and extremely offensive glorification of the Confederacy."

Quite the contrary. I'm a veteran and unless you've lost someone to war, you don't know the emotional truth of what your saying - arguments about the union or confederacy be damned.
What's horrifying is trying to articulate the experience as a veteran in context of mythologizing lee and getting it called a derail.

But who you lumping me in with?
In all this time you ever read anything from me anywhere near doing what you're saying?

Again, yep, I'll take the lumps for the derail. I'm being counterproductive? Ok. I'm pretty much a one trick pony. Lots more erudition than I've got. But I know military history. I know what I feel like looking at memorials.
And I sure as hell am not defending Lee. And insinuating I'd prostitute my service in the name of white supremacy is a grave goddamned insult.

The moral clarity of the issue is not the same as the problematic realities and emotional gravity of actually shedding blood in your own neighborhood.
I guess that's the bullshit part I'm so full of.

But I think it's easier to make those judgements never having to do it one way or the other.

"And Lee CHOSE to break the oath of allegiance he swore as an officer in the US Army,"

I dispute no part of that NoxAeternum.

But it's a detail of history not an argument. He could have wound up as a union general if Virginia went that way.
I just plain don't get the opposition to that analysis of history.

Would Lee have fought with the Confederacy if Virginia went with the Union?

Lee's Quote:
“If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I. But if she secedes (though I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution), then I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.”
(Multiple citations of the same quote)

I don't know how to make that any clearer. It's taught from 10th grade upward. If Virginia chose to stay with the union, he would have too.
At least from his words.

In all candor, I'm earnestly trying to reach an understanding here.
Yes, he did "choose" to stay with his home state. Putting quotes there unironically. We agree it was a choice and, AFAIK, we agree in doing so he remained with Virginia, and ultimately, the south.

Yes, that was an immoral choice because it supported slavery and was treasonous (as he himself said regarding secession.)

But - if his home state had chosen not to secede he would have remained with the Union.
I haven't read anything to the contrary anywhere.
While Virginia was in the Union he was - again by all accounts of historians I've read - willing to be a Colonel and stay in service.

I would speculate he could have resigned his commission and not fought for the north, if Virginia stayed union and he couldn't deal with it.

But I can't imagine Lee - from any serious study of American history - invading Virginia with a southern army.

I have to think it's a misunderstanding.

But is it that you think I'm making some sort of sly, veiled bullshit pretense that Lee is a good guy just because he wouldn't want to invade his own backyard?
Or not taking my word for it?

(And not recognizing that almost all of this is an exponential derail on beanplating because I'm OCD on military history?)

But it's a quibble over a detail and none of this is on *my* point.

"And again, your arguments about the difficulty of raising one's arms against their home state would hold water if it wasn't for the fact that there were other Virginia born US Army officers who did choose to uphold that oath they swore."

It's not an argument. It's an emotional reality. What would it take to get you to fire at people from your hometown? How wrong would they have to be? How wrong would you have to be? You seriously think it would be easy?

Anyone?
Anyone willing to kill Grandpa over thanksgiving dinner because he supports Trump?
Yeah, that's hyperbole. I'm not actually advocating either way. Just colorful illustration.
But the emotional truth should be there.

It took a lot from Chamberlain to join the war effort. Would he have gone the extra mile and invaded Maine if they went nuts and became pro-slavery?
Yeah, maybe he would have. Was the difference the cause or the man?

"The best virtues may be enlisted in the worst of causes....We fought no better, perhaps, than they. We exhibited, perhaps, no higher individual qualities.... But the cause for which we fought was higher; our thought wider… That thought was our power.”- Chamberlain (address at the dedication of the Main Monuments on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Oct. 3, 1899 - brilliant speech about the respective virtues of the men and the cause)


"and please don't insult my intelligence by claiming that he didn't know what the whole fight was about"

Who are you arguing with? What, I'm a 12 year old?

"Your argument is one that demeans Lee, turning him into just a puppet of fate, refusing to allow him to own his choices for good or ill. But my initial complaint to you was over your argument that Lee stopped a guerilla war from happening, which is provably false - the guerilla war did, in fact happen, despite Lee's weak attempts to stop it."

So...Lee did attempt to stop it then? Or were his attempts false?
I'm just fighting for clarity here. Really.

His "decency" was to not to continue overtly fighting. People on the union side had the same problem.
I'll try to make my wording less colorful and nuanced. It's getting in the way. But this is... I mean it's basic history. The visibility of his surrender is considered by historians as having a real impact on settling the end of the war.

Reconstruction was a thing. People actually believed in slavery. It was the same thing as denazification but decades earlier. It was messy and, by every historical account I've read since 6th grade, made easier - if ever so slightly (and I don't care to argue that, I'm not making an assertion either way beyond it's existence as an assertion by historians) - by Lee's surrender and it's attending theater. Which was a big show to say "Look, the south surrendered." And that's not to take away from it but to put it plainly because they genuinely wanted the war to end. As far as I know. Again, just going from historical accounts.

"The problem seems to me that you're counting coup on the arguments against absolving Lee of responsibility for decisions he made"

Yep. I get it. Not what I meant to say.
Lee absolutely can be held responsible for his fighting for the confederacy and everything that stood for.

Contrast him with Gen. Chamberlain in terms of the OP in terms of values and qualities.
And Grant is a consistently underrated military leader. But Lee’s decision to not fight his home is a sympathetic decision to me - that doesn’t mean I sympathize with Lee himself - and I make it as a point of clarification Lincoln, etc. wasn't an abolitionist either and Union generals did commit atrocities against native americans so any discussion about race should take that into account...but is omitted in history...(etc. etc)

- and I illustrated those points because I think we need to understand how we react to how we mythologize warriors - from the perspective not that it's the warrior's traits that are necessarily good or bad (not that I was - or am - contending that either way, but I mean, yeah, slavery bad, nazis http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/german-soldiers-forced-watch-footage-concentration-camps-1945/ bad, all that) but that creating myth about warriors is itself bad.

But I went off on a tangent no one cared for despite repeated rebukes. And that is on me. Again, sorry.
Chamberlain was a great man. Sherman hurried the end of the war, whatever else his flaws, a laudable goal.

But making monuments - and tearing them down - allows us to lay off the realities of war and makes it much more likely we think of "good" wars against "bad" guys.
I could not agree more that the best, and "The most fitting monument to Lee is the national military cemetery the federal government placed on the grounds of his former home in Arlington." (from the FPP)

But the FPP says essentially - yeah, Memorial day - and here's why General Lee sucked.

No, MEMORIAL DAY. Ignoring it in favor of barbaques, yellow ribbon bumper stickers, godamned bunting - the trivial crap is bad. But that stuff is easy to see through.

Ignoring it for the best of reasons, and yes, fighting slavery is unquestionably a great cause - makes it that much easier for us to slip into war after war after war for another 'great cause' (Saddam Hussein was just like Hitler isn't he? The Taliban mutilates women's genitals don't they? Why aren't you in the military fighting against this?) and forget the realities as long as we have someone to love, hate and feel sorry for and are able to classify them that way.

Yes, Lee is bad. So let's kill him and everyone like him yeah? Because our guys can do no wrong.
(We're not making this point - go on, say it in your head)

Yes, no one is or was making that point. But for Memorial day, maybe they fucking should.

If I'm inadvertantly supporting a point for white supremacists, I'm sorry. I'd "unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

The "150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one" - WHY?
To bring back slavery? Perpetuate racism? (Well, certainly, and there's money in exploitation, but it's not exclusive, not a lot of farm workers are black) Maybe some people are crazy enough to think the south will rise again.

But what's the common theme? Why is the struggle "noble"? It's to perpetuate war. That's where the money is. The monuments are there to inspire young people to fight.

Don't get me wrong, there's no way to prevent the Civil War from happening without strengthening slavery. It had to happen. But there's no reason to erect monuments to generals and turn Memorial day which was created for mourning and visiting graves of the war dead, into a celebration of "heroism" (and car racing).

I don't know how to better explain this thing. War exists. And one man's hero is another's villain. That doesn't mean I'm for Lee. What I'm saying is the concept: "One man's hero is another's villian" - is a thing regardless of who likes it or doesn't.
And what I'm saying is, the making of a war hero or war villain is a scam that perpetuates wars.
There's a reason the Gilded Age followed the Civil War (J.P Morgan made his money buying defective rifles from the union for $3.50 and reselling them, still broken, back to the union for $20)
Broken rifle. that should be the monument.
And I know some people swing military service like a club, but it's more and more an alien experience and more and more fought by (god help us) mercs.

Again, not to belabor (too late), even the unity stuff, the peace and understanding, shake hands, let's be pals celebrations - just pisses me the fuck off. The best article I read on this was the Onion "Homeless veteran kicked out of sleeping in veterans memorial"

I read an article someone defending the Southern Monuments said "if you take down one monument, where do you stop? Do you take down all of them?"
Yeah. I think we should.
And that sounds crazy, yes, because most of you are thinking by reflex - because you're good people and I say that in earnest - "slavery is evil, people who fought it are heroes".

But I'm thinking first of Armour (jesus Armour, google that guy if you have time - Philip Danforth Armour) and Rockefeller Marshall Field and yeah, post war Sherman who worked for Durant and the railroad killing indians.

I look at a war memorial and I see a lie. The good ones especially. And tearing them all down, great. There are memorials that dont do this. My earlier point on museums...
I was going to write more but here - read this thing on Vergangenheitsbewältigung. This guys dissertation was banging around in my head last week, read it ages ago, couldn't articulate it.

National identity is bound up a lot with war. To me the strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee, is that we make personality cults one way or the other, regardless of the fact of the violence.

Really, everything I could say there and it's an important, on topic read that I've utterly failed to do any justice to the ideas ... to...in...

"The war dead are portrayed en masse and accorded respect, but individual war dead and individual suffering are rarely mentioned.
The exception is in the cases of "heroes" (leaders and the brave), whose suffering is portrayed in their role as martyrs for their nation.
Wartime attitudes are maintained: to do otherwise could be seen as disrespectful. This is manifested in the use of "myths," or national images, and in the continued dehumanisation of former enemies.
Finally, technology and uniforms play a major part in the narrative, interpreted in ways that do not raise difficult questions about war...

In Flanders Fields Museum has attempted to break away from these commemorative traditions, and in many ways has been successful. War dead and all those who served are portrayed as individuals, whichever army they belonged to. The dead are still considered respectfully, but the reality of their suffering and death is not disguised.

As in the Imperial War Museum's Holocaust exhibition, those who experienced past events pass their testimony on to the visitor, bearing witness to the past. In Flanders Fields uses their testimony to illustrate the horrors of war and the need for peace."



"On the contrary, I think it's because you display quite a bit of sophistication in rhetorical tactics..."

Kindness appreciated. hate to disagree, but if I did a better job, we wouldn't have this mishegas.

Don't know that I've insulted anyone personally. Looking back, don't think I did. Didn't mean to. If I did, apologies. Emotion. Angrish.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:28 PM on June 15, 2017


What's horrifying is trying to articulate the experience as a veteran in context of mythologizing lee and getting it called a derail.

I'm a veteran too. You're not derailing. You're defending a traitor. You claim not to be doing that intentionally, but you're doing it, and it's been pointed out, and you keep doing it.

I don't care which way Virginia went -- Lee never swore an oath to Virginia. Lee wasn't paid by Virginia for more than three decades. Lee didn't even live in Virginia for most of his life.

He took an oath. He broke it. He waged war against the nation he swore that oath to. All of your could haves and fates and what ifs Do. Not. Mean. Shit. Against. That.

Take his name out of your mouth and grind it into the fucking dust where it belongs. You insult everyone you and I have served with honorably in not doing so.
posted by Etrigan at 7:56 PM on June 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


..So that’s not oversimplification?

That the Civil War had a good side and a bad side, and that we erased that in the name of (misguided) unity?

No. It's not.

The South was wrong. Overwhelmingly, inarguably wrong. The cause the Confederacy fought for was evil and horrific. There's a case to be made (a case that has been made, repeatedly) that one of the reasons the Union started seeing the Civil War in terms of slavery was because many of the Union soldiers who started out ambivalent about slavery became abolitionists when they saw it firsthand.

No talk about the evils of warfare in general will erase the fact that there was one side that was evil. No talk about the evils of warfare will erase the fact that that side was already killing people and destroying lives -- that slavery was an institution of violence. It ended with violence, but that wasn't for lack of attempts at peaceful resolution by the side that turned out to be the correct one.

The North wasn't perfect, but it was a society that could be made more perfect through relatively peaceful reformation. The South needed to be bathed in blood to end slavery -- and even then, the real tragedy is that Confederate soldiers were ever allowed back into American civic society. (I have a rant about enfranchisement: the Constitutional amendment that granted men of color -- briefly, in practice -- the right to vote should have been a positive affirmation of the right of all citizens to vote, save for those who have committed treason or have raised arms against their country.)

Talking about the evils of warfare here is a derail. And it's a derail in defense of a man who deserves to have his name ground into dust.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 9:07 PM on June 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


Lee absolutely can be held responsible for his fighting for the confederacy and everything that stood for.

Yeah but not just for fighting for the Confederacy, right? Because this discussion is about considerably more than that: the issue is that fighting for the Confederacy was part of Lee's life-long commitment to the "peculiar institution" of slavery and owning slaves.

His "own neighborhood", you repeatedly bring up as something with which one has a visceral connection which the heart demands allegiance to, is part of what he owned—his own neighbors, his fellow Virginians, his fellow Americans, are what he owned as property. And he used the power that gave him over his neighbors to beat them and break up their own families to his material profit.

When you say,

Yes, that was an immoral choice because it supported slavery and was treasonous (as he himself said regarding secession.)

You're making it sound like his embrace of slavery is a consequence of his decision to fight for the Confederacy at age fifty-three or whatever, but it's completely the other way around—he was devoted to slavery. If he could just drop it for the sake of his neighbors as in your Lee-as-a-Union-General scenario, he'd have done so and freed his neighbors from their bondage to him long before that.

> The "150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one"

WHY? To bring back slavery? Perpetuate racism?

YES! Ding ding ding! Exactly for that reason! By the late 1890s, seventy-something percent of the revenue of the state government of Alabama came from leasing convicts. (I can scrounge up a cite for that if you'd like.)

You must at least be aware that the Thirteenth Amendment did not abolish slavery if it was punishment for a crime, so the Jim Crow era saw jaywalking and all other kinds of patently ridiculous, monstrous excuses to throw blacks in prison. That's the kind of thing mondo dentro's further quote from the OP about a "foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system" refers to.

It wasn't until 1966, two decades after the Nazis were defeated and a century after the end of the Civil War, that the Alabama Democratic party removed the phrase "White Supremacy" from its logo.

The Confederacy and the American establishment of slavery could be analogized to the Nazis in some ways but nothing like denazification ever happened.

Maybe some people are crazy enough to think the south will rise again.

The current chief law enforcement officer of the United States was twenty years old in Alabama when the switch away from officially promoting "White Supremacy" was made and the Democratic "States' Rights Committee" faction that had opposed the change was dissolved. In college, he began his political life as a Republican, and in the course of serving as a U.S. attorney for decades never found any white Democrats to prosecute for voting-related crimes, despite the fact that Alabama was effectively a one-party state maintained by voter suppression until the Civil Rights Act.

(...and I only just found this out in the course of checking dates but in 1968 the American Independent Party was formed so that formerly Democratic Alabama governor George C. "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!" Wallace could run for president, and who did that very same party nominate in 2016? Donald Trump and Mike Pence, of course, at least in California where the party was on the ballot.)

At least as far as I can tell in my cursory non-lawyer search, and if Sessions had prosecuted any whites over voting issues I can't believe it wouldn't have been trumpeted during his confirmation hearings, which I watched all twenty hours of.
posted by XMLicious at 9:17 PM on June 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


But it's a detail of history not an argument. He could have wound up as a union general if Virginia went that way.
I just plain don't get the opposition to that analysis of history.


Because that "analysis" avoids placing the burden on Lee of choosing to defend his state (and its choice to defend a barbaric institution) on his shoulders. Lee saying "I will go whichever way my ostensible home state (which, as has been pointed out, he rarely lived in as an adult) goes" is an act of moral cowardice and an attempt on his part to rvade responsibility for hus choice.

"And again, your arguments about the difficulty of raising one's arms against their home state would hold water if it wasn't for the fact that there were other Virginia born US Army officers who did choose to uphold that oath they swore."

It's not an argument. It's an emotional reality. What would it take to get you to fire at people from your hometown? How wrong would they have to be? How wrong would you have to be? You seriously think it would be easy?

Anyone?
Anyone willing to kill Grandpa over thanksgiving dinner because he supports Trump?
Yeah, that's hyperbole. I'm not actually advocating either way. Just colorful illustration.
But the emotional truth should be there.


Again, the point is that there were men who made that hard decision and chose to be on the right side of the argument, upholding the oath they took as US Army officers even though they were from Virginia. Saying "you can't imagine how hard it is for men to take arms up against their friends and family" isn't really an argument against that simple point. "What is right is not always easy, what is easy is not always right," as the saying goes.


So...Lee did attempt to stop it then? Or were his attempts false?
I'm just fighting for clarity here. Really.

His "decency" was to not to continue overtly fighting. People on the union side had the same problem.
I'll try to make my wording less colorful and nuanced. It's getting in the way. But this is... I mean it's basic history. The visibility of his surrender is considered by historians as having a real impact on settling the end of the war.

Reconstruction was a thing. People actually believed in slavery. It was the same thing as denazification but decades earlier. It was messy and, by every historical account I've read since 6th grade, made easier - if ever so slightly (and I don't care to argue that, I'm not making an assertion either way beyond it's existence as an assertion by historians) - by Lee's surrender and it's attending theater. Which was a big show to say "Look, the south surrendered." And that's not to take away from it but to put it plainly because they genuinely wanted the war to end. As far as I know. Again, just going from historical accounts.


Here's the thing to remember about going by "historical accounts" when referring to the Civil War and Reconstruction - there is a serious issue of trustworthiness with the historical record, because of the efforts of the Lost Casue Movement to distort said record. (For example, we now know that there was a concerted effort to warp the record regarding Grant's term as President.) And the reality was that no, the South didn't set down their guns, but in fact entered into a prolonged campaign of guerilla war and terror. Again, the entire point of this thread is to acknowledge that Lee was the target of revisionism in the historical record intended to falsely paint him in a positive light - why is it hard to believe that the argument that Lee's surrender had an impact is part of that as well?
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:17 AM on June 16, 2017 [7 favorites]


But Lee’s decision to not fight his home is a sympathetic decision to me

This here, I think, is the disconnect for myself (and others in this thread) - we don't see this as a sympathetic decision, especially given what making it actually entailed. It's not exactly an honorable decision to not take arms against your home when said home is revolting for the purpose of defending the practice of chattel slavery.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:21 AM on June 16, 2017 [4 favorites]


[Smedleyman, that's enough for this thread. Your point's been made and we're just going to go in circles now.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 4:34 PM on June 16, 2017


« Older Work To Ruin Someone's Day   |   Come down into the depths Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments