How do I Tell the Story of Robert E. Lee?Roundup
tags: Confederacy, biography, Robert E. Lee, Allen Guelzo, public history
Allen C. Guelzo is the author of several books on American history, including the forthcoming Robert E. Lee: A Life, and is the senior research scholar at the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University.
This month in Virginia, the most famous statue of Robert E. Lee — a 21-foot-tall bronze equestrian sculpture — was swung down from its granite base on Richmond’s Monument Avenue and cut in two at the waist so that it could fit under highway overpasses on its final journey to an undisclosed state facility. Hundreds gathered to cheer the event as a victory for racial justice.
My reaction was more complicated. As a Yankee born and bred, I had never been schooled in deference to the Southern Confederacy’s most famous general. But as a historian of the Civil War era, I had been at work since 2014 on a new biography of Lee, partly because he is so dominant a figure on the Civil War landscape, partly because I had become intrigued by how to write the biography of a man who committed treason. However, the seven years that followed — and especially the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 — quickly turned Lee into something different for many Americans. He became a symbol of our racial trauma, and one after another, Lee statues — in Dallas, in New Orleans, in Charlottesville, now in Richmond — came down.
I wondered whether the same toppling awaited my biography. I called my editor: Should we just put this manuscript in the freezer? My editor found my courage for me. No, he replied, we want to go ahead with this. If anything, he assured me, a thorough, unflinching and humane biography of Lee is more important now, as the monuments to him have been removed from view. That put me back on the rails. My book, “Robert E. Lee: A Life,” will be published next week.
There are some biographies that are almost impossible to write, but write them we must. Biography demands a close encounter with a subject, an entrance into motive, perception and explanation. The intimacy of that encounter carries with it the danger of dulling the edge of the historian’s moral judgment — and that kind of judgment is what makes historical inquiry worthwhile, something more than a mere jumble of events and dates. As Ian Kershaw wrote at the beginning of his two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, the work of a biographer has the “inbuilt danger” of requiring “a level of empathy with the subject which can easily slide over into sympathy, perhaps even hidden or partial admiration.”
Monsters on the order of Hitler are comparatively rare. But monsters are not the only problem for biographers. There are also the Inconsistent, the Out-of-Step, the Authors of Important Mistakes, the Nearsighted, the Disastrously Well Intentioned. How do we write a biography of a Nearsighted like the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and explain how he could have misjudged Hitler so catastrophically? How do we engage with an Out-of-Stepper like Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill (on the Dardanelles, Edward VIII and colonialism)? How do we treat an Inconsistent like Ulysses Grant, fighting for the Union as a general in the Civil War but issuing an antisemitic order in 1862, or Woodrow Wilson, making the world safe for democracy but endorsing Jim Crow?
My examination of Robert E. Lee has posed many of these same questions. He raised his hand against the United States he had sworn to defend, and there is no other word for that but treason (Lee was indicted on a charge of treason but never brought to trial). He fought with maddening skill during the Civil War in defense of a Confederacy openly devoted to the perpetuation of slavery. By some accounts, he even whipped an enslaved person who attempted to run away. And he became the apex of the “Lost Cause” mythology, which treated him as the peerless Southern cavalier and the ultimate vindication of white supremacy.
But then other realities intrude. If by “cavalier” Lee was supposed to be a plantation aristocrat, Lee was certainly no cavalier. His branch of the famous Virginia Lees was a marginal one, and Lee himself was the product of an adverse childhood. (His feckless father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary fame, deserted him when he was only 6.) That left him possessed by thirsts for security, independence and perfection.
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