Channelling George Washington: The Renewed Importance of Robert E. Lee


Thomas Fleming is the author of “The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee,” in which Lee, on trial for treason, defends his decision to refuse Lincoln’s offer to give him command of the Union army and instead joined the Confederacy.

“They still don’t get it.”

At first I didn’t recognize the voice. Then I realized it was dense with emotion. “What’s troubling you, Mr. President?”

“The flood of essays, no doubt soon to be followed by books, by people who have been stirred by the imminent 150th anniversary of the Civil War—all saying the tragedy was caused by slavery.”

“Slavery was pretty crucial in the whole thing, wasn’t it?”

“Undoubtedly. But it’s like saying the American Revolution was caused by taxes. That’s also true but what caused men to start shooting each other was a great deal more complicated. The same thing is true of the Civil War. People who smugly blame slavery are taking obvious pleasure in accusing Southerners of causing the catastrophe.”

“How would you explain it?”

“I’m inclined to avoid laborious analyses and ponderous abstractions such as states’ rights and illusions of easy victory on both sides, and focus on one man: Robert E. Lee.”

“I’m not convinced but I’m intrigued enough to listen closely.”

“So much of Lee’s life is a paradigm of the way Southerners were tormented by their involvement with slavery and their patriotism. Lee’s father was a Revolutionary War cavalry hero, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. He wrote a book that historians still read, Memoir of the War in the Southern Department. Few men had a father better equipped to convey the importance my foremost political idea— preserving the Union.”

“That was no doubt reinforced by Robert E. Lee’s West Point education.”

“Lee graduated second in his class from West Point in 1829. That was at a time when the U.S. Military Academy was considered one of the best engineering schools in the world. He and his fellow cadets imbibed the cadet corps’s motto, ‘Duty Honor Country’ in all its original freshness and vitality.”

“Then he married into your family?”

“In 1831, he married Mary Custis, the daughter of my step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. That year Lee was assigned to Fortress Monroe, on the Virginia coast. The newlyweds were barely settled there when the region was shaken by a horrendous event. A group of slaves, led by a part-time preacher named Nat Turner, revolted and massacred sixty white men, women and children. Troops were rushed from Fortress Monroe to help suppress the uprising. The fort’s gates were closed lest the revolt spread to blacks in the immediate vicinity.”

“That must have been an awful experience for Mrs. Lee.”

“She never forgot it. But she was a courageous woman. She never complained when Robert left her home at Arlington, her father’s estate just outside Washington D.C. while he was ordered to various posts.”

“There were slaves at Arlington?”

“Several hundred. George Washington Parke Custis was a very indulgent master. There were never any problems with Arlington’s black men and women. But the memory of Nat Turner’s butchery continued to haunt Mrs. Lee—and tens of thousands of other Southern women who had read the gruesome accounts in the newspapers. She—and they—were especially vulnerable when some Northerners, who called themselves abolitionists, began abusing and insulting Southerners, hoping to embarrass them into freeing all their slaves, immediately.”

“Why did the Southerners refuse to do this?”

“In the decades after Nat Turner, every night in every county in the South the roads were patrolled by armed men who interrogated every black man they met, to make sure he was not involved in plotting another insurrection. I’m afraid any man who didn’t have a good reason for being on the road was often handled very roughly. Captain Lee did not participate in this routine. It was a local civilian exercise. But he certainly knew about it—and understood the reason for these patrols—the South’s continued dread of another Nat Turner insurrection.

“Then Captain Lee fought his first warand became famous. Is that why you think he’s important?”

“That’s only part of the reason. In the war with Mexico, Lee became chief of staff to the U.S. Army’s commander in chief, General Winfield Scott. During the struggle to capture Mexico City, Lee received two promotions for his daring and leadership. General Scott singled him out in his dispatches for his contributions to the American victory. Lee became the South’s best-known soldier.”

“He was on his way to becoming a general.”

“Undoubtedly. But promotion was slow in the peacetime army. Lee became lieutenant colonel in command of a cavalry regiment and spent much the 1850s fighting Comanche warriors in Texas. Meanwhile relations between North and South continued to deteriorate. The abolitionists grew in number and founded a political party, which they ironically called Republican—the name Tom Jefferson had chosen for his followers in the 1790s. Lee stayed aloof from the quarrel. He had never owned a slave. But slavery abruptly intruded on his life again in 1859.”

“By again you meanas in the Nat Turner eruption?”

“In 1859, while Lieutenant-Colonel Lee was visiting his wife at Arlington, President James Buchanan ordered him to take command of a detachment of Marines and rush to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. His task was to seize a man named John Brown and twenty or so followers. They had murdered several people in an attempt to capture the federal arsenal and distribute its 100,000 guns to slaves in the hope of starting a race war.”

“I see what you mean by intruded. For Lee it must have been like the renewal of a nightmare.”

“Worse was to come. Lee succeeded in his bloody task, and was dismayed to discover that John Brown had been backed in his terrible mission by six wealthy abolitionists from Massachusetts and New York. John Brown was tried, found guilty and hanged for murder. But his northern backers compounded their folly by making him a martyr to their continued demand for immediate abolition of the South’s slaves. That persuaded tens of thousands of Southerners to decide secession was the only way to prevent the race war they still dreaded.”

“Slavery’s intrusion acquired momentum?”

“A momentum that would soon engulf the nation. Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 without a single Southern vote. South Carolina and other states of the Deep South voted to secede from the union. But Virginia hesitated. A convention met in Richmond and debated the issue for months. Lincoln was appalled by the looming war and thought if he could keep Virginia in the Union, he might be able to change minds across the South. Who do you think he turned to?”

“Lieutenant Colonel Lee?”

“The President-elect sent a friend to Lee to offer him command of the United States Army if the secession crisis exploded into war. For twenty-four agonizing hours, Lee could not decide what to say. Some, including this observer, think if he had accepted the command, Virginia might not have seceded. But Lee was not a politician. He had no way of knowing or predicting this. An innately modest man, he discounted his influence.”

“I can imagine the awful question he had to ask himself.”

“If Virginia voted to secede, could he lead an army of Northerners, many of them abolitionists, against his home state? He knew what his wife would think—and undoubtedly say. He was exposing her and their daughters to a hundred thousand John Browns and Nat Turners. Would they ever speak to him again? In his mind’s eye he saw John Brown’s victims in and around the bloody Harper’s Ferry arsenal. At the end of an undoubtedly sleepless night, Lieutenant Colonel Lee refused President-elect Lincoln’s offer.”

“Now I know why there was so much emotion in your voice, Mr. President. I find it hard to listen without tears in my eyes.”

“Virginia voted to secede the following day. A few days later, Lee accepted a commission as commander of Virginia’s forces. From there he rose to commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and worldwide fame.”

“I begin to see why we’re discussing this.”

“To understand why Robert E. Lee chose to fight for the Southern Confederacy is the key to achieving mutual forgiveness between North and South and whites and blacks, which should be our national goal in this 150th anniversary of the Civil War.”

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steve f knott - 3/10/2011

Amen . . . using this site to constantly promote his books wore thin eons ago.

Chris Myers Asch - 3/9/2011

Fairy tale, indeed!

Poor Robert E. Lee and the South, we are led to believe. They were patriots who were pushed by those dastardly abolitionists and rebellious slaves into seceding from the Union they loved. We are supposed to feel sorry for slaveowners who "had" to spend years patrolling streets and harassing blacks because they feared another Turner-esque revolt? We should sympathize with the beleaguered plantation mistresses who nervously watched over their chattel? Surely you jest!

One does not have to believe the North was full of anti-racist saints to recognize that slavery was indeed central to the war, that the South's steadfast defense of its peculiar institution drove the conflict, and that America is a better place for having destroyed the Confederacy.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/9/2011

This is a theme Fleming's hit before. This series is not for serious historical thinking: Washington is a sock puppet for Fleming's own unreconstructed revanchist paleo-con views.

James W Loewen - 3/9/2011

An accurate summary, Tim!
This parable does violence not only to the actual situation in 1860-61, but also to the memory of George Washington, who understood full well why slaves revolted. Unlike Jefferson, Washington took seriously the phrase "all men are created equal," and (eventually) freed his slaves. This parable does not capture his voice.
Nor does it capture Lee's. As noted in his own words in THE CONFEDERATE AND NEO-CONFEDERATE READER, Lee was a white supremacist before, during, and after the war. His men conducted a massive slave raid in conjunction with their Gettysburg campaign. After the war, Lee's "White Sulphur Manifesto" provided the Democratic Party with an artful plea to let ex-Confederates run the South as they had always done, without Northern interference and without civil or political rights for African Americans. Like Washington, Lee is not recognizable here.
Not a good promo for the book!

Tim Matthewson - 3/9/2011

A nice little fairy tale. The moral to the story: Turner and Brown made me do it!

John D. Beatty - 3/9/2011

Duty, Honor, Country. Lee put money in front of all of them. He betrayed the country that trained him and gave him a sinecure; he turned his back on his classmates and comrades of a lifetime for the assurance of achievement in a Southern army, knowing that no southerner was going to achieve high rank in any northern-led army. Any arguments about his love of section and of his home state flies in the face the oath he was purported to hld so dear: Duty; Honor; Country. It's not just restricted to the duty we like, or the country where most of our neighbors live, but a common country.

Lincoln could not offer Lee the command of _all_ the northern armies in 1861 because Congress would have excoriated him for trusting a southerner. He was offered a command, but not _supreme_ command.

What else could he have done? Quit and gone home. Yes, that was an option; even an honorable one, as many well trained men on both sides did sit that one out. You don't know them because they won nor nost, just survived.

Robert E. Lee did what was best for his pocketbook, beleiving like most that it would be a short war and he would thus be well positioned to achieve high rank in a peacetime southern army. That he stayed the course after all of that ended was the only thing he could do. He was stuck.