|Hmm, which to choose... such a hard choice|
Now, of course, the whitewashing of the Civil War began the second the war ended and everyone had to scramble to pretend the war was about anything but slavery, despite the fact that they had said slavery was the direct cause multiple times in both secession declarations and speeches leading up to and during the war. It was around this time that the Confederate generals began their public rehabilitation as well. Robert E. Lee's rehabilitation took two forms: One, convince the public that he was really against slavery and, two, explain to all us simple-minded modern folk that, back in the day, love of one's state was the equivalent of the love of one's country. Both of these ideas have incredible legs on them and can be seen in full view in Ken Burns' overly praised, maddeningly un-probing (especially considering its length), practically Dunning School apologia documentary The Civil War in which historian Shelby Foote flings the same old cowpies about Lee and other Confederates while no one, least of all Burns, questions the authority of this. Let's take on Lee's opposition to slavery first.
For a good look at how the whitewashing continues, here's the opening line of the section on Lee's views of slavery in the Wikipedia article on him: "Since the end of the Civil War, it has often been suggested Lee was in some sense opposed to slavery." Ah, yes, Lee was in some sense opposed to slavery, or at least it's been suggested. Let's be perfectly clear on this point before going any further: One is not opposed in some sense to slavery. One is opposed to slavery or not. There are few moral stances in the history of the world with as clearly cut lines of delineation as slavery. It contains no shades of grey. The fact that a sub-section about Lee's views on slavery starts out on such a wobbly foundation surely bodes poorly for what is to follow. And, in fact, it does. Wikipedia, as well as most every Lee/Confederate apologist out there, quotes the notorious "slave letter" that Lee wrote his wife on December 27, 1856. The relevant passage:
...In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. 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.If this is proof of Lee opposing slavery, the apologists are in dire straits indeed. First, we have Lee proclaiming that, yes, it's evil but, you know, probably worse for white people ("It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race"). After all, aren't the slaves better off ("The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically")? Why, this whole slavery thing is just a means of teaching them to be better people ("The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things"). And, you know, it's all a part of God's plan ("How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence"). I'd lay down good, hard cash that if someone snatched up Lee and his family, shipped them off to another continent, separated them forever, beat them daily, and subjected them to 16 hour workdays all while changing their names and making clear to them every moment of every day that they were inferior to their captors, Lee wouldn't think it a merciful act of Providence designed to make him a better man. That his tiny, wretched, logically-challenged brain could not see such an obvious hypocrisy is a good enough explanation as to why he's known for battles in war and not for battles of wits, of which he did not seem to have any.
That horrible, awful letter should be proof enough that this man couldn't think his way out of an ideological paper bag but the apologists also bring up Lee's illegal school for slaves on his Arlington plantation and, of course, the fact that his wife wanted to liberate them to send them back to Africa. Of course, if he thought they were "immeasurably" better off here (remember how he said exactly that?), and he's not a racist, wouldn't he and his wife want to liberate the slaves and give them all equal rights to live and work here in America? And the school? Was it designed to give them a leg up in world of higher education when they left the plantation? Of course not. They, like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and other hypocritical slave owners, simply wanted smarter, literate slaves who could read letters, envelope addresses, and menus.
The three main arguments - the letter, the school, and the liberation and deportation - all work remarkably well in support of Lee being a racist and slavery supporter, not the other way around. But that all pales in comparison to his "terrible choice." Oh brother, deliver us all from the whitewashed "terrible choice."
The choice I'm referring to is, of course, the Shelby Foote endorsed bullshit that, oh, he wasn't fighting against slavery so much as fighting for Virginia. Ahem. When offered command by the president through his advisor Francis Blair, Lee replied, "Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?" Oh, that poor man! Hey, look, Mr. Blair, I'd sacrifice the slaves, even though I think what's happening to them is ordained by God for their own good, but, I mean, come on, Virginia!
Robert E. Lee was given a choice: Fight to end slavery, the involuntary capture and subjugation of a human being by another, or fight for Virginia. He chose Virginia. You may now commence vomiting.
Oh, and in case you missed it, when offered command he mentioned the slaves in his reply. Right there at the start of the reply to Blair. But, no, people, the war wasn't about slavery. It was about State's Rights. Isn't it interesting that the war was supposedly about some abstract ideal of state's rights as opposed to federalism and yet the Confederate states were granted far fewer rights than states under the U.S. constitution? Hell, the Confederate states were even disallowed from abolishing slavery on their own. If you read through it, you will find that the Confederate constitution , which mentions slavery repeatedly, is all about the power of the central government. So much for states rights. And if slavery wasn't the underlying cause, why on earth did Robert E. Lee acknowledge, right at the outset, that "sacrificing" the slaves would defuse the war? That's what's so maddening about the whitewashing's persistence. It's so easy to defeat and yet a low-information public just keeps on repeating its claims (and, again, Ken Burns' Civil War is a big part of the problem).
The whitewashing of the causes of the Civil War, its fight, and its aftermath (Reconstruction's history was almost entirely written by an embittered South whose views still predominate) must end and a good place to start is by throwing Robert E. Lee into the historical bin in which he belongs: the one marked for traitors, slavery apologists, and moral cowards. There is nothing, repeat, nothing ethically or morally admirable about this man. Nothing. Let us finally put him in the proper historical perspective and stop celebrating his legacy at once.