Monday, April 12, 2010

The Marble Man, 145 Years Later

It’s Day 12 of Virginia’s Bad Ideas and Treason Month. Today is the actual anniversary of the end of the Old Dominion’s ancien régime, and since any number of pallid politicos are having their belligerent say, it’s worth examining the greatest Virginia soldier of them all. (And the handsomest! Right: Lee as a young man.)

Robert E. Lee stepped open-eyed into his future. He was no fan of the Confederacy in its first stages, but when President Lincoln asked him to take command of the entire Union army, he refused, saying that he could not take up arms against Virginia, should it secede. It did secede, and he went with it, [I assume] resigning his commission in the army of the U.S.A. He ultimately commanded the Confederate forces in the east, and it’s in that role that we are most familiar with him.

If Lee had chosen to lead the Union army, it’s unimaginable that the war would have lasted as long as it did. His record at West Point was one of the best in its 208-year history, and he served as its superintendent from 1852 to 1855. Lee was an outstanding military leader during his life in the U.S. Army and did the best with the resources he had in his years with the C.S.A. (It’s worth remembering that his resources included soldiers trained at West Point and the many United States military bases built throughout the south.)

Nonetheless, I believe that Lee’s most remarkable feat — of all his life — was his surrender. What the soft-bottomed soreheads in Virginia (most of whom have no doubt visited a military base only as a tourist, just like me) forget is that Lee surrendered. He had to. He had no other option. The C.S.A. was defeated. It was not betrayed. The Confederacy lost. Robert E. Lee was the supreme commander of the Confederate army in the east and he believed the war was lost. Period, end of story. (Left: Lee as the Confederacy's great general. The portrait is at Washington & Lee.)

Lee and General Grant, head of the Union forces — and, incidentally, with a career trajectory nothing like as brilliant as Lee’s — discussed the terms of Lee’s army’s surrender for several days. There was no treaty, perhaps because Lincoln’s government insisted that the C.S.A. was not a sovereign nation. The terms of the agreement were simple, permitting every soldier to return home safely, if he turned in his arms and horse or other animal (if publicly owned). Soldiers could keep horses or other animals if they were privately owned, which was regarded as a mercy to men who had to return home, possibly to ruined homesteads, and begin the spring planting.

The paroles — the pledge of safe passage to these soldiers — were based on Lee’s word alone. In effect, the last public use of Lee’s honor came in the maintenance of the peace. Imagine what it would have been like if Lee reneged! Within the week Lincoln was assassinated, and a lesser man might have taken up arms again or encouraged an uprising. Lee did not.

I am telling a complicated story in a simplistic way. There’s a lot to argue with in terms of Lee’s choices. He was a slave-owner, although in a limited way, although he did control an estate that owned slaves. Slaves on his property did testify that he had ordered whippings. He had been shown that Arlington, his estate across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., was financially viable only when operated with slave help, and that trumped any thought of freeing them. After the surrender, Arlington was confiscated by the United States government as part of the punishment for Lee’s treason. Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington; it subsequently became Washington & Lee. (Right: The Matthew Brady portrait of Lee, following the surrender, in Richmond.)

Robert E. Lee died in 1870, but he was in the process of becoming “the marble man” as his biographer, Thomas L. Connolly, described him. The myth-making had begun.

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