When you’re runnin’ down Robert E Lee, hoss, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.
For months, the businessmen, community activists, and other local boosters who make up the non-profit Lee Highway Alliance in Arlington County, Virginia, have been working to rename the county’s stretch of U.S. Highway 29, and thereby to repudiate the man whose name it bears. They want a name that “better reflects Arlington County’s values” than that of Robert E. Lee. Until the last couple of years, their task would have been delicate—in fact, preposterous. Not only was Lee the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, the greatest military strategist of the Civil War, the moral leader of the rebel Confederacy, and a paragon of certain gentlemanly virtues that people across the defeated South claimed (and claim) for their own—he is also history’s best-known Arlingtonian. Lee spent much of his adult life at Arlington House, built by Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, whose daughter Lee married. The county is named after Arlington House, not the other way around.
But Arlington, which sits directly across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., has been changing. Between the censuses of 1930 and 1950, it was transformed from hamlet to suburb, its population quintupling to 135,000. The New Deal, partly responsible for the change, did nothing to stint the local admiration for Lee, whom Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” The military boom in Arlington, which began with the construction of the Pentagon and lasted through the Cold War, may even have firmed up Lee’s popularity.
Since the 1980s, though, Arlington has again nearly doubled in size, and its latest newcomers admire Lee less. Career military have been replaced by congressional staffers, lobbyists, and patent lawyers. Arlington suddenly finds itself the eighth-richest county in America (by per capita income), according to U.S. News & World Report. The new “army of northern Virginia” is proving large enough, progressive enough, and connected enough to transform institutions across the state. Neighboring Fairfax, the third-richest county in the country, recently renamed its Robert E. Lee High School for the late civil-rights marcher and congressman John Lewis. Several military bases in the state (including Fort Lee, near Petersburg, where Lee held Richmond against a Union siege for almost three hundred days in 1864 and 1865) will soon be renamed by an act of Congress. And if Virginia won’t honor Robert E. Lee, why should the country at large? Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal recently wrote an article in the Atlantic to announce that he had taken a portrait of Lee that his wife had saved up to buy him when they were first married, and thrown it in the trash. Perhaps more significant was what Americans did last year to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Lee’s death: nothing.
Lee was certainly a multi-dimensional man. He graduated second in his West Point class, was gifted enough to become an assistant professor of mathematics at the age of 19, and spent much of his career designing fortifications and improving waterways for the Army Corps of Engineers. Attached during the Mexican-American War to General Winfield Scott, whom the Duke of Wellington would call “the greatest living soldier,” Lee excelled not just as a road-builder but as a warrior—a cavalryman with steely nerves and extraordinary physical endurance. His solo reconnaissance across a lava-strewn waste called the Pedregal allowed him to design a surprise attack when the U.S. advance on Mexico City appeared stalled. Scott called that mission “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage” of the entire war, and Lee “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.”
It was on Scott’s urging that President Lincoln offered Lee command of the army that he was mustering to invade the South after the firing on Fort Sumter. Lee, then 54, refused, and resigned from the army to follow the course of the state of Virginia (which had voted against secession but now appeared likely to reconsider). In the summer of 1862, General George McClellan crossed the Potomac with 120,000 men, a force roughly twice that of Lee’s, and brought it to within earshot of Richmond. Until D-Day, it would stand as the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare, and the war appeared to be nearing its end. But in the so-called Seven Days battles at the end of June, Lee, having gathered more troops, drove McClellan’s army down the Virginia Peninsula and nearly destroyed it.
This is not the place to review Lee’s extraordinary performance as a commander over the three years that followed, or the reverence in which his men held him. The two were necessarily intimately connected. The South (9 million people, of whom 3.5 million were slaves) was vastly outnumbered by the North (21 million), and its technological disadvantages were even more extreme. In some respects, the war resembled those of certain colonial populations taking up arms against the British empire. The South never managed to manufacture guns, artillery, or gunpowder. It could not even manufacture blankets. Nor could it import those things, since the Union had a Navy and the Confederacy did not. The South was blockaded, and once Ulysses S. Grant’s troops had secured the Mississippi, the blockade was hermetic. At the end of the war, the South was using the same muskets it had in the beginning, with a range of 50 yards or so, while certain Northern units had new rifles with a range of 400 to 500 yards.
Lee was the moral force of half the nation. Lincoln came to understand this. In the late summer of 1864, while Grant was punishing Lee at the siege of Petersburg, army chief of staff Henry Halleck requested that some of Grant’s troops be sent to deal with draft resistance expected in the North. Grant categorically refused. He would not weaken himself in the standoff against Lee and run the risk Lee might escape and regroup. Lincoln telegraphed Grant: “Hold on with a bulldog grip and chew and choke as much as possible.” When in the spring of the following year, Grant broke the resistance at Petersburg, trapped the fleeing Lee at Appomattox, and forced his surrender, the war was effectively over, even though other troops remained in the field for days and weeks more.
Grant’s tracking of the evasive Lee’s wounded, starving men, the two generals’ exchange of letters, the solemn and utterly dignified ceremony (taunting forbidden, men enjoined to avoid “rencontres”), Grant’s magnanimous order that all Lee’s troops be permitted to return to their homes with their horses, Lee’s pledge of honor not to take up arms again—Appomattox is the most Homeric episode in modern warfare. And it accounts for the extraordinary reverence in which even Lee’s bitterest adversaries held him until what seems like the day before yesterday.
Shortly before Lee left to meet Grant at Appomattox, Brigadier General Porter Alexander, the Confederate artilleryman, urged on Lee a strategy of scattering the army—to fight a guerrilla war, Adams* assumed, correctly or not. Lee insisted on a formal, total surrender of every man and every weapon. “For us, as a Christian people,” Lee told Alexander, “there is now but one course to pursue. We must accept the situation; these men must go home and plant a crop, and we must proceed to build up our country on a new basis.” In the days that followed, Confederate President Jefferson Davis would call for a “new phase of the struggle” that would involve reconstituting the Army of Northern Virginia—and thus inciting soldiers to renege on the pledge of honor that Lee had made in their name. In Adams’s view, a durable peace between the sections followed Appomattox because Lee, not Davis, held the moral authority.
Authority to do what? The meaning of Adams’s viewpoint on Lee becomes clear only when one considers the constitutional nature of the rebellion in which Lee took part. Although Lee had opposed secession until the eve of Virginia’s leaving the Union, he believed his primary allegiance was to his state, and that that settled the matter. When questioned about his motivations for that allegiance before a Senate committee after the war, he responded, in essence, that his motivations had been neither here nor there. “That was my view: that the act of Virginia, in withdrawing herself from the United States, carried me along as a citizen of Virginia, and that her laws and her acts were binding on me.”
There is no reason to doubt Lee’s sincerity in this. The Declaration of Indepedence opens by recognizing the occasional necessity for “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” A textbook used at West Point in his time taught that states had the right to secede from the Union. The very names of Civil War fighting units reflect that even in a national army troops were still mustered on the Jeffersonian assumption that defense is a prerogative of individual states. But Lee’s attitude sounded odd and disingenuous to Northerners even at the time. Adams, while he did not share it, was empathetic enough to lay out a reasonable route by which Lee might have arrived at this view: over the course of the decades, the advanced, “most far-seeing” part of the nation gravitated toward a unitary conception of the Union, suppressing ideas about state sovereignty that prevailed at the nation’s 18th-century origin. The backward part of the nation did not.
At least since the civil rights movement it has been common to make polemical use of the term “states’ rights,” as if that were always the pretext for anti-constitutional subversion. Adams was interested in the question of states’ allegiances. This question contained the seeds of “an inevitable, irrepressible conflict,” as he saw it, which could be resolved only when “men with arms in their hands [had] fought the thing to a final result.” Here is the heart of Adams’s point. Not all foundational questions get resolved at a nation’s founding, and if they are serious enough, they tend to be resolved by fighting.
As we strayed ever farther from the beliefs and intentions of the Founders, it was only natural that concepts like states’ rights would be abandoned right along with them. How much longer can it be before other terms such as liberty, the consent of the governed, and shall not be infringed grate offensively in modern ears?
Even if you’ve read up on General Lee as extensively as I have, you might still learn a thing or two about the great man from this excellent article, which amounts to a reprimand of the revisionist shitlibs who now ignorantly excoriate and condemn a shallow, disingenuous caricature of Lee they constructed themselves for the purpose. The then-and-now comparative analysis, about both Lee specifically and politics generally, is especially good, I think.
As for the contemporary crawly things who seek to drag a man who is far beyond their pathetically-deficient comprehension down to their own contemptible level? Fuck them; fuck everybody who looks like them; fuck the horses they all rode in on, and fuck their whole damned families too. Not a one of those unrighteous lackwits will ever be fit to lick the horse dung off the soles of Lee’s riding boots. The fact is, and will forever remain, exactly as the London Daily Standard put it in the aftermath of the war:
A country which has given birth to such a man as Robert E. Lee may look the proudest nation in the most chivalric period of history…fearlessly in the face.
Precisely so. Let’s let ol’ Merle bring it on home for us, shall we?
*Charles Francis Adams, Jr, author of Lee at Appomattox, published in 1902