Patriot or Traitor

Robert E. Lee

Civic authorities recently removed statues of Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue in Richmond and from a memorial park in Charlottesville.  Many people hailed this move as only fitting.  After all, Lee was a slaveholder, and he was a traitor to the United States.  His actions led to the death of many thousands of men.

Some magazine and newspaper columnists seized this moment to write harsh criticisms of Lee and described him as a bad man and an overrated general.  The accounts I read had a number of false statements and questionable conclusions.

I will not attempt to analyze Lee’s generalship.  Let us leave that to the military professionals.   I only wish to write of Lee the man.

First, let me admit my prejudices.  I was reared in the South.  My grandfather and five great uncles fought under Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia.  As a youth, I was taught to revere Washington, Lincoln, Lee and many others as heroes. 

Prior to the Civil War, many people from both North and South believed that a state had the right to secede from the union.  The New England states had threatened to do so during the War of 1812.  South Carolina had threatened it during the 1830s.  After all, they said, was not the union a voluntary association of states.  The legalities of secession had never been litigated.  Peoples’ loyalties in 1860 were primarily to their communities and states.  The Federal government was a distant and rather nebulous entity with little influence on one’s daily life.  When the split came in 1860-61, men flocked to the standards of their states – the 10th Ohio Infantry, the 3rd Virginia Cavalry, etc. etc.  Crossovers happened, but they were relatively infrequent.

Considering these circumstances, I do not consider Lee and the other men who joined the Southern military as traitors.  In their own communities and states, they were regarded as patriots, and I think of them the same way.  As a result of secession, everyone in the South was doomed to be traitor to someone or something.  If not to country, to state, and in not to state, to neighbors or family.  People in the North faced no such dilemma.   

Were Southerners fighting for the right cause?  Of course not!  But slavery in the South was a matter of history and geography.  It was highly profitable for the large plantation owners.  It was not so profitable in the North.  Had it been so, I am certain that slavery would have continued in that part of the country.  Northerners were not morally superior to Southerners, and the attitude of the typical Northerner toward Blacks was just a bigoted as that of most Southerners.

Comparing Robert E. Lee to George Washington:  both were slaveholders; both resigned their commissions and turned their back on their national government; both were called “rebels” and “traitors.”  Washington lost most of his battles but won the war.  Lee won most of his battles but was finally defeated.  Washington is still highly esteemed by the vast majority of our citizens.  Lee is now maligned.  Most importantly for their reputations, Washington ended up on the winning side, whereas Lee did not.

Lee was imperfect.  Perhaps he was a harsh slave master, though I doubt the more critical accounts.  There are other observers who describe his actions much more favorably; and, on the whole, I believe his conduct in peace and war proved him to be a good and honorable man. 

It saddens me to see Robert E. Lee trashed by men whom I consider his inferiors in every way; and even if every statue is removed, I will continue to honor the memory of this man in my heart.

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