(November 27, 2019) Earlier this year two Maryland Democratic congressmen introduced a bill to remove the pictured statue of Robert E. Lee from the Antietam National Battlefield Park. Although the bill has been stalled in the Republican-controlled Natural Resources Committee that has oversight of federal lands, few, if any, academic historians have publicly objected to the bill. Evidently, most either believe it is proper to remove Confederate statues from national battlefield parks, or they’re too afraid of retribution from our politically correct culture to voice dissent.
Robert E. Lee statue at Sharpsburg battlefield on the grounds of Antietam Battlefield Park
One reason many academic historians may want Robert E. Lee statues to vanish is because the memory of Lee is an obstacle to their efforts to transform Ulysses Grant into a paragon of virtue. Fortunately books from Joseph Rose and Frank Varney are correcting the exaggerated evaluations of his military competence, while my own U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency is one that exposes his blundering selfishness as President. Nonetheless, Steven Spielberg is preparing a Grant biopic to star Leonardo DiCaprio. When Hollywood gets involved, political correctness often takes charge of the narrative.
Be that as it may, Robert E. Lee’s statue should remain at Sharpsburg, and elsewhere. His leadership inspired the valor and victories against long odds of the soldiers under his command. Even today Lee and his men inspire accomplished military officers. Lieutenant-Colonel, and noted author, Ralph Peters has written: “As a serious student of the war and as a soldier, I have come to respect and honor the valor, skill and fortitude of the Confederate infantry—particularly those who served under Robert E. Lee.” Our country may once again hunger for the kind of leadership Lee provided.
First, during the Civil War Lee was undeniably the commander most beloved by the men in his army. This was most famously demonstrated at the Battle of the Wilderness. On the morning of May 6, 1864 the Confederates were in a desperate situation as their defense line was collapsing from a federal attack. Lee felt the situation was hopeless until a reinforcing brigade of Texas and Arkansas troops—known as the Texas Brigade—arrived in the nick of time.
As the brigade began its successful counter attack Lee joined them and appeared intent on leading the charge on his horse Traveller. A number of nearby soldiers noticed the general’s foolhardy intention and began to shout along the line, “Lee to the rear!” Some men pleaded with him directly, saying, “Go back, General Lee, go back.” A sergeant took hold of the Traveller’s reins to stop the horse. Prompted by such urgings, Lee turned back and rode off through cheering Confederate troops. “I thought him at that moment the grandest specimen of manhood I ever beheld,” one soldier who witnessed the event later recounted.
Second, while most generals would commandeer the home of a nearby resident for use as a headquarters (HQ) post, Lee normally slept in a tent. Soldiers on both sides were keenly aware of such conduct among their commanders. By contrast, General Grant established his HQ at the Widow Crisp’s house while his men slept under the February stars and snow at the Battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee. Similarly, when his army was attacked by surprise two months later at Shiloh, Grant was sleeping at the Cherry Mansion where he had located his HQ ten miles from the federal troop encampments.
Third, rather than putting blame on others, which was common among defeated commanders during the war, Lee took full responsibility for his army’s first decisive defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. At the end of the month Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis, “No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me. . . I alone am to blame.” A week later he offered to resign, but Davis turned him down.
After Lee’s desperate gamble to win on the third day at Gettysburg with Pickett’s Charge failed, he was seen by one of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s staff officers to be meeting the returning survivors, “It is all my fault. I take it all. Get together now men, we shall yet beat them.” The staff officer added, “I saw no man fail him.” A British observer saw Lee meet the survivors saying, “All this will come out right in the end, we’ll talk it over afterward, but in the meantime all good men must rally.” (He was anticipating a federal counter attack.) An officer in the First Virginia regiment heard Lee tell Pickett, “General, your men have done all that men can do. The fault is entirely my own.” As returning officers came to him he repeated over and over, “It is all my fault.” Such conduct is rare but infinitely valuable as an example to others.
Fourth, Lee was the best example of an army commander who consistently held the respect of both his soldiers and superiors. When Davis replied to Lee’s resignation offer after Gettysburg the President wrote, “To ask me to substitute you for someone in my judgement more fit to command is to demand an impossibility.” No other leader of a field army on either side persistently had such a symbiotic relationship with their superiors. Lee was respectful of his superiors without being submissive.
Fifth, in the last six months of the war when the Confederacy was considering the possibility of enlisting slaves into the army, Congress made little progress until a Virginia politician directly asked Lee for his opinion. On January 11, 1865 he replied, “We must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions [e.g. emancipation]. My own opinion is the we should employ them without delay.”
Two months later Congress passed a bill authorizing the enlistment of 300,000. President Davis stipulated that no black man could be enrolled under the Act unless he volunteered and was accompanied by manumission papers from his owner setting him free.
Sixth, after the war Lee urged fellow Southerners to accept the outcome. When the son of former Virginia Governor Henry Wise asked Lee if he should sign a federal parole, the general advised him to do so. When the son told his dad, the former Governor exclaimed, “You have disgraced the family!”
The youth replied, “But General Lee advised me to do it.”
“Oh,” said the governor. “That alters the case. Whatever General Lee says is all right.”
In sum, there were compelling reasons to honor Robert E. Lee with statues. They remain compelling for any American who respects the call of duty.
Learn about Robert E. Lee’s successes by reading:
The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh