tv Allen Guelzo Robert E. Lee - A Life CSPAN November 10, 2021 8:38pm-9:59pm EST
i think he would've been surprised that he died at kelly's forward! [laughs] it's not the place we would have thought he would have died. was he doomed by the mentality of his era? i don't believe so. and i will explain that further in writing. thank you. [laughs] [applause] >> sarah kay bierle everyone. program guide for c-span.org/history.
welcome to atlanta history center series, my name is claire haley and i'm vice president of public relations here. it's my pleasure to welcome you all an audience and to welcome our guest, allen guelzo. he is discussing his book, 'robert e. lee: a life', a biography of the figure that we all may know, and has a lot of interesting insight in the book. it was just published yesterday, and allen, we are so excited to have you. you can get a copy of the book from atlanta history center book, it's online, we ship, there is in store pick up. we want to quickly introduce my speaker and then turn it over to him. and given orientation an introduction to his. work allen guelzo is a research
scholar at council of humanities, princeton university. . he's a specialist in early 19th century american history. he won the lincoln prize three times, a prize for military history and other honors. allen, welcome, and thank you so much for being here. >> thank you very much, claire for hosting this program, monique for acting as our wonderful technical support and hello to all of my friends in atlanta, a city i have known and enjoyed for more than 35 years. many, many wonderful visits. i'm delighted to be appearing with the atlanta history center once again. and i'm sure there are a number of members of the civil war roundtable, which i've spoken to as recently as just seven years ago about the battle of gettysburg. but now, let me turn to robert
e. lee. mary chestnut first met robert e. lee just before the war at white seltzer springs in west virginia. his wife was plagued by rheumatoid arthritis, they came to you like silver springs to benefit from her baiting in the hot springs there. one of the few things that could give her a relief from the march of that disease. mary chestnut -- of course one of the famous diary papers of the confederacy, remembered that a man riding a beautiful horse joined us, wearing a hat with, somehow, a military look to it. and she said, she sat his horse gracefully and he looks so distinguished at all points that i very much regretted not catching the main.
mary chestnut was intrigued by this man. who was he? we or did he come from? it was explained to her that he was robert edward lee. chestnut marveled. everything about him, she said, we so fine looking that the word had come unbidden. her mind was, not perfection. she said there was no fault to be found even if you hunted for one. and yet, mary chestnut was not entirely enchanted with robert e. lee, or at least not early nearly as much as some others. she wrote in her diary, i like smith lee better. what she meant was, robert e. lee's older brother, an officer in the u.s. navy. and why? well, because, robert was a mystery.
i know smith lee will well, mary chestnut wrote. but can they say they know his brother? i doubt it. he looked so cold and quiet. and grand. that surprisingly was the judgment that many people who met robert e. lee came to. both during and before the american civil war. chestnut came neighbor to the mark when she talked about lee and perfection and she may have realized, because perfection was one of robert e. leads abiding goals in life. not because he was some super naturally blessed with ability, that perfection was within his easy reach. but because he demanded so much of it from himself and from others. there was, in other words, a great deal more to this man
then people caught in the surface. and not all of it could be easily reckoned with. in those last days before the civil war cast its shadow over the nation, robert e. lee was, on the surface at, least a model of an american soldier. he was the son of a revolutionary war hero, whitehorse high lee, a protegee of george washington. the man who delivered that famous eulogy from washington, first and war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countryman. yeah, that came from whitehorse harry lee. robert lee's mother, virginia carter, and the carters were the first among the first families of virginia. robert lee himself embarked on a military career entering west point in 1825. he did so marvelously well he was commissioned upon
graduation in 1829, into the elites corps of engineers, were he overtook coastal engineering projects, ranging from georgia to new york city to the st. louis waterfront. he earned his most impressive military bouquets, however, serving under winfield scott in the mexican war, serving as his chief aide in mexico city in 1847. from there, robert lee served as superintendent of west point. and from 1857 to 1861, he was lieutenant colonel of the second cavalry. he was also weave the commander of the first u.s. cavalry. then with the outbreak of the civil war, he was offered field command of the united states
forces in dealing with the secession estates. at that moment, he turned his back on more than 30 years of service. and took command, first of the virginia state forces and then of the principal confederate field army, the army of northern virginia. almost nothing in those proceeding 30 years gave the slightest hint of the decision he made to leave the army to forswear his oath to defend the united states, which he first took upon commissioning in 1829. to refuse what would have been the pinnacle of his military career. itaryso as mary chestnut discov, nothing so characterizes robert e. lee as the question, why? why. ? why it did he do what he did?
why was he the man he was? lee, his general answer, in 1861, for that big decision about refusing command of the federal forces, was that he was a virginian. and when virginia seated, he was obliged to follow virginia into the confederacy. but was he? although robert e. lee was born on the northern neck of virginia in 1807, he had grown up in alexandria, which was then part of the district of columbia. alexandria and northern virginia would only be retroceded to the commonwealth of virginia long after lee had left, in the 18 thirties. -- in georgia, st. louis, baltimore, and new york city.
whose father, harry, had been, politically, a federalist do. and himself a -- politically. the lee married into one of the most foremost families of virginia, of arlington, arlington overlooked the potomac, facing the national capital, not virginia. and his custus in laws valorize the nation first and stake loyalty afterwards. but he could not ignore, in 1861, two factors. first, whitehorse hurriedly, for all his revolutionary fame, had been a hard luck husband and father. and left his family do. he left when robert was only
six years old. the shadow that whitehorse harry cast over the lee name was one of robert's struggles to redeem. hence, that broad streak of perfectionism in his behavior. robert also learned to briefly breathe three of his father's reputation in other ways. he wanted independence and to be his own man. in one sense his marriage to marry was an attempt to stake out a realm for himself. and he also yearn for security. the security that his father had denied him. so while most of leads contemporaries left the army as soon as they obtained their degrees, and resigned, fell into private practice or some other profession, lee stayed
with the army. as the one certain profession that he could count on. a huge factor in his pursuit of independence, security and perfection was arlington. it was as much to protect arlington for his family as it was for virginia, that he chose to resign his commission and refused the offer of command. but that is not the only factor. the other factor in his decision was his expectation that there would be no war after all. hard is it is for us to appreciate this, because we are looking from the president backwards, in april, 1861, even after the secession of the southern states, even after the firing in fort sumter, it was still, by no means, clear, that
the crisis would only result in a civil war. lee could have simply resigned his army commission and stay neutral. or he could accept the invitation extended to him to take command of virginia forces and play the role of mediator between virginia and the union. and thus achieve peace making, a fame greater than his father ever enjoyed in war. but of course, it did not turn out that way. many, many others, and lee, found this is session crisis galloping away from them, and step-by-step, incrementally, he found himself, by 1862, he found himself the commander of the army of northern virginia. he played that role, as
perfectly as he tried to play every other role in life. he failed but this did not necessarily surprise. him on the way to appomatox courthouse, he always suspected that the war would turn out the way appomatox chose. but his conduct would show how he would rise. and in the end, he would keep his profession intact. today, more questions revolve around statues of robert easily than lee himself and this poses a different dilemma. i met sixes and sevens about the removal of the least at you in richmond and the other lee statues that have been removed in charlottesville, dallas, new orleans and other places. on the one hand, i frankly
admit, i am a yankee from yankee land. i am a pennsylvanian and that is all that i have known. my earliest education do, in any subject of the civil war, came as a boy, for my grandmother's made, who was a school girl back at the turn of the last century, welcoming into her classroom, old veterans of the union army, grand army of the republic. blue jackets and caps, coming in on what they then called decoration day to instruct my grandmother and her fellow students in the real meaning of the civil war, by which they meant, not what those rebels were talking about when they talked about the lost cause. as such a yankee, i have some difficulty fathoming why we put up statues to people who
committed treason. i use the word advisedly, not uselessly or wildly. i have the same problem with people who wave the confederate flag. these were people, including robert eagerly, who raised their hand against the nation they had sworn an oath to uphold and defend. i took that oath and my father took that oath. my son took that oath. this is not helped by the fact that the cause that lee and the other confederates worked for was wrapped around, like it or not, a defense of human slavery and human trafficking. why should the artifacts of that ever be in any place but a museum? if someone wanted to erect a statue to robert e. lee today,
i would probably tell them as politely as i could, to get lost. but that's not the whole story. not the whole story at all. the monument in richmond gates from the 1890s. i'm sure it had a message then about white supremacy. but it also had other messages. the south was a region which had lost a crippling civil war. its impact on the survivors was worse than the great depression. and lasted for all practical purposes, into the 19 fifties. 10% of the military aged male population of the confederacy died in the war. that's literally decimation. in american culture, we worship success. if you are successful, that's supposed to mean you are good. if you lose, it's supposed to
mean you are bad. remember the old dictum attributed to -- that winning is not only an important thing. it is the only thing. li embraced that. robert e. lee symbolized something different, he symbolized the possibility of dignity in the face of defeat. he symbolized the possibility that the winners the bernie made offs, the michael milkins, the jeffrey epsteins, the winners, are not necessarily the good. and the people who wind upping are not necessarily bad. that message was wrapped up in leads status to. we may regret that in a
dog-eat-dog world. there's one more factor. monuments like the statue change. i know that sounds strange because monuments made of granite, bronze are physical and material. and they don't grow when they don't eat and we wonder what you mean by changed. would i mean by changes this. when monuments like the least at you in charlottesville or other places were put up, they serve as memorials. and here is where the might supremacy's supremacy messages got attached. the statues are there to remind people of what the confederacy was. over time, though, as generations past, statues change. they begin as memorials. but as generations pass, they decline into monuments. the least that you became a remembrance of a chapter in
richmond's history. more generations past and the monument declines still further into being simply a marker. people look up and they say and pass and they say, oh, that's robert e. lee, some history dude. in fact, they become almost literally markers for negotiating traffic in downtown richmond. we see what's happened to other monuments and memorial markers. out in the west coast, in california, in donner there is a monument to the goose donner party. the people who were sorted to, when winter clap down on them, cannibalism to survive. -- a monument meant to the party is on a picnic area. but no one looks at the monument and says, that's an incitement cannibalism.
maybe they set it up in the 18 forties when the donner party was still alive, or at least some of it. but overtime it simply becomes a marker. the same is true of the monument in my own state, in winston pennsylvania region of washington county, where there is a statue to the whiskey rebellion. the whiskey rebellion was not about cannibalism and strictly speaking it wasn't even about whiskey. but it was about treason. but there is a monument there to the whiskey rebellion. that's took place in the 17 nineties. perhaps one that statue was put up, some people may have objective and said, why are we putting up a monument to people who committed treason? but overtime, what begins as a memorial descends into a monument and instill more time, the monument goes into a marker and today, in washington county, we look at this monument, this memorial, this marker, to this rebellion. and nobody feels terribly upset
about treason. more likely people are upset about whiskey then about treason. and yet, there is the monument. as a historian, i am always reluctant to see monuments and memorials and markers destroyed. there's a certain professional reluctance that way. that part of our historical memory. and you can't expect the pieces of that to be ejected and still hold on to the substance of those memories, at least not very easily. on the other hand, i'm a citizen of a democracy and if the citizens of richmond or other places determine that there is a monument they wish to remove, i have no legitimate reason for standing in the path of that decision. would i can hope for, though, is that the decisions are made reasonably. as the product of a process and not by impulse or ignorance or
rage. it has been said that ignorance and impulse and rage are the unfortunate necessities that we live with in a democracy but i hope the voices that say that are wrong. and perhaps how we deal with our monuments, not just these but all historical monuments and historical miranda, perhaps how we deal with him will be the mark of how seriously we take our history and our democracy. well, claire, that's enough for me for now. i understand we have a number of questions coming in from the audience. and i would turn to the curiosity of the audience, let that have its share here. >> absolutely. and thanks for that introduction. i thought we could go back, you
took us back to the day, the recurring moments that were happening. i thought, why don't we go back to the beginning of your book and dig in a little bit more to robert evs earlier life and then a bit into civil war service, and we've got audience questions as we go. so if you have a question for alan, please submit it to the q&a and we will be sure to get as many as we can. we typically have really enthusiastic audiences, which is wonderful, but if we are not able to get your question, we apologize in advance. so alan, i want to go back to the beginning. as you lay out in your book, that, in your opinion, we understand a man like robert easily, understanding the relationship we have with he had with his father, you mentioned the revolutionary war. but also a successful post
revolutionary war. and ended up asserting his family. so i wanted you to just lay out a little bit for us, talk about his relationship with his father. and his relationship to his father's absence. >> harry lee or henry lee the third was a li from what we can call the cadet branch of the family. he was from the lees of leesylvania. the major dominant strain of the leave family was the lee family are around thomas lee, and descended from richard lee, the first immigrant -- sometimes he is called richard the immigrant, in the 16 forties and the 1650s and thomas lee is the place person who built stratford hall.
stratford hall was a small empire on the northern neck of virginia for the lees. he was from the left part of the family, that's why i call it a cadet branch. but he was nothing if not ambitious. intelligence, skillful and brave. almost at the point of recklessness. he went to princeton college and he is a princeton alam. and i get, at least, in that respect, able to claim whitehorse harry lee as part of them. but he had no senior graduated from princeton that the revolutionary war breaks out. he volunteers for service and takes command of a company of horse that grows into a mixed legion of horse and infantry. he served under washington and washington is deeply impressed by harry lee. when washington has to reorganize the campaign for the revolutionary in the south, he turns to his great friend,
nathanael greene, and with greene, he sends whitehorse harry. and the story of the revolution in the south is a story that is very much written by nathanael greene and with whitehorse harry lease help. it was after the revolution that live started to come apart for whitehorse harry. at first it looks like everything is swimming and he marries materially. materially is a cousin of his. and it's materially who is the air of stratford hall, which is how whitehorse harry comes to control stratford hall. yet, whitehorse harry had a real good for botching things financially and every possible asset he put into real estate investments, they simply corkscrewed downward. materially dies and leaves him with children. these include philip and lucy.
whitehorse harry remarries and he marries and carter. and he burned through every bit of cash, so much so, that he winds up in debtors prison. not only that, but he gets involved with political and inflammatory political problems, causing him to be eaten within an inch of his life in baltimore. after that, he simply leaves. and he leaves behind politics and his creditors and takes off of the west indies. he leaves behind his second family, with an quarterly. and that included five children. so older brothers and two sisters. he heads off to the west indies and leases family to be taken care of by all their carter relatives. and robert is six years old
when this happens. he never sees his father again. there is something that a psychologist can tell you about the trauma that that is. there is hardly any kind of pain worse than the loss of apparent before the beginning of adolescence. and that is what robert experienced. and what makes it in a sense even more cruel, is that all through his life, he's constantly introduced as robert e. lee, the son of lighthorse harry lee. you're dreaming what's conjuring up in roberts mine. robert on one occasion before 19 1861 refers to his father. and that's in his application letter to west point. beyond that he never talks about himself as the son of lighthorse harry. he never visits his father's
grieve on the georgia coast. now until the end of 1861 when finally robert lee is coming into his own so to speak. it is only then he comes to terms with the influence and the impact of lighthorse harry on his life. it is a traumatic affair as out of that trauma, you see grace these passions in, robert e. lee that i've itemize the for four. independence, security and perfection. and those pre fashions are not always compatible someone. canyon for independence and find out that that doesn't give you much circularity. or you could obtain security and find out it doesn't give you much in the way of independence. in lee fact never makes all three work together. after the civil war, lee becomes a president of washington collagen far away lexington, virginia.
finally there in the last five years of his life, he's able to bring all three of those into harmony. not significantly, that is the moment when he writes a member of his father. >> we'll come back to lee following the civil war, because he was a bit older than a lot of other major figures during the civil war. nevertheless, had a really big impact on higher education on this country. but going back to before the war, specifically you have lee, who as you see is yearning for independence, security. that leads him into an army career which doesn't always give you that independence or stability. he's constantly writing about how he's worried about [inaudible] which is weird because on some ways the soldiers salary is pretty low. but it's stable than many
others during that time period. it's this cognitive dissonance he has going on there. one of the things that i wanted to ask about, speaking of cognitive dissonance -- we have a central audience questions about it as well. it's lease relationship with slavery. so, robert e. lee lived in a slave holding state in for tuna. his wife's family in particular, arlington, on many enslaved people. arlington itself benefited from that slave labor. at the same time, lee is a voracious private correspondent, right? writes thousands of letters. he makes references to his disapproval of the institution of slavery, but then he also ties that to the disapproval because it's bad for white people, which is a really crazy rationalization happening there. and despite his expression and
disapproves role, his family was supported in large part by the slave labor. so, can you talk through a little bit about lee's thinking around slavery and how he drew some of those rationalizations and conclusions? >> lee, so to speak, we slavery. his parents owned sleeved his mother owned slaves when they were living in alexandria, even though they were severely reduced circumstances. they were still at least six slaves in the lee household in alexandria. when and carter lee dies in 1829, part of her estate is that disposition of their sleeves in that estate. some sleeves are pointed towards her two daughters in this case, and marshall lee. sorry, and kin law lee. i said marshall because she marries a martial. she becomes an hub lee martial.
and her sister mill judith lee. but one slave family's will talk to robert, at least in terms of the disposition of the estate. winds up being a sleeve sleeve family that robert owns. it is the only family he ever owns in his own name. that doesn't mean that he did benefit from slavery as a system, simply by being a white seventh southerner there were benefits. even more so at arlington, when he marries into the customs property at arlington. but there's also two other properties along the river. all told there is something like 190 slaves who are part of those properties. and robert lee benefits from that. when he marry so that he benefits from their work, their labor. he has a family who is one of
the custis slaves. hurries wife has slaves who will wait on her. and they will assist with the children. they go on vacation. so, lee certainly benefits from the slave system even if he doesn't himself have personal title to large numbers of slaves. he doesn't. the curious thing is he really says nothing about slavery for years and years and years. not until the 18 fifties when slavery is becoming a crisis issue in american politics. and it's issuing to interesting that he talks about it at all because li had learned very early in his political career, military career, not to talk about politics. soldiers who talked about politics or who got mixed up in politics usually suffered for it. he saw that happen in the case of his first mentor, charles green should. he saw what happened to winfield scott at the conclusion of the mexican war. he tries to stay as far away from politics as possible.
and yet, slavery by the 18 fifties is impinging so much is of his attention he, finally starts writing about it in a letter to his wife and. what is the pillow and say? he says slavery is a moral evil. it's an evil that should be contend condemned in any civil society. now you read that and think, well it's about time. then you read on and you immediately as you pointed out, clear, he immediately qualifies that in two ways. first of all he says, this is really more of a problem for white people than it is for black people. because you're wondering now how is that? but he says it's more of a problem for white people than it is for white people then is four white black people. slavery is actually benefiting black people because it's helping them to assimilate to civilization. this is a common argument made by people defending slavery in the 18 fifties in the slave holding south. but he also has another argument. he says i don't really have a
solution for slavery. we just have to let god work this out in his own time. now it 2000 years, christiana tees civilized the world. well, they may take that long to get rid of slavery. he does not have time bracket on it. you look at that and you say, what he has given away with one hand he's taken back with the other. but there are two things in mind as he says it. one is that what he is saying there is really not a whole lot different from what many other southerners in the south are seeing. in virginia and kentucky, these were areas where slavery was inexorably being drained out of the economic life of those states. it was being drained because slavery was much more profitable in the southwest. in the mississippi river valley. so, many southerners, including lee's own father, we'll talk about slavery as his father in law does. as a culture that is eating out
the vitals of the south. and yet, having said that, they immediately turn around and say yeah, but there's nothing we can do about it. it's here, it's legal. what are we going to do about it? we look at those rationalizations and we see, oh come on. that there are two things in mind. lee did have a point about slavery being a problem for white people. now as you might think, a racial point. but an economic point. because slavery of course, is bound up with sleeve labor. how could free labor hope to compete with sleeve labor? so that is in fact making an economic point, even if his rigidly unenlightened, which it is. the other thing that has to be borne in mind here is that is lee looking at a situation where he may not have a whole lot of control of the situation. he after all didn't own slaves. and what's more, and a
southerner who starts to take steps about emancipating slaves is immediately going to find himself cornered by other white southerners who will threaten him. no, what is interesting is this. in 1857, lee's father in law dice. the will is a mess, but part of that will provides for the emancipation of the custis slaves within five years. robert e. lee is the executor of the will and he undertakes the process of emancipating the custis slaves. a process which he concludes on schedule, in december of 1862. now, two things to notice about this. one is bite somber of 1862, robert e. lee is, robert e. lee. he's not just the son-in-law of george washington custis. if had robert e. lee gone into any virginia confederate court and said there look, i don't really want to go through with this.
i shouldn't have to go through this. i seriously doubt whether any for junior confederate court would have stopped him. if he wanted to do real the whole process, who is going to stand in the path of general lee? the other interesting thing is, that lee persists in moving forward with this emancipation. and not only emancipation of the custis, but emancipate's that one slave family that he did own in his own name. which he was not obliged by the custis estate to emancipate. by the beginning of 1863, robert e. lee is slave-less. and what's more, he's badgering jefferson davis. he's saying, the confederacy must emancipate its slaves. because otherwise we're never going to have any kind of standing in the eyes of the rest of the world. by the spring of 1865, he's advocating the emancipation and recruitment of slaves for the
confederate army. now, in both terms, it's easy to see that he was doing this out of pragmatic reasons. not because he felt any kind of moral urgency. and i'm sure that was a pragmatic motive at work in lee's thinking that we. still at the same time, he didn't have to. there was no compulsion for him to step forward and do that. and yet, he does. lsion for him now does this mean that robert e. lee has suddenly become racially enlightened? no. because after the war is over, he makes no effort to promote reconstruction. he has no interest whatsoever in seeing black people have the vote and seen them occupy office -- i mean to the contrary, he's very critical of reconstruction. so, don't mistake what lee does for some kind of enlightenment in his experience. but at the same time, don't
depreciated either. he's part of the problem of dealing with robert e. lee. and that is the complexities, the contradictions. always, like mary chestnut discovered, always the question mark. that, if anything is the symbol of robert e. lee. >> let's get into one of those big question marks. i have several questions from the audience, including from both howard and john, we're wondering if we can talk about -- you talked about his prewar experience and getting into the civil war, but let's take a pause in that moment when things could have gone [inaudible] where lee decides to resign his army commission. when i started reading this book, i didn't realize that progression under which that happened. where he comes from the officer at sunrise, resigned his army position. he goes to take up command of the confederate army. but in reality, there are a lot of steps in between. one question is, do we have any
insight from lee in his own words about his thought process during that time? and did he consult with anyone about his really monumental decision to leave the u.s. army. because as you say, he'd been hungry for promotion for years. the promotion in the army was an absolute snail's pace at that time. this would have been what he'd been striving for, and yet, gives that up. so can you talk about how he came to that? but can you talk about what his thinking was? >> lee himself never lays out in a complete and comprehensive fashion the process by which he takes all of these steps. i think that represents the fact that lee himself did not know what he was taking as his next step. he's feeling his way. that's not a criticism, because most people then were feeling their way in the crisis. again, as i said before, when you look back on this it seems to be simple, straightforward and inevitable.
there's going to be a succession, there's going to be a civil war, that's it. no. it was by no means as obvious as that. and it wasn't that obvious for lee either. first of all, did he have to resign from the army? he believed he did, because otherwise if he turned down that offer of command of the federal forces, turning that down was tantamount to us for using an order. and he would've been faced with a demand for resignation under any circumstances. so, he decides not to take that commit and then he resigns. now, at that point he could have. the evidence is that he is expected to be neutral. and it is not the only southern officer who did that. there are a number of other southern officers, they resigned their commissions, but they don't do anything else. they simply stay neutral through the war. now your wondered perhaps, how can one remain neutral through a war like the civil war?
well, there are many people who simply concluded that they did not want to get their hands in what was really be a bloody contest among americans. so, for a variety of reasons they would back off and they would remain neutral. that's the first step lee takes. he's then persuaded to take another step. and that is to go to richmond. he takes that step after consulting with his cousin cassius francis lee in alexandria. lee had about 81st cousins, that's the network of lee connections work. living as he did at arlington and alexandra, lee if he threw a brick down the street he would've hit a relative. he consults with cassius francis lee who's approximately his age. in fact, you look at four photographs of cashless francis it's lee almost a replica of robert e. lee, they look so similar.
he consults and cassius frances lee comes away and says robert e. lee is going to remain neutral. and he's going to promote reconciliation and peace between the two sections. now we think at that point, how can there be peace in a civil war? lee comes to richmond and all the evidence is that lee expects by taking command of the virginia forces he can restrain virginia from throwing its log in completely with the confederacy and going to war with the united states for. the first month that he's in command of virginia forces, all the orders he gets our state on the defensive. when thomas jonathan jackson, who was not yet stonewall jackson, when thomas jonathan jackson takes his troops across the potomac river to occupy the maryland heights across from harpers ferry, lee orders him back. he says we should not provoke anything. lee's expectation was we're going to work this out.
we've had this disruption, we've had this succession, but you know what? after the hot heads have regained some coolness, there's going to be a reconstruction. that's by the way, the first time reconstruction the word gets used. we're going to have a reconstruction of the states and where everything is going to be peaceful again. we're going to work this all out. that doesn't happen. it all gallops away from lee. a month after going to richmond, he's actually writing about maybe i should resign. maybe i should just give this up and just try to go back to being neutral. well, by that point, it was much too late. federal forces had already occupied arlington. you might see the die had been cast. but lee curiously enough, lee is a surprisingly reluctant confederate. and at one other point in mary chestnut's diary, she reports on people who are talking to her coming to her saying we can
trust robert e. lee. robert e. lee is not with us. robert e. lee will be tried as a traitor to the confederacy. willyou take it from that, thas an 1861. in february of 1865, lee when is proposing the emancipation of slaves and the recruitment for the confederate army, the charleston mercury newspaper says we knew that was robert e. lee never with us. we knew that robert e. lee was always a federalists at a hard. we can't trust robert e. lee. this is february of 1865 in the charleston mercury. lee had a particular profile and many people are not entirely sure about robert edward lee. they love the fact that he won battles. many people scratching their heads about him, politically speaking. >> and robert e. lee himself often, as you know, embodied
many contradictions. throughout the book you site where he will see one thing and then turn around and do something that seemingly trying contradictive. so, i just had a question and i think their questions in that queue and are we q and a as well from our audience. so, he was appointed head of the virginia army. he eventually is put in charge of the army of northern virginia. and michelin experienced a fabulous success against the federal army. our as lee predicts, the federal army gets their act together. lee from the beginning is very straightforward, when it comes to military conflict, we can't win this through strength alone. but the only chance is if we do something which to get the north to back off from the war. so that is why lee did in pennsylvania, which is your neck of the woods. and he'd always wanted to go but kept getting rebuffed that eventually gets in a fateful battle there, which will talk
about in a second. speaking of contradictions, there's this one moment in the book that really jumped out to me, where lee is criticizing the behavior of the union army. what he sees as inappropriate behavior. things like looting, drafting civilians. that kind of behavior. and yet, he ignores the absolutely agree she's conduct of his own army while in pennsylvania, who were actually capturing black men, selling them into the enslavement in virginia. when i read that, i was thinking about how does that happen? how did he not think no? or was ignoring. you don't have this very logical approach to combat, where he was put as a general to tell them where to go and how to get it done. but that is the extent to which he runs his army and their
condo? can you talk about how that happens? >> he saw this task as a general has been able to primarily give strategic direction. two armies and two campaigns. in terms of his strategic insight, he really is one of the most perceptive, if not the most perceptive, among the southern military and political leaders. because as you say, he sees very early on that the south does not have the resources to go a long heavy weight about. you can't go 15 rounds, there's just not enough substance there if the confederacy is going to win its independence, it's going to have to score a surprise knock out in the first or the second round. and the only way to do that is to carry the war north of the potomac, into pennsylvania, where you're able to cause so much political disruption and dismay, that the northern populous and the northern politicians become disenchanted
with the lincoln administration and compel the lincoln administration to open peace negotiations. lee sees that more clearly than almost any other person in the confederate leadership. and he pursues that two times. he would have pursued it a third time in 1864, if ulysses grant had not in fact beaten him to the punch, by launching the overland campaign of 1864. beyond that, this lee nazi himself as a day-to-day manager. he is willing to put a lot of responsibility into his the hands of his chief lieutenants. and when he has chief lieutenant who really up to the job, people like stonewall jackson, like james wall street, then he's able to preside over a series of significant successes. at other times though, when jackson is dead, when longstreet is seriously wounded in the wilderness, lee has to take charge himself on the tactical level. and it's very clear that he's
not comfortable doing that. he can do it, but he's not comfortable doing it. s is nin terms of setting out te moral parameters of his army, that's even further removed. his vision of himself as a commander is he is responsible for what goes on at the very top. everything else is the responsibility of the people at the other levels in the chain of command. so, if officers are running down and capturing three black people in pennsylvania and tying them up and sending them off to be sold into the richmond slave markets, that's not his responsibility. not the way he sees it. that's something that occurs in an entirely different level, where he does not exercise command responsibility. so, you might say, that what robert e. lee does is he looks at things and then he looks away. and many of these difficulties that we see today, we see well,
here's a contradiction. now how can lee see this and do this on the one hand, and you tolerate this on the other. in his mind it was not a contradiction. that was simply not his responsibility. and if his officers and soldiers behaved in a certain way, he was not going to look at it it simply was not going to be a subject that he was going to concern himself with. that was for his subordinates to take care of. subordinates to take c>> just intriguing. especially because he is so adamant about the conduct of these union troops. >> yes, yes. right, and the conduct of those union troops of course, was one thing that helps to push him further and further away from this role, imagine rolled of being reconcile or towards we have to beat these yankees. understand too, those orders that he objects to so much is not that the union soldiers are misbehaving. look, soldiers are going to misbehave.
i'm sorry, that's the nature of the thing. what he really objects to is the directive for that misbehavior is coming from the very top. an 1862, is coming from john polk, commanding the army of virginia. it might be a case that if ordinary union soldiers on their own hook were running around stealing chickens, killing cattle, and other weiss wreaking havoc with the virginia countryside, lee couldn't understand. that what he can't understand is the general in charge of the union forces not only tolerating it, but actually sanction shank shunning and directing it. that lee found finds profoundly offensive. and it's why he issues the responses he does. i t's why he gives t>> well, we are st close to the end of our time together somehow, but we have so many other questions. we have a couple more minutes, i think our audience is ready. let's talk about, we don't have time to get into all the
tactical and strategic decisions made during the civil war. we don't even have time to really get into gettysburg, which is about to ask about. we had a couple questions from the audience about grants mental and physical fitness for that battle. their questions about that. and less focus specifically on that thursday when the battle was truly lost. when the brigade arrives and and i'm sure a lot of people in this audience have been to gettysburg. you can go and stand at the union on cemetery hill. the that expanse that that brigade was expected to cover is really pretty breathtaking when you're up there. and you are mentioning his trust of the lieutenants. longstreet comes to him and says this is crazy. 15,000 men could not take this position. and he does it any way. can you talk about what was he thinking in that battle?
what was the strategic decision? we'll figure in to that really pivotal moment in the war? decisions and what was>> you kne asked this question and they stand there at the angle looking out towards seminary ridge and the virginia monument. and they see, what could he have been thinking? you're going to send soldiers across that open area, they're going to get slaughtered. and of course, what was the result? the result was defeat. so, people think, what could lee possibly have been thinking? maybe there was something that was impairing his thinking. people have suggested well lee with suffering health problems. and that affects his clarity in the decision-making process. well, it is true. he experienced health problem during the war. serious. once he was probably the most senior of the major commanding figures in the civil war. is much older than grant much older than mclelland.
much older in fact, historically speaking, and most of the great generals. he's older than wellington and napoleon. a similar argument could be made saying, perhaps he ought to have been in more of a -- position than trying to take command in the field. he suffered a series of heart attacks during the civil war. the first occurred in the spring of 1863, before the pennsylvania campaign. but he bounces back from that heart attack. there's no real evidence from the gettysburg campaign that he was experiencing health distress. that in any way affected his decision-making i would take a step further and say that his decision making was actually quite sound. think of it this way, for the previous two days of the battle of gettysburg, lee's army had pounded the army at the potomac. of the seven infantry core of the army of the potomac, five
of those infantry corps had been wrecked by lee's army. i mean, the were next to useless in terms of combat readiness. the only thing left on the 12th corps and the six core. the six core he needs as his reserve. the 12 core is needed to hold pokes hill or does that leave? at least two divisions of the second core holding cemetery ridge and each one of those divisions has already lost their brigade. so, what's holding that back door to the union position? really, not effectively, not much more than 3500 men. we're as francis lightfoot lee lee has an entire fresh, an sullied division, three big brigades of divergence, who can be supported by another division of troops that had already been in action. yes, james longstreet after the war --
and i emphasize after the war -- insisted that he had disagreed vehemently and told lee that this was the wrong thing to do. i rather strongly suspect that much of longstreet's protests that we got elaborated and embroidered as time went by after the war. especially after lee's death. i have the very strong suspicion that longstreet, whatever reservations he expressed at that time, didn't express severe enough registrations to cause lee to have any doubt. the ultimately, the rationale that justifies what lee did can be seen by looking at what you can call the cognate wars of the american civil war. american civil war.if you look to the crimean r at the great battle of the alma, lord reich launches exactly the same kind of headlong, straightforward attack against
russian positions that are in entrenched with artillery and scores a tremendous victory. same thing happens with napoleon the third at the battle of suffering no in the north tell you are of 1859. everything that people could have learned from military example in the 18 fifties, would have suggested that lee is doing exactly the right thing. the proof is in the pudding. it all most worked. the confederate forces came within an ace of breaking through that federal line and if they had, claire, what was there behind that line to keep them from going on? next to nothing. it was a close run thing there that afternoon at gettysburg. the phrase wellington used about water lou, but it's also true about gettysburg. it came very, very close to success. it was not a rush decision it was not an unpredictable and
faultless decision. it almost worked. and i have to see this bluntly. i at least for 1 am grateful that it did not, because the consequence of that -- if lee had been successful at gettysburg, oh my goodness. the army of the potomac, having been beaten on so many fields, so many times, could very likely have gone to pieces. could lee have had a full and open field in front of him. there would have been the demand for peace negotiations. alexander stevens, vice president of the confederacy, was on a boat in the chesapeake bay, waiting to come up to washington. and what would he have presented to abraham lincoln if he had? and then what would we have had? a divided country. a vulcanized north america. because look, if north and south divided in 1863, do you think it would've stopped there? no. there would've been a northwest
confederacy there would've been a pacific confederacy. and we would have had in north america almost a repeat of what we saw in the balkans in the 19 nineties. and then, and then, what would have been available to stop the tide of german militarism in world war one? of nazism in world war ii? of the cold war? it's not a pleasant thing to contemplate. ing>> no, and something that american civil war apart from other countries that's pretty unusual, it only has two sides. how your referring to is usually a few more than that so, it's really hard to contemplate what we would be living today. >> you know, you see later serving on the united states supreme court were two veterans of the civil war. one was edward white and oliver
randall holmes, who had been a union lieutenant. every year on the anniversary of fantino, holmes would present white with a red rose. it was a romantic gesture. white's response was this. my god, he said. if we had succeeded. that was the estimate of a confederate and he was right. >> some postwar reflection and then you get the counterfactual, but you also get the rationalization. longstreet in particular saying no, because they both knew how it turned out at that point. we have a few minutes left. as we said earlier, we had an abbreviated civil war. -- but he nevertheless was quite an impactful figure after the
war. and that having a resurrection after that with the monuments and everything else that you discussed at the beginning. can you talk a little bit about his postwar -- well, during his life -- post war life and mulch on his tenure at washington college. who was robert e. lee when he was no longer the confederate general? >> there are so many surprises in the life of robert e. lee. by think there is nothing more surprising than what occurs in the last five years of his life. when the war is over, he is indicted for treason. he's never brought to trial, but he's indicted for treason. so, what does it do? he's looking around for some form of employment. but he also wants to look around for employment that's going to literally get him as far from the prying eyes of people in washington as he can get. he's often offered the job of president of washington college. but if you want to talk about a dead end job. washington college was this little college in lexington, virginia, in the upper end of
the shenandoah valley. he'd hardly had a pulse at the end of the war. and yet, the trustees decide they're going to make an offer to lee and they send one of the trustee members -- they actually have to dig into their pockets to buy a suit for him so he can look decent when he goes to visit robert e. lee. he makes the pitch to lee, it isn't here anything. he writes and lee writes back and says, well, i've been indicted for treason. if you can handle that, i'll take the job. what a shocker. robert e. lee had been the superintendent of west point and he hated the job. because he was micromanaged at every stage of the job itself. he was offered a job early on in his career teaching at west point and he turned it down because he said the classroom is not my milieu. he said are not comfortable with that. all of a sudden, now, he will become president of the college
and you are thinking, this will not turn out well. no. he goes to lexington. one of his generals wrote and said it's great that you got lead to become a president, he's a great figurehead, don't give him any work, just put him on the letterhead and let him be the figurehead of the college. you know something? the trustees became figureheads. robert e. lee ran the place. and he re-writes the curriculum from top to bottom and he basically sidelines the old classical curriculum. he starts bringing in modern subjects. he brings in mechanical engineering and journalism and not only that but he does away with the student code of conduct. he now says to all students that the interviews -- he interviews every student who comes to washington college. he says, there's no code of conduct here. the only thing we expect a view is that you will behave as a gentlemen. doesn't that sound generous?
no. that means robert easily is the judge, jury and executioner of all student behavior. he takes control of everything in the college and another place that is the best fundraising. who would've thought of robert equally as a development officer? and yet, he has this remarkable talent for shaking the apples out of the trees, especially the apples of northern trees. he gets old abolitionists like hand we ward beecher to sponsor meetings in new york, for the encouragement and support of washington college. by the time that lee dies in 1870, he has taken a college which was almost defunct and he has made it an educational powerhouse. rivaling the university of virginia. he so we make washington college that trustees remain
rename the place as washington and the university. and that's a tribute to the place, probably not would have survived had it not been for the presidency of robert e. lee. >> we just have a couple of more minutes. and i'd like to spend a little bit of time talking about the legacy of robert e. lee after his death. a great question from the audience here. he says, his father's from lexington, virginia, the burial place of lee and stonewall jackson. my father was born in jackson's house when it was a hospital. -- this hero worship of lee and jackson. raised on his teaching. so as we are approaching this examination of the lost cause, of li and seeing him as a person rather than as a hero to be venerated or a devil to be condemns and we figure out who the man is, there's the question of how can i introduce
my dad into the civil war so he can be more receptive? >> first of all, reflect on yourself in your own experience. all of us are the products of many times and places and things we have met. we are all of us the confluence of many strains. not all of these come at the same time or at the same power or even with the same message. we deal with those and the with complexity ourselves and the nature of human beings. there is no such thing as a simple human being. and as soon as we realize that, then we begin to understand that the people that we look at in history are not in that respects different from us and that they too are the confluence of strains of all that they have met. and when we understand ourselves and them in this way,
then we look for something different. we look for them to be human beings. we look for them to be people who struggle with contradictions. we look for people who try to do the right thing would always are not sure how to do it. and sometimes they're not even sure what the right thing is to do. and they are trying to find the markers that will point them in that direction. we live lives of uncertainty and struggle by the best lights that we can. and why are we surprised that others live lives the way that robert lee did? it's true in the past there are monsters and that there are people who have been virtually irredeemably evil. but those tend to be, on the whole, the exceptions. they are not that many monsters and we can be grateful for that. heaven knows the ones that have
lived, that hitler's, the stalins and the maos, while they've caused inestimable damage and suffering, at least they are not as numerous as the rest of us who struggle, day by day, to understand what is right, what is true and how to do it. if we understand robert e. lee that way, if we approach people that otherwise we want to put a halo around, it doesn't mean that we have done some damage to them. it means we have come to terms with them the same way we've come to terms with ourselves as human beings. i think of those lines of williams wordsworth. wordsworth said this. for i have come to look on nature, not as in the hour of fontless youth but hearing at times the still said music of
humanity. nor harsh nor grating, though with ample power to rebuke. i think if we can hold on to that, then we will have a way not only of coming to grips with ourselves and our own contradictions, but also the contradictions of those who have gone before us and perhaps we won't put halos around them. but perhaps we won't put details on the backs and forks on their hands. >> and one question we have really gets at where we have concluded your introduction to the top. i'm thinking of john in the audience. he's talking specifically coming back to the monuments point. the sites of monument building in the 1920s during the jim crow era, there's resistance following the brown versus board of education ruling,
during the civil rights era. why would anyone expect african americans today to tolerate a memorial or marker of lee, who fought to continue the enslavement of many of their ancestors? it's no longer only an academic discussion or rationalization about history but also something that affects people in their everyday life. how would you respond to that? >> i would take this back to the whole question of what monuments are. monuments, as i said before, start out as memorials. i see this all the time at the battle of gettysburg. on that battlefield, the majority of the more than 1000 monuments and markers, they remember the union regiments and units that fought there. and there are some peculiar union monuments. there is a monument to the 42nd new york, very close to the angle on cemetery ridge.
the 42nd new york shows an indian chief in a tp, and you are thinking, wait, have they got the wrong war? and the answer is no. this is the new tammany regiment raised by hall and of course the symbol of tammany's chief and you've got a monument there and people say, okay, 42nd new york. when that was put up the dedications come out for that. and they preach the justice and righteousness of the union cause. and the people who directed that monument where the event runs of the regiment. and they said, yes, that's right, we were in the right and it was a moral cause and it was marvelous and wonderful and it's a memorial to our troop. all right, that generation dies off. followed by another. then their grandchildren of their soldiers. they come to gettysburg and look at that monument and they say, that's a monument to the 42nd of new york, my grandfather fought in the 42nd
of new york. they don't really have quite the fizz of the things the original soldiers did. they're looking at it as a monument. and then their generation passes off and their grandchildren come to gettysburg. on account of gettysburg, with a guidebook in hand and they say, hey, we are is where the 42nd new york stood. there is the monument. it's a marker. how do we deal, then? i think we have to ask a series of questions. back in 2017, after charlottesville, i brought together with one of my former students, a parked interpretive off officer, john rudy, an article in civil war monitor. we had in a decision tree. what you do about monuments.
especially monuments that talk about difficult people. and we did a step-by-step. and said, is this dominant monument doing this, that and the other? if so, take it down. if not, next question. we went through that decision tree. there is no automatic conclusion to come out of that decision tree. it all depends on what you are putting into it and what conclusions you draw. what it does, though, it compels us to sit down and work our way through the complexities of the questions of what is symbolized. can we live with his? can we tolerate? this what does it mean? what's really symbolize? are the symbols multiple? when we say, for instance, that confederate monuments were put in the jim crow era. does that mean they were monuments to jim crow? some of them. and you may say that there is an aspect of all of them that were. but it was also a time when there were veterans of the confederate army that were dying off. they wanted to leave some
memory of what had happened to them in their youth. so there's also that part of it as well and then there is the whole business about, do we worship success? are the only people who deserve a monument to people who are successful and wealthy and influential and powerful? or maybe, is there room for monuments for people who lose? for the people we've over? so there is complexity in not only into human nature but even into the monuments. our decision tree was a way of trying to respect the complexity and move through it. so we honor everyone's input and the decision maybe at the end, yes, take it down. but at least at that point it is coming at the end of a process. and at the end of a process we have all together become confident that we have thought fought our way through this. and if we don't, when the
monument is gone, we will continue to fight and tear and rip at each other. even for monuments not there anymore. because even in the absence of the monument, the rage will be there. it's the rage that can poison democracy. reason, however, reason and the pursuit of truth, that is the health of democracy. if there is a word i would give to people tonight as a historian, that's the word i would use. >> and i feel like there is no better way to end this talk tonight than that. so to everyone in the audience, thank you so much for your attendance. thank you so much for your excellent questions and i'm sorry we could not get to all of them but rest assured many of them are answered and allen's book. if you haven't yet purchased your copy of'robert e. lee: a life', it's a fascinating study that will take you through his life, start to finish. and you'll certainly learn
something that you didn't know about the figures. allen, we so appreciate your time and i wish you could have joined us in person, but best of luck and thank you, best of luck on the rest of your tour. >> thank you so much, claire, i thank you monique for enabling this, thank you to the audience. i hope to see you all again sometime soon in the wonderful city of atlanta.