Skip to main content

tv   Allen Guelzo Robert E. Lee - A Life  CSPAN  December 28, 2021 2:07pm-3:28pm EST

2:07 pm
latest on nonfiction books and authors. funding for c-span 2 comes from these television companies and more. program guide for c-span.org/history. >> welcome to the virtual series, i'm the vice president of programs and public r > welcome to atlanta center' virtual author talk series, i'm glen hayley, for the history center, it is my absolute pleasure to welcome the audience and tonight's special guest, allen gelzo, discussing his book, robert e. lee, the life, a figure a lot of us think we may
2:08 pm
know but may discover new insight of in the book. if you haven't purchased your copy, it was just published yesterday so congratulation allen, happy to have you, we offer shipping and instore pick up and helps support our mission here at the history center. want to quickly introduce tonight's speaker then turn it over to him for an orientation and introduction to his work. allen gelzo is a senior research scholar at the counsel of humanities at princeton university, rezip i want of lincoln prize three times, guggenhoim prize for military history and other honors and lives in pennsylvania. allen, thank you and welcome. >> thank you very much claire for hosting this program and
2:09 pm
monique for acting as our wonderful technical support and hello to all of my friends in atlanta, a city i've known and enjoyed more than 35 years, many wonderful visits and 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 round table which i've spoken to as essentially as just seven years ago about the bat of gettysburg, but now let me turn to robert e. lee. mary chestnut first met robert edward lee just before the war, at the white sulfur springs in western virginia, where lee brought his wife, who was plagued by rheumatoid arthritis. and they came to the white sulfur springs largely to benefit from her bathing in the hot springs there, one of the few things that could give her relief from the steady march of
2:10 pm
that terrible disease. mary chestnut, who is, of course, one of the most famous diary keepers of the confederacy, remembered that a man riding a beautiful horse joined us, wearing a hat with somehow, a military look to it. as she said, he sat his horse gracefully and was so distinguished at all points that i very much regretted not catching the name. mary chestnut was intrigued by this man who was he? where did he come from? well, it was explained to her, he was robert edward lee. chestnut marvelled. everything about him, she said was so fine looking that the word which came unbidden to her mind was perfection. she said there was no fault to be found, even if you hunted for
2:11 pm
one. . mary chestnut was not entirely enchanted with robert e. lee, or at least not as much as some others were. she wrote in her diary, i like smith lee better. what she meant was robert e. lee's older brother, sydney smith lee, officer in u.s. navy and why? well, because robert was a mystery. i know smith lee well, chestnut wrote in her diary, but can anyone say they know his brother? i doubt it. he looks so cold and quiet and grand. now that, surprisingly, was the judgment that many people who met robert e. lee came to. both during and before the american civil war. and chestnut came nearer to the
2:12 pm
mark when she talked about lee and perfection, than she might have realized. because perfection was one of robert e. lee's abiding goals in life. not because he was sort of 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 than people caught on the surface. and not all of it could be easily reckoned with. in those last, balmy days before the civil war cast its shadow over the nation, robert e. lee was on the surface, at least, the model of an american soldier. he was the son of a revolutionary war hero, whitehorse harry lee, the
2:13 pm
protege of washington and the man who delivered that famous pieces, first in the hearts of his countryman, yes that came from white horse harry lyrics virginia was a carter and the carters were the first among the family as vir virginian, lee embarked on military career at west point in 1825, commissioned in 1829 into the elite core of engineers where he under took a series of coastal engineering projects ranging from georgia to new york city to the st. louis water front, earned his most impressive military bouquets however serving under winfield
2:14 pm
scott in the mexican war, acting as chief aid from vera cruise to mexico city in 1827. from there, lee served as superintendant from west point and 1857, to 1861 was the lieutenant colonel of the second cavalry then for a brief period, colonel 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 is you sessionist states and from 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 principle confederate field army, the army of northern virginia. almost nothing in those preceding 30 years gave the
2:15 pm
slightest hint of the decision he made to leave the army, to foreswear 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. so as mary chestnut discovered nothing so characterizes robert e. lee as the question mark. why? why did he do what he did? why was he the man that he was? well these general answer, in 1861 for that big decision about refusing command of the federal forces, was that he was a vir virginian and when virginia creed into the union he was to
2:16 pm
follow virginia to the confederacy. but was he? although he was born on the northern neck of virginia, he had grown up in alexandra, then part of the district of columbia, only to be retroceded to the common wealth of virginia in the 1830s long after lee had left. most of his life there after lived other places, in georgia, st. louis, baltimore, and new york city as an engineer. his father, white horse harry had been politically a federalist and had suffered for it politically, and though lee married into one of the foremost families in virginia, the custices arlington, arlington over looked facing the capitol,
2:17 pm
not the virginia, and his inlaws prioritized the nation first and statewide afterwards. what lee could not ignore, however, in 1861, were two factors. first, white horse harry lee for all his revolutionary fame had been a hard lock husband and father, and left his family for the west indies when robert was only six years old. the shadow that light horse harry cast over the lee name was one that robert struggled to redeem. hence, that broad streak of perfectionism in his behavior. but robert also yearned to breathe free of his father' reputation in other ways. he wanted independence, to be his own man, and in one sense,
2:18 pm
his marriage to mary custice was in a sense to stake out a role for himself but also yearned for the security his father denied him. so while most of lee's contemporaries at west point left the army, as soon as they had received their tax-payer provided college degree, and could decently resign and go into private engineering practice or some other profession, lee stays with the army as the one certain profession and pay check he could count on. the hinge factor in this pursuit of independence, security, and perfection, was erlington, it was as much to protect arlington for his family as it was for virginia that he chose to resign
2:19 pm
his commission and refuse the offer of command. but that is not the only factor. the other factor in lee's decision was his expectation that there would be no war after all. hard as it is for us to appreciate this, look from the present backwards in 1861, even after the susession of the southern states, the firing of fort sumner it was almost clear the crisis would only result in civil war, lee could have stayed neutral and resigned army commission, or accept the invitation extended to him to take command of forces and play the role of mediator between virginia and the union and thus
2:20 pm
achieve a peace-making, a fame greater than his father ever enjoyed in war. but, of course, it did not turn out that way. like many, many others, lee found the sucession crisis galloping away from him and in the end, step by step, incrementally, found himself by 1862, as the commander of the army of northern virginia. he played that role as perfectly as he tried to play every other role in life, that he failed, did not necessarily surprise him. on the way to apomatics courthouse, he admitted that he always expected the war would turn out the way achomadics showed it would, but at least his conduct would show how he could rise, even above defeat.
2:21 pm
in the end, he would keep his perfection intact. today, more questions revolve around statues of robert e. lee, than lee himself. and that poses a different sort of problem. i am at sixes and sevens about the removal of the lee statue in richmond and the other lee statues removed in new orleans, charlottesville and dallas and other places. on the one hand, i frankly admit, i am a yankee from yankee land, i am a pennsylvaniaen and that's all i've known and in fact, my earliest education in any subject touching on the civil war came as a boy at my grandmother' name, a grandmother who herself was a school girl back at the turn of the last century, welcome into her classroom and the george climber school, old veterans of the
2:22 pm
union army, grand army of the republican and their little blue cap and see blue jackets, coming in on what they called decoration day to instruct my grand mother 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. and i use the word advisably, i don't throw it around uselessly or wildly. i have the same problem with people who wave the confederate flag. these were people, including robert e. lee, who raised their hand against the nation they had sworn an oath to uphold and defend.
2:23 pm
i took that oath, my father took that oath, my son took that oath. this is not helped by the fact the cause that lee and other confederates fought for was wrapped around, like it or not, a defense of human slavery and human trafficking. why should the artifacts of that have ever been in any place with a museum? so if someone wanted to pro pose erecting 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 lee monument in richmond dates from the 1890s. i'm sure it had a message then about white supremacy, but also had another message. the south was a region which had lost a crippling civil war.
2:24 pm
its impact on the survivors was worse than the great depression, and lasted for all practical purposes until the 1950s. 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're successful, supposed too many you're good. if you lose, that's supposed to mean you're bad. remember the old dictum attributed to vince lombardi that winning isn't only an important thing, it is the only thing. we embrace that in american culture. robert e. lee symbolizes something different. he symbolized the possibility of dignity in the face of defeat. he symbolized the possibility
2:25 pm
that the winners, the bernie maydoffes, michael milkins, the jeffrey epsteins, winners aren't necessarily the good and the people who end up paying for those deeds aren't necessarily bad. that message was wrapped up in the lee statues too. and we may regret losing them in a dog-eat-dog world. there's one more factor. monuments, like the lee statue, change. now that sounds strange, because monuments that are made of granite the or bronze are physical and material and they don't grow and they don't eat and we wonder what do you mean by change? what i mean by change is this. when monuments like the lee statue at richmond or charlottesville or other places, when they're put up, they serve
2:26 pm
as memorials. and here is where the white supremacy message is attached. the statues were there to remind people of what the confederacy was. over time, though, as generations pass statues change. they begin as memorials but as generations pass, they decline into monuments. the lee statue became a rememberence of a chapter in richmond's history. more generations pass, and the monument declines still further into being simply a marker. people look up as they pass and say oh yeah, that's robert e. lee, some history dude. in fact, become almost literally markers for negotiating traffic in downtown richmond. we see this in what has happened to other monuments and markers. out on the west coast in
2:27 pm
california in donner park there is a monument to the donner party, yes, those folks who in the winter clapped down on them, resorted to cannibalism in order to survive, there's a monument to the donner party there, believe it or not, on a picnic area, but nobody looks at it and says that's a incitement to cannibalism. over time it become as marker, same goes for my region of western washington county where there's a statue to the whisky rebellion. the whisky rebellion was not
2:28 pm
about cannibalism and strictly speakic not even whisky but it was about treason, but there's a monument to the whisky rebellion, took place in the 1790s, perhaps when that was put up people would say why are we putting up a monument to committing treason? but what begins as a memorial descends into monument, still more time, into a marker and today in washington county we look at this monument, this memorial, this marker to the whisky rebellion, nobody feels terribly upset about treason, more likely, people are upset about whisky than 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. they're part of our historical memory. and you can't expect to jettison
2:29 pm
pieces of that and still hold on to the substance of those memories, at least not very easily. on the other hand, i am 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. what i can hope for, though, is that the decision is 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 we live with in a democracy. i hope the voices that say that are wrong and perhaps, how we deal with our monuments, not just lee's but all historic
2:30 pm
monuments and memoranda, perhaps how we deal with them will be the measure of how seriously we take both 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 think it's time to turn to the curiosity of the audience and let that have its share here. >> absolutely. thank you, for that introduction, allen. i thought we could start, going back, you know, you took us back to the present day talking about the moments going on with monuments. i thought why don't we go back to the beginning your book and dig more into robert e. lee's early life, civil war service and start to loop in our audience questions as we go. so if you have a question for allen please put those in the
2:31 pm
q&a and we'll make sure to get to as many as we can. we definitely have enthusiastic audiences which is wonderful. if we're not able to get to your question, we apologize in advance. so allen, i wanted to go back to the beginning, and you lay out in your book that in your opinion, one can't understand a man like robert e. lee without first understanding the relationship that he had to his father who was, as you mentioned, a revolutionary war hero, but also didn't have very successful post-revolutionary war career in a lot of ways and ended up deserting his family. so i want you to just lay out a little bit for us, talk about lee's relationship to his father, and then what quickly became his relationship to his father's absence. >> light horse harry lee or to be technical, harry or henry lee, the third, was a lee from
2:32 pm
what we can call the cadet branch of the lee family, from the lees of leesylvania, what difference does that make? the major different strain of the lee family was the lee family around thomas lee and descended from richard lee, the first immigrant, sometimes called richard the immigrant, in the 1640s and 1650s. thomas lee is the lee who built stratford hall where robert was born, not only that but a small empire for the lees on the northern tip of virginia. lee was from a lesser part of that family but light horse harry was nothing short of ambitious. intelligent, skillful, brave, almost to the point of recklessness. he went to princeton college, a
2:33 pm
princeton alum so in that respect i get to claim light horse harry lee as part of the princeton heritage but no sooner graduated than the revolutionary war breaks out, volunteers for service, takes command of a company of force, grows into a mixed legion of horse and infantry, serves under washington, and washington is deeply impressed by harry lee. when washington has to reorganize the campaign for the revolution in the south, he turns to his great friend, in you -- nathaniel green and light horse harry, and the stuff very much written by nathaniel green and with light horse harry lee's help. it was after the revolution, life started to come part for light horse harry. at first, everything looks swimming. he marries matilda lee, a cousin of his, and she is the heir of
2:34 pm
stratford hall, how lee becomes the man of statford hall, yet light horse harry had a real gift for botching things financially. every possible asset he put into real estate investments simply corkscrewed downwards. when matilda lee dies, leaves him with two children, one son, henry the fourth, and lucy, that's a story in its own right, but light horse harry remarries, to ann carter and burns through every bit of cash that ann carter brings to the marriage, so much so he ends up in debt and really inflammatory political problems causing him to be beaten within an inch of
2:35 pm
his life in baltimore, after that he simply leaves, leaves behind politics. leaves behind creditors, takes off for west indies and in the process, leaves behind his second family with ann carter lee and that included five children. two older brothers of robert and two sisters light horse harry leaves them, off to the west indies and basically leaves his 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 the psychologists can tell you about the trauma that influences. there is hardly any kind of pain worse than the loss of a parent before the beginning of adolescence. and that is what robert experiences. and what makes it, in a sense, even more cruel, is that all
2:36 pm
through his life, he's constantly introduced as robert e lee, the son of light horse harry lee. people never dreaming what their conjuring up in robert's mind. robert, by contrast, robert only on one occasion before 1861, ever refers to his faurt in his correspondence and that is in application letter to west point. beyond that, never talks about himself as the son of light horse harry, never visits his father's grave on the georgia coast. not until the end of 1861 when finally, robert lee is coming into his own, becoming his own man, so to speak. only then, he begins to come to terms with the influence and impact of light horse harry on his life. it is a traumatic affair and out of that trauma that you see growing these passions in robert
2:37 pm
e. lee i've itemized before for independence, imperfection, someone can yearn for independence and find it doesn't give you much security, or attain security and find it doesn't give much in the way of independence. lee, in fact, never really makes all three work together. curiously enough, until after the civil war, when he becomes the president of washington college in 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 memoire of his father. >> welcome back to lee's kind of third act if you will, following the civil war, which, while shorter because he was a bit older than a lot of other major figures during the civil war, nevertheless had a really big
2:38 pm
impact on higher education in this country. but going back to before the war, specifically, so you know you have lee who as you say is yearning for independence but security at the same time. that kind of leads him into an army career which doesn't always give you that independence, flexibility, he's constantly writing about how he's worried about making ends meet. feels like he's running out of money, which is weird because in some ways soldier's salary is pretty low but in other ways a lot more financially stable than many others during that time period so kind of this cognitive dissonance he has going on there. one of the those things i want to ask about, speaking of kind of cognitive dissonance and we have several audience questions about it as well, is robert e lee's relationship with slavery. so robert e. lee was, lived in a slave-holding state in virginia. his wife's family in particular,
2:39 pm
arlington, owned many enslaved people, or arlington itself being benefitted from that enslaved labor, and at the same time, lee, is a gracious public correspondent, makes reference to see his disapproval of the institution of slavery but ties that to disapproval because it's bad for white people which is a really just crazy rationalization happening there. and despite his expression of disapproval, his family was supported, in large part, by enslaved labor. so can you talk through a little about lee's thinking around slavery and how he drew some of those rationalizations and conclusions? >> lee grows up, so to speak, with slavery. his parents own slaves. his mother owns slaves when they were living in alexandr, ia, at
2:40 pm
least six slaves in the household, when ann carter dies in '89, part of her estate is the disposition of the slaves, some are parted towards her two daughters, in this case, ann kenlock lee, said marshal because she married a marshal, becomes ann lee marshal and her sister mildred lee, but one slave family is willed to robert, or at least in terms of a disposition of the state, winds up being a slave family that robert owns. it is, as it turns out, though, the only slave family he ever owns in his own name. that doesn't mean he didn't benefit from slavery as a
2:41 pm
system, simply by being a white southerner there were benefits being part of a slave system paid to him and even more so in arlington when he marries into the custice, there's the main property in arlington but two other custice properties along the river and all total some 190 slaves part of those properties and robert lee benefits from those when he marries into that, from their labor, has valet, one of the custice slaves, his wife has slaves who wait on her, assist with the children, go on vacation, the slaves go with them. so lee certainly benefits from the slave system even if he doesn't himself have personal title to large numbers of slaves, which he doesn't. now the curious thing is he really says nothing about slavery for years and years, not until the 1850s when slavery is
2:42 pm
becoming a crisis issue in american politics. and it's interesting he talks about it at all, because lee learned early in his political 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 grayship, saw what happened to winfield scott at the mexican war, and yet slavery by the 1850s is impinging so much of his attention he finally starts writing about it in a letter to his wife and what does he come out and say? he says slavery is a moral evil, that should be condemned in any civil society. now, you read that and you think well, it's about time, then you read on and you immediately, as you pointed out, claire, he immediately qualifies that, and
2:43 pm
qualifies it in two ways. first of all, he says this is really more of a problem for white people than it is for black people, of course you're wondering now how is that? well he said all right it's more of a problem for white people than black people. slavery is benefitting black people because it's helping them assimilate to civilization, a fairly common argument in defending slavery in the 1850s in the slave-holding south but has another argument and 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 took 2,000 years, lee says, for christianity to civilize the world. well, it may take that long to get rid of slavery. he doesn't have a time bracket on that. you look at this ask say what he has given away with one hand he's taken back with the other. bears in mind even as he says t
2:44 pm
one is what he is saying there isn't a whole lot different from what many other southerners in the upper south are saying. in virginia, and kentucky, these were areas where slavery was inexorably drained out of the economic life of those states, it was drained because slavery was much more profitable in the south west, mississippi river valley so many southerners will talk about slavery as his father in law does, as a vulture that is eating out the vitals of the south, and yet, having said that, 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 say oh, come on, but bear two things in
2:45 pm
mind, lee did point slavery as a problem for while people because, of course, slavery is bound up with slave labor. how could prix labor hope to compete with slave labor? it is an economic point, though we don'tfully unenlightened which it is. the other thing, lee is looking at a situation where he may not have a lot of control with this situation. he after all doesn't own slaves and what's more, any southerner who starts to take steps about emancipating slaves is immediately going to find himself cornered by other white southerners who will threaten him. now, what's interesting is this. in 1857, lee's father-in-law dies. the will is a mess, but part of the will provides for the emancipation of the custice slaves within five years.
2:46 pm
robert e. lee is the executor of the will and takes the process of emancipating the custice slaves, a process which he concludes on schedule in december of 1862. now, two things to notice about this. one is by december of 1862, robert e. lee is robert e. lee. estimate not just the son in law of george washington bart custice. if robert e. lee went into any virginia confederate court and said, you know, i don't really want to go through with this, i shouldn't have to go through with this, i seriously doubt whether any virginia confederate court would have stopped him. if he wanted to derail a 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
2:47 pm
and not only emancipates the custice slaves but the one slave family he was given in his own name which he was not obliged to emancipate, by the beginning of 1863, robert e. lee is slaveless and badgering jefferson davis, saying the confederacy must emancipate its slaves or they won't have standing in the rest of the world. by 1865, advocating the emancipation and recruitment of slaves for the confederate army. on both terms it's easy to say, well he was doing this out of pragmatic reasons, not that he was feeling moral urgency, and i'm sure there was a pragmatic motive at work in lee's thinking that way, 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.
2:48 pm
now, does this mean that raurnt , robert e. lee 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, in seeing them occupy, i mean to the contrary, he's very critical of reconstruction. so don't mistake what lee does for some kind of enlightenment he experienced but don't deappreciate it either, here is part of the problem of dealing with robert e. lee, 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. several questions from the
2:49 pm
audience, including howard and john, 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, where things could have gone differently. where lee decides to resign his army commission, and i'll say when i started reading this book, i didn't realize the progression under which that happened where he comes from, you have it here summarized as resigns army commission, then goes and accepts the command of the confederate army but in reality a lot of steps in between. so one question is, do we have any insight from lee in his own words and himself 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 had been hungering for promotion for years, it was an absolute snail's pace at that time, it would have been what he was striving for, yet he gives it
2:50 pm
up. so can you talk a little about how he came to that, 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. and i think that war.
2:51 pm
now you wonder perhaps how can one remain neutral through a war like the civil war? there are many people who simply concluded they did not want to remove their hands and what would really be a contest among fellow americans. a variety of reasons, it would back off or remain neutral, but the first step. he's been persuaded to take another step expects to go to richmond. he takes that step after consulting with his cousin, francis lee and alexandra.
2:52 pm
we had about 81st cousin from a fast network of leak connections. he did it in ellington alexandra, he would have hit a relative. we consult with was approximately his age. look at photographs of them and they look so similar. they consult together francis lee comes away convinced that robert e lee percival will remain neutral and second he's going to promote reconciliation and peace between the prickly think at that time, how can there be peace? there's going to be civil war. they didn't know the. all the evidence is expects by taking command of virginia forces began to train virginia completely with the confederacy
2:53 pm
and going to war with the united states. for the first month is in command of virginia forces, all the words he gets our day and. when thomas jonathan jackson who is not yet stonewalled jackson from when he takes his troops across the river to occupy the maryland heights across harpers ferry, he isn't back because they shouldn't provoke anything. the expectations are going to work this out with cap this disruption and secession but after the hotheads regained some wh he orders him back. we should not provoke anything. lee's expectation was we're going to work this out. we had this disruption and secession but after the hot heads had regained some coolness, we'll all get together and there will be a reconstruction. that is the first time the word reconstruction gets used. a month after going to richmond
2:54 pm
he is actually writing about maybe i should resign. just give this up and try to go back to being neutral. by that point it was much too late. federal forces already occupied arlington. you might say the die had been cast. lee, curiously is a surprisingly reluctant confederate. at one other point in mary chestnut's diary she reports on people coming to her and saying we can't trust robert e. lee. robert e. lee is not with us. robert e. lee will be tried as a traitor to the confederacy. that is in 1861. in february, 1865, when lee is proposing the emancipation of slaves and recruitment for the confederate army the charleston mercury, the utter fire breathing of all the fire reader newspapers, charleston mercury says, we knew that robert e. lee
2:55 pm
was never with us. we knew he was always a federalist at heart. 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 he won battles. many people scratch their heads about him politically speaking. >> robert e. lee himself often as you know embodied many contradictions. throughout the book you cite where he'll say one thing and turn around and do something that seemingly contradicts it. i just had a question. i think there are some questions in the q & a as well from some audience members. he resigns his u.s. army commission. he is appointed as head of the virginia armies. he eventually is put in charge of the army of northern virginia. he initially experiences fabulous successes against the federal army before, as lee
2:56 pm
predicts, the federal army gets their act together. right? lee from the beginning is very straight forward about if it comes to military conflict, we can't win this from strength alone. the only chance is if we do something that will encourage the north to back off from the war. that is what leads him into pennsylvania. your neck of the woods. it is where he always wanted to go but kept getting rebuffed but eventually gets into a fateful battle there. there was one moment in the book that jumped out at me where lee is criticizing the behavior of the union army, inappropriate behavior, things like looting, harassment of civilians. and, yet, he ignores the absolutely egregious conduct of his own army while in pennsylvania who were actually
2:57 pm
capturing black men and selling them into enslavement in virginia. when i read that i was thinking about the -- how does that happen? how did he not seem to know or was ignoring? he had this very laza fair approach to i know combat where he would put his generals -- told them where to go and let them figure out how to get it done. did that extend to how he ran his army in terms of conduct? can you talk a little bit about those contradictions and how something like that happens? >> he saw his task as general as being able to primarily give strategic direction to armies and 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
2:58 pm
have the resources to go a long, heavyweight bout. you can't go 15 rounds. there's just not enough substance there. if the confederacy is going to win its independence it has to score a surprise knock out in the first or the second round. 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 population 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 beaten him to the punch by launching the overland campaign of 1864. beyond that lee does not see himself as a day-to-day manager.
2:59 pm
he is willing to put a lot of responsibility into the hands of his chief lieutenants and when he has chief lieutenants really up to the job people like stonewall jackson, james longstreet, then he is able to preside over a series of significant successes. at other times when jackson is dead and longstreet wounded in the wilderness lee has to take charge himself on the tactical level. it is very clear he is not comfortable doing that. he can do it but he is not comfortable doing it. in terms of setting out the moral parameters of his army that is even further remote. 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 people at the other levels of the command and the chaib of command. so if officers are running down
3:00 pm
and capturing free black people in pennsylvania, and tying them up and sending them off to be sold in 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 the difficulties we see today, we say, well, here is a contradiction. how can lee say this? how can lee do this on the one hand and tolerate this on the other? in his mind it was not a contradiction. that was simply not his sphere of responsibility. if his officers and if his 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. >> just intriguing especially
3:01 pm
because he is so adamant about look at the conduct of these union troops. . >> oh, yes, right. and the conduct of the union troops was one thing that helped push him further and further from this imagined role of being reconciler toward we have to beat these yankees. but understand, too, those orders that he objects to so much, what he really find offensive about them, it is not that union soldiers are misbehaving. look, soldiers are going to misbehave. i'm sorry. that is in the nature of the thing. what he really objects to is the directive for the misbehavior is coming from the very top, from john pope, commanding the army of virginia in 1862. it might be a case that if ordinary union soldiers on their own hook were running around stealing chickens, killing cattle, otherwise wreaking havoc with the virginia countryside, lee could understand that. what he can't understand is the
3:02 pm
general in charge of the union forces not only tolerating it but actually sanctioning and directing it. that lee finds profoundly offensive and it is why he issues the responses he does. >> we are starting to get close to the end of our time together somehow but we have so many other questions if you are okay with going a couple more minutes. >> sure >> i think our audience is really intrigued. thank you. let's talk about -- we don't have time to get into all of the tactical and strategic decisions made during the civil war. we don't even have time to really get into gettysburg which i am about to ask about. we could be here the whole program by that battle itself. we have a couple questions from the audience about grant's mental and physical fitness for that battle. there are some questions about that. let's focus specifically on that third day when the battle was truly lost when picket's brigade
3:03 pm
arrives and i'm sure a lot of people in the audience have been to gettysburg. you can go and stand at the union position on cemetery hill and really see the vast expanse that brigade was expected to cover. it's really pretty breathtaking when you're up there. you were mentioning his trusted lieutenants. longstreet comes to him and says this is crazy. 15,000 men could not take this position. and he does it anyway. can you talk about what was he thinking in that battle, what his strategic digs were, what figured into that really seminole moment in the civil war? >> a lot of people ask this question and stand at the angle look out toward the ridge and the virginia monument and they say 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.
3:04 pm
so people think, what could leave possibly been thinking? maybe there was something that was impairing his thinking. people have suggested, well, lee was suffering health problems. and that affects the clarity of his decision making process. it is true he experienced health problems during the war, serious ones. he was probably the most senior of the major commanding figures of the civil war. he is much older than grant. much older than mcclellan. much older in fact starkly speaking than most of the great generals. he is older than wellington and napoleon. and there is some argument that could be made to say, perhaps he ought to have been in more of a rear echelon position than trying to take active command in the field. he suffers a series of heart attacks during the civil war. the first occurs in the spring of 1863 before the pennsylvania campaign. but he bounces back from that
3:05 pm
heart attack. there is no real evidence during 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 with picket's charge 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 corps of the army of the potomac, five of those infantry corps had been wrecked by lee's army. they were next to useless in terms of combat readiness. the only things that are really left are the 12th corps and the 6th corps. 6th corps he needs as his, general mead needs as his reserve. the 12th corps is needed to hold kulp's hill. it leaves two divisions of the
3:06 pm
second corps holding cemetery ridge. each division has already lost a brigade. what is holding the back door to the union position? really not effectively not much more than 3500 men. whereas lee has an entire fresh, unsullied division, george picket's division, three big brigades of virginians who can be supported by another division of troops that had already been 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 much of longstreet's protests that way 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
3:07 pm
that time, didn't express severe enough reservations to cause lee to have any doubt. but, ultimately, the rationale that justifies what lee did can be seen by looking at what you can call the codnate wars of the american civil war. if you look to the crimean war at the great battle, it's exactly the kind of head long, straight forward attack against russian positions entrenched with artillery and scores a tremendous victory. same thing happens with napoleon iii at the battle in the north italian war in 1859. everything people could have learned from military example in the 1850s would have suggested lee is doing aektsly the right thing. the proof is in the pudding. it almost worked. the confederate forces, picket's
3:08 pm
division, came within an ace of breaking through that federal line. and if they had, what was there behind that line to keep them from going on? next to nothing. it was a close run thing there at gettysburg. the phrase wellington used about waterloo but also true about gettysburg. it came very, very close to success. it was not a rash decision. it was not an unprincipled and thoughtless decision. it almost worked. and i have to say this bluntly. i at least for one 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 field so many times could very likely have gone to pieces.
3:09 pm
lee could have had a full and open field in front of him. there would have been the demand for peace negotiations. alexander stevens the vice president of the confederacy was on a signal boat in the chesapeake bay waiting to come up to washington. what would he have presented to abraham lincoln if he had? and then what would we have, a divided country? a balkanized north america? look, if north and south divided in 1863 do you think it would have stopped there? no. there would have been a northwest confederacy, a pacific confederacy, and we would have had in north america almost a repeat of what we saw in the balkans in the 1990s. and then, and then what would have been available to stop the tide of german militarization in world war i, nazism in world war ii, the cold war?
3:10 pm
it is not a pleasant thing to contemplate. >> no. something that sets the american civil war apart from other countries is it is pretty unusual to only have two sides in a civil war. how you are referring to it, usually quite a few more than that. so really hard to contemplate what we would be living in today. >> you know, years later serving on the united states supreme court were two veterans of the civil war. one was edward white who had been a confederate veteran in louisiana and the other was oliver wendall holmes who had been a union lieutenant at and teeth 'em. every year on the anniversary of antitiem 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 the confederate and he was right.
3:11 pm
>> some post war reflections. then you get the counter factuals we just discussed and also the rationalizations as you mentioned with longstreet in particular saying, no, no. i told him because he knew how it turned out at that point. we only have a few minutes left and so many great questions. lee had an abbreviated post war attack. much older, had heart attacks at that point but nevertheless was quite an impactful figure after the war and having kind of a resurrection after that with monuments and everything else. can you talk about his post war sentiments, just touch on his tenure at washington college and just 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 but i think nothing more surprising
3:12 pm
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 is indicted for treason. he is looking for some form of employment but also wants to look around for employment that is going to get him from far -- as far from the prying eyes in washington that he can get. he is offered the job of president of washington college. 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. it 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 send one of the members of the board of trustees to lee. they 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 and doesn't hear anything. he writes and lee writes back and says well you know i've been
3:13 pm
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 hated the job because he was micro managed at every stage of the job itself. he was offered a job early on in his career teaching at west point. he turned it down because he said the classroom is not my thing. i'm really not comfortable there. now he is going to become a president of a college. you're thinking this isn't going to turn out well. no. he goes to lexington. one of his generals wrote to the trustees and said it is great you got lee to become president. he'll become a great figure head. don't give him any work to do. put him on the letter head and let him be the figure head of the college. you know something? the trustees became the figure heads. robert e. lee ran the place. he rewrites the curriculum from top to bottom.
3:14 pm
he get -- basically sidelines the old classical curriculum and start bringing in modern subjects. he start pringing in mechanical engineering, journalism, and not only that but he does away with the student code of conduct. he interviews every student who comes to washington college and he says there is no code of conduct here. the only thing we expect of you is that you will behave as a gentleman. now, doesn't that sound generous? no. you know what that means? that means robert e. lee is now the judge, jury, and executioner of all student behavior. he takes control of everything in the college and you know the place where he is the best? fundraising. whoever thought of robert e. lee as a developmental officer? and, yet, robert e. lee has this remarkable talent for shaking the apples out of the trees.
3:15 pm
especially the apples of northern trees. he gets old time abolitionists like henry ward beecher to sponsor meetings in new york city for the support, encouragement, and fundraising of washington college. by the time 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 remakes washington college that after his death trustees rename the place as washington & lee university. that is attributed to the fact that the place probably would not have survived had it not been for the presidency of robert e. lee. >> we just have a couple more minutes tonight. i want to spend a little time talking about the legacy of robert e. lee after his death and there is a great question from the audience here from dale. he says his father is from lexington, virginia the burial place of lee and stonewall
3:16 pm
jackson. my dad was born in stonewall jackson's house when it was the county hospital. he is a massive civil war buff and hero worships both lee and jackson. he was raised on lost cause teachings. as we're approaching this examination of the lost cause, of lee, seeing him as a person rather than as a hero to be vein rated or a devil to be condemned as we start to figure out who the man is dale wants to know how can i introduce my dad to more modern approach to the civil war that he might be receptive to? >> first of all, reflect on yourself and your own experience. all of us are the products of many times, places, and things we have met. we are all of us the confluence of many strains. not all of which come at the same time or with the same power or even with the same message.
3:17 pm
we deal with those ourselves. we deal with complexity ourselves. that is simply in 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 respect different from us. they, too, are the confluence of strains. they are part 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 but always are not sure how to do it. sometimes they are not sure what the right thing to do is and are trying to find the markers to point them in that direction. we live lives of uncertainty and
3:18 pm
struggle by the best lights that we can. if that is how we live our lives why are we surprised that we find others in the past lived their lives that way? it's true in the past there are monsters. there are people who have been virtually irredeemably evil. those tend to be the exceptions. there are not that many monsters and we can be grateful for that. heaven knows the ones that have lived, hitler, stalin, mao, those people while they caused inestimable amounts of damage and suffering at least are not as numerous as the rest who struggle day to day to understand what is right, what is true, how to do it. if we understand robert e. lee that way, if we will approach people we otherwise want to put
3:19 pm
a halo around it doesn't mean we've done some damage to them. it means we've come to terms with them the same way we come to terms with ourselves. as human beings. i think of those lines of william wordsworth where he said this. for i have come to look on nature not as in the hour of thoughtless youth but hearing oftentimes the still, sad music of humanity. nor harsh nor grating, though with ample power to rebuke. i think if we can hold on to that we will have a way not only of dealing with ourselves and our own contradictions but also of those in the past. perhaps we won't put halos on them but at the same time we won't put tails on their backs
3:20 pm
and forks in their hands. >> let's end on one question that really gets at where you had concluded your introduction to this talk. this is from john in the audience. he is talking specifically about coming back to the monument's point. there is a spike of monument building in the 19 teens and 20s during the jim crow era and a spike of monument building and massive resistance to civil rights following the brown vs. board of education ruling. john asks, and i'll just read it verbatim, why would anyone expect today's african americans to tolerate a memorial, monument, or marker of lee who fought to continue 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 every day lives. how would you respond to that? >> i'd take this back to the whole question of what monuments
3:21 pm
are. monuments as i said before start out as memorials. i see this all the time in the battle of fwebs. on that battle field, the majority of the more than 1,000 monuments and markers, remember the union regiments and units that fought there. there are some peculiar union monuments. there is a monument to the 42nd new york very close to the angle on cemetery ridge. the monument of the 42nd new york shows an indian chief and tee pea. you're thinking wait a minute. did they get the wrong war? the answer is no. this was the tamany regiment raised by tamany and the symbol is chief tamany. when that was put up the dedication ceremonies for that
3:22 pm
preached the justice and righteousness of the union cause. and the people who erected that monument were the veterans of the regiment. they were there saying yes we were in the right. it was a moral cause, marvelous and wonderful and we embraced it. it is a memorial to our troop. all right. that generation dies off followed by another generation by the grandchildren of those soldiers. they come to gettysburg and look at the monument and say that is a monument to the 42nd new york. my grandfather fought in the 42nd new york. they don't really have quite the fizz about 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 with a guidebook in hand and say, ah. here's where the 42nd new york stood. okay? yeah. that's the monument. it's a marker.
3:23 pm
how do we deal then with monuments? i think we have to ask a series of questions. back in 2017 after charlottesville, i clubbed together with one of my former students who is a national park service interpreter officer, john rudy. we wrote an article published in "civil war monitor" and in it offered what we called a decision tree. what do you do about monuments? especially monuments that talk about difficult people? what we did was we walked step by step. we said all right. is this monument doing this, that, and the other? if so, take it down. if not, go to the next question. we went through that five step decision tree. now, there's no automatic conclusions that come out of that decision tree. it all depends on what you're putting into it and what conclusions you're drawing. what it does, though, is it compels us to sit down and work our way through the complexities
3:24 pm
of the questions of what is symbolized. can we live with this? can we tolerate this? what does it mean? what does it really symbolize? are the symbols multiple? when we say, for instance, that confederate monuments were put up in the jim crow era, does that mean they were monuments to jim crow? some of them were. and you might say that there is an aspect of all of them that was. but it was also a time when those veterans of the confederate army 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. then there is the whole business about do we worship success? are the only people who deserve a monument the people who are successful and wealthy and influential and powerful? maybe is there room for monuments for people who lose, the people you weep over? so there is complexity built not
3:25 pm
only into human nature but even into the monuments. our decision tree was a way of trying to respect the complexity and to move through it. so that we honor everybody's input and the decision may be at the end, yeah. take it down. but at least that the point it's come at the end of a process and at the end of a process we can all together be confident we have thought our way through this. if we don't, then even when the monument is gone we will continue to fight and tear and rip at each other. even if the monument is not there anymore. we'll keep at it. 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
3:26 pm
would give. >> and i feel like there is no better way to end the 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. i'm sorry we could not get to all of them but rest assured many of them are answered in allen's book. if you haven't yet purchased your copy of "robert e. lee" it is a fascinating study that will take you through his life start to finish. you'll certainly learn something that you didn't know about the figure before. so thank you again for joining us this evening. allen, we so appreciate your time, your willingness to join us virtually. i wish it could have been otherwise but we'll take what we can get and just thank you again and best of luck on the rest of your tour. >> claire, thank you so much. monique, thank you so much for enabling this. thanks to the whole audience, all your wonderful questions. i hope to see you all again
3:27 pm
sometime soon in the wonderful city of atlanta. >> down load c-span's new mobile and stay up to date with live video coverage of the day's biggest political events from live streams at the house and senate floor and key congressional hearings to white house events and supreme court oral arguments. even our live interactive morning program "washington journal" where we hear your voices every day. c-span now has you covered. down load the app for free today. c-span shop.org is c-span's online store. browse through our latest collection of c-span products, apparel, books, home decor, and accessories. there's something for every c-span fan and every purchase helps support our nonprofit operations. shop now or any time at c-span shop.org. >> our next

27 Views

info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on