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tv   Allen Guelzo Robert E. Lee - A Life  CSPAN  December 28, 2021 8:01pm-9:22pm EST

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rogram guide for c-span.org/history. >> welcome to the virtual series, i'm the vic welcome to the 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
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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 museum store and 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. to give you an orientation and 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. he lives in pennsylvania. allen, welcome, and thank you so much for being here.
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>> 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 salt or springs in west virginia. his wife was plagued by rheumatoid arthritis, they came to silver springs to
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benefit from her bathing in the hot springs there. one of the few things that could give her relief from the march of disease. mary chestnut -- of course one of the 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. and she said, he 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? where 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, which came
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unbidden to her mind was perfection. she said there was no fault to be found. 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
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e. lee came to. both during and before the american civil war. chestnut came near to the mark when she talked about lee and perfection and she may have realized, because perfection was one of robert e. lee's 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
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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 the 29, into the elite corps of engineers, where he undertook a series of coastal engineering projects, ranging from georgia to new york city to the st. louis waterfront. here and his most impressive
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military bouquets, however, serving under winfield scott in the mexican war. he acted as scott's chief aide in the dramatic campaign from the coast at veracruz, to 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. and then, for a brief period, he was the colonel of the first u.s. cavalry. and then, with the outbreak of the civil war, he was offered field command of the united states forces in dealing with the secessionist states. 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
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of the confederate field army, it's principle, the army of northern virginia. almost nothing in there was proceeding 30 years gave the slightest hint in the nature of the decision he made, his decision to leave the army, to forswear his oath to defend the united states, which he first took 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, leads general answer in 1861 for that big decision, about refusing command of the federal forces, was that he was a virginian. and when virginia succeeded
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from the union, he was obliged to follow virginia into the confederacy. but was he? of virginiaalthough robert e. n 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 1830s. most of his life thereafter was in other places -- georgia, st. louis, baltimore, new york city. his father, harry, had been, politically, a federalist. and suffered for it politically. and that only married into one of the most foremost families of virginia, of arlington,
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arlington overlooked the potomac, facing the national capital, not virginia. and his custus in laws valorize the nation first and stake loyalty afterwards. but lee could not ignore, however, in 1861, two factors. first, whitehorse harry lee, for all his revolutionary fame, had been a hard luck 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
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breathe free of his father deputation in others other ways. he wanted independence and to be his own man. in one sense, his marriage to marry, was an attempt to stake out around for himself. he also yearned for security. the security that his father had denied him. so while most of leaves contemporaries at west point 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
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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 of 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 stayed neutral. or he could accept the invitation extended to him to take command of virginia forces and play the role of mediator
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between virginia and the union. and that's achieved by peacemaking frame greater than his father had ever enjoyed in war. but of course, it did not turn out that way. like many, many others, leah found the secession 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 appomattox courthouse, he frankly admitted that he always expected the war would turn out the way
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appomattox showed it would. but at least his conduct would show how he would rise. and 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 statues that have been removed. on the one hand -- i'm a yankee. i am a pennsylvanian and that's all that i have known. and in fact, my earliest education, and any subject touching on the civil war came like on my grandmother's knee.
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and welcome into her class from at george climbers school old veterans of the union army, grand army of the republic and their little blue caps and blue jackets. her 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 talk about the lost cause. 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
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he leaves who raised their hand against the nation they had sworn an oath to uphold and defend. i took that oath, 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 fought 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? so, if someone wanted to propose erecting a statue to robert elite today, i would probably tell them as politely as i could to get lost. but that's not the whole story at all. the lee monument in richmond dates from the 18 90s. i am sure it had a message than about white supremacy, but it
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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 50s. 10% of the military aged male population of the confederacy died in the war. dots literally decimation. in american culture, if you are successful that is 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 in american culture. robert e. lee symbolizes something different.
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he symbolized the possibility of dignity in the face of defeat. he symbolized the possibility that the winners, the bernie made offs, the michael milk and, 's the jeffrey epstein's. the winners are not necessarily the good, and the people who end up paying for those deeds are not necessarily bad. that message was wrapped up in the lee statute to. we might regret that in a dog eat dog world. there is one more factor. monuments like the lee start to change. that sounds strange because monuments that are made of granite, or bronze, are physical and material, and they do not grow, they do not eat, and we wonder what you mean by changed.
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what i mean by change is this. when monuments like the lee statue, when they are put, up they serve as memorials. and here is where the white supremacy message got attached. the statues were there to remind people of what the confederacy lost. overtime, though, as generations pass, statues change. they begin as memorials, but of generations past, they decline into monuments. the lee statue 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 as they pass, they say oh yes, that is robert e. lee. they become almost literally markers for negotiating traffic
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in downtown richmond. we see this and what has happened to other monuments and memorial markers. out in the west coast in california, in donor park, there is a monument to the donor party. the people who were sorted to -- 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
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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 might have objected and said why are we putting up a monument to people who committed treason? but overtime, that begins as a memorial descends and to a monument and instills more time, the monument goes into a marker, and today in washington, we look at this monument, this memorial, this marker to this rebellion. 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 of memorials, and markers destroyed.
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there is a certain professional reluctance that way. part of our historical memory. and still hold on to the substance of that memory, at least very easily. on the other hand i am a citizen of a democracy and if the citizens of richmond, or other places determined there is a monument they wish to -- i have no legitimate reason of 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 that we live within a democracy. i hope the voices that say that are wrong. and perhaps, how we deal with
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our -- , not just leads, but all historical monuments, perhaps how we deal with them will be the measure of how seriously we take our history and our democracy. clear, that is enough for me for now. i understand we have a number of questions coming in from the audience and i think it is time to turn to the curiosity of the audience. and let that have its share here. >> absolutely. thank you for the introduction, allen. going back, you took us up to the present day, about the present moments we are having with monuments. i thought, why don't we go back to the beginning of your book and dig in more into robert e. lee's early life. and we will start to work in our audience questions as we
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go. and the q&a, we can share and get to as many of those as we can. and we have enthusiastic audiences, which is wonderful. if we are not able to get to all of the questions, we apologize in advance. allen, i wanted to go back to the beginning. and you lay out in your book that one can understand a man like robert e. lee, one cannot understand him without understanding the relationship he had with his father. you mention the revolutionary war. but also he didn't have a successful post revolutionary war in a lot of ways. and ended up deserting his family. so lay that out a bit for us. talk about lease relationship with his father. and then what became his relationship with his father's absence. >> harry lee, or to be henry
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lee the third, to be technical, was alley from what we can call the cadet branch of the lee family. the major dominant strain of the lee family was the lee family around thomas lee and descended from richard lee. that's the difference this makes. the first immigrant. he is sometimes called richard the immigrant. this is from the 16 50s. thomas liu built stratford hall. he built, in addition to stratford hall, a small empire, on the northern neck of virginia. henry lee was lesser of a part of that family, that's why i call it a cadet branch. but the whitehorse family was nothing if not ambitious. intelligence, skillful and
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brave. almost to the point of recklessness. he went to princeton college. he is a princeton alum. so i give him the respect, to claim white house lee, as part of princeton heritage. but he no sooner graduated than the revolutionary war broke out. he volunteers for service, takes command of a company of force 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 revolution in the south, he turns to his friend, nathanael greene. and with nathanael greene, he sends whitehorse harry. and the story of the revolution in the south is very much written by and then your green with whitehorse hurries help. and it was after the revolution that they started to come apart for white house harry.
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at first it looks like everything is swimming. he marries meticulously, a cousin of his. and it is materially who is the air of stratford hall, which is how whitehorse harry comes to be the man who controls stratford hall. yet, whitehorse harry had a real gift for botching things financially. every possible asset he put into real estate investments, they simply corkscrew downwards. when mattel dili dies, she leaves him with two children. one son, henry the fourth. and lucy. henry the fourth, well, that is a story in its own right. but light horse harrow remarries and marries and carter. and he burns through every bit of cash. so much so that he winds up in debtors prison and not only
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that but he gets involved in political problems, inflammatory political problems, which causes him to be within an inch of his life in baltimore. he leaves behind politics and leaves behind his creditors. he takes off for the west indies and leaves behind with his second family, with an quarterly, and that included five children. two older brothers of robert and two sisters. he leads them and leads his family, goes off to the west indies, leaving the family to be taken care of by their carter relatives. robert is six years old when this happens. he never ceases father. again and there is something that the psychologist can tell you of the trauma that that inflicts. there is hardly any kind of pain worse than the loss of a parent before the beginning of adolescents.
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that is what robert experiences. what makes it in a sense even more cruel, is that all through his life, he is constantly introduced as robert e. lee, the son of light horse harry lee. people never dreaming what their conjuring up in roberts mind. robert only on one occasion, before 1861, ever refers to his father. and that isn't his application letter to west point. beyond that, he never talks about himself as the son of harry, he never visits his father's grave, not until the end of 1861, when finally robert lee is coming into his own. he is becoming his own man, so to speak. it is only then that he comes to terms with the influence of the impact of light horse harry on his life.
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it is a traumatic affair, and it is out of this trauma that you see growing these passions in robert e. lee that i have itemized before. for independence, for security, for protection. those three passions are not always compatible. someone can yearn for independence, and find out that that does not give you much security, or you can obtain security and find out it doesn't do much in the way of independence. lee never makes all three work together. when he becomes the president of washington college, it is finally there in the last five years of his life, he is able to bring all three of those into harmony. not significantly, but that is the moment when he writes a memoir of his father. >> welcome back, --
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then a lot of other major figures and 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 making ends meet, it is weird because in some ways a soldier salary is pretty low, but in other ways he is a lot more financially stable than many others during that time period. it is kind of a competitive dissidents that he has coming on their. one of the things that i wanted to ask about, we have several audience questions about it as well, is robert elite's relationship with slavery. so, robert e. lee lived in a
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slave holding state in virginia. his wife's family and particular, arlington, on many enslaved people. arlington itself benefited from that enslaved 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?
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>> lee grows up so to speak, with slavery. his parents owned slaves, his mother owned slaves when they were living in alexandria, even though they were severely reduced circumstances. there were still at least six slaves in the lee household and alexandria. when carter lee dies in 1829, part of her estate is the disposition of the slaves in that state. some slaves are pointed towards her two daughters, in this case and can lovely. and, her sister milled rig lee. one slave family's will to robert, in terms of disposition of the state, winds of being a slave family that robert owns, it is as it turns out the only
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slave family here ever owns in his own name. that doesn't mean that he did not benefit from slavery as a system, simply by being a white southerners, there were benefits of being in the slave system. even more so at arlington, when he marries into -- there is the main property at arlington, but there are also other properties along the river. all told, there is something around 190 sleeves who are part of those properties. robert lee benefits from that. when he marries into that, he benefits from their, work their labor, he has a bully who is one of the slaves, he a's wife has slaves, and they will assist with the children. they go on vacation, the slaves go with them. we certainly benefits from the slave system, even if he doesn't himself have personal titled to a large number of slaves.
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the curious thing is he really says nothing about slavery for years, and years, and years. not until the 1850s won slavery is becoming a crisis issue in american politics. and, it's interesting that he talks about it at all, because he had learned early on 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 it happen in the case of his first mentor, he saw what happened to winfield scott as a conclusion of the mexican war, he tries to stay as far away from politics as possible. and yet, slavery by the 1850s's impending so much on his attention. he says slavery is a moral evil. it isn't evil that should be condemned in many civil societies. you read that and you think, well it is about time.
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then you read on and you immediately as you pointed out, 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, how is the thought? he says it is more of a problem for white people than it is for black people, slavery is actually benefiting black people because it is helping them assimilate to civilization. this is a fairly common argument that is made by people in the 1850s, and 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 on his own time. now it took 2000 years for christianity's civilize the world. it may take that long to get rid of slavery, he doesn't have time bracket on it. take a look at that and you say,
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what he has given away with one hand, he has taken back with the other. there are two things in mind even as he says it. one is that he is saying that he is not a lot different than many other southerners in the upper south are saying. in virginia, and kentucky, these were areas where slavery was inextricably being drained out of economic life of those states. it was being drained because slavery was a lot more profitable in the southwest, and the mississippi river valley. many southerners, including his own father in law, we'll talk about slavery of his father in love -- and law. and yet, having said that, they immediately turn around and say yes, there is nothing we can do about it. it is here, it is legal, what are we going to do about it? we look at those rationalizations and we say, come on. bear two things in mind, lee
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did have a point about slavery being a problem for white people. not as you might think, a racial point. but, an economic point. because slavery, of course, is bound up with slave labor. how could free labor hope to compete with slave labor? so, that is in fact making an economic point, even if it is racially unenlightened, which it is. the other thing that has to be borne in mind here is that lee is looking at a situation where he might not have a lot of control of the situation. he after all did not 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, lease father in law dies. the will is a mess.
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but, part of the will provide for the emancipation of the customs slaves within five years. robert e. lee is the executive editor of the will. 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 elite is robert daly. he is not just a son in law of george washington custis. if he had gone into any virginia confederate court, and said i do not 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 you want to derail the whole process, who was going to stand in the path of general lee? the other interesting thing is, that lee persists and moving
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forward with the samantha patient. not only emancipation -- in his own name, which he was not obliged by the custis state. by the beginning of 1863, robert e. lee's slave list. what is morris he has badgering jefferson davis. he is saying the confederacy must emancipate its slaves. because otherwise, we are never going to have any kind of standing in the eyes of the rest of the world. by the spring of 1865 is 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
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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. 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 seeing them occupy office. i mean, to the contrary, he is very critical of reconstruction. so, don't mistake what lee does for some kind of enlightenment that he has experienced. but at the same time, do not depreciate it either. he is part of the problem of dealing with robert e. lee. 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
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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 differently, where it leads sides to resign his army commission, i will say when i started reading this book i did not realize the 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 there are a lot of steps in between. one question is do you have any insight from lee about his thought process during that time, and did he consult about this really monumental decision to leave u.s. army. because as you say, he's been hungry for promotion for years. the promotion and the army was not an absolute snail's pace at
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that time. this would have been what he'd been striving for, and yet, he gives that up. so can you talk a bit about how he came to that? can you talk about what his thinking was? >> li 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. it is not a criticism, because most people were feeling their way through the crisis. again, as i said before, we look back on this it seems to be simple, straightforward, and an avid-able. there is 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
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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, and now you are wondering perhaps, how can one remain neutral for a war like the civil war? well, there are many people who simply concluded that they did not want to get their hands and what would really be a bloody contest among fellow americans. so, forever right have reasons, they would back off and they would remain neutral. that's the first step lee takes.
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he has been persuaded to take another step, and that is to go to richmond. he takes that step after consulting with his 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
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is that lee expects by taking command of the virginia force, if he can restrain virginia from throwing completely and with the confederacy and going to war with united states. for the first month that he is in command of virginia forces, all the orders he gets our stay on the defensive. when thomas jonathan jackson takes his troops across the river to occupy the maryland heights across from harpers ferry, lee orders him back. louise expectation was we are going to work this out, we have had this disruption, but you know what, after the hot heads have regained some coolness we are all going to get together, there is going to be a reconstruction. that is the first time the word reconstruction gets used. we are going to have a reconstruction, and everything is going to be peaceful again.
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we will work this all out. that does not happen. it all gallops away from lee. a month after going away to richmond, he actually says 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 burlington, you might say -- but lee, curiously enough, lee is a surprisingly reluctant confederate. and that one other point, in mary chestnut's diary, she reports on people who are talking to her. coming to her and saying, we cannot trust robert e. lee, he is not with us. robert e. lee will be tried as a trader for the confederacy. you take it from that, that is in 1861. in february of 1865, when lee is proposing the emancipation of slaves and the recruitment
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for the confederate army, the utter fire breathing of all the newspapers, charleston mercury says we knew that robert e. lee was never with us. we knew that he was always a federalist at heart. we cannot trust robert e. lee. lee had a particular profile. many people were not entirely sure about robert e. lee. they love the fact that he won battles, many people scratch 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 say one thing, and then turn around and say something that contradicts it. i just had a question -- he resigns, is appointed as the head of virginia army, put in
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charge of the army of northern virginia, initially experiences a fabulous acceptance against the federal army before, as lee predicts, the federal army gets together. at the beginning, he is very straightforward about when it comes to military conflict, we cannot when this from strength alone, but the only chance as if we do something that will encourage the north to back off from the war. it is where he always wanted to go, but kept getting rebuffed. it isn't a faithful battle there, which we will talk about and a second. there is this one moment in the book that really jumps out to me where he, lee, is criticizing the behavior of the union army. things like looting, that kind of behavior, and yet he ignores
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the absolutely outrageous conduct of his own army while in pennsylvania, who were actually capturing black men and selling them into enslavement in virginia. when i read thought, i was thinking about, how does that happen? how does he not seem to know? or was ignoring? he would let his general tell him where to go, and figure out how to get it done. does that extent to where 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 of the general, as being able to primarily give strategic direction to armies and two campaigns. and in terms of his strategic insight, he really is one of the most perceptive, if not the most perceptive among the
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southern military, and political leaders. because, as you say, he sees very early on but the south does not have the resources to go along heavy weight route. there is just not enough substance there. if the confederacy is going to win, it is going to have to score a surprise knockout 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 are able to cause so much political destruction and dismay, that the northern populists and the northern politicians become disenchanted with the lincoln administration, and compel the lincoln administration to open these initiations. lee sees that more clearly than almost any other person in the confederate leadership. he pursues that two times, he would have pursued it a third time in 1864 if a grant had not in fact beaten him to the punch
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by launching the campaign in 1864. beyond that, lee does not see himself as a day-to-day manager. he is willing to put a lot of responsibility into the hands of his chief lieutenants, and when he has chief lieutenants who are really upped the job, people like jackson, and wall street, then he is able to preside over a series of significant successes. at other times, though, when jackson is dead, when -- lee has to take charge himself on the tactical level. it is very clear he is not comfortable doing that. he can't do, it but he is not comfortable doing it. in terms of the model parameters of his army, his vision of himself as a commander is he is responsible of what goes on at the very top.
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everything else is the responsibility of people at the other levels of command, in the chain of command. so if officers are running down and capturing free black people in pennsylvania, and tying them up, and sending them off to be sold in the richmond slave markets, that is not his responsibility. not the way he sees it. that is something that occurs on a 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. many of these difficulties that we see today, we say here is a contradiction. how can he say this on the one hand, and yet tolerate this on the other? in his mind, it was not a contradiction. that was simply not his responsibility. if his soldiers and officers behaved in a certain way, he was not going to look at it. it's simply was not going to be
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a subject that he was going to concern himself with. that was for his subordinates to, take care of. >> it is intriguing especially because he is so adamant about look at the conduct of these unions. >> yes. , right. the conduct of those union troops was one thing that helps to push him further and further away from this role, this imagined role of being reconcile, or towards we have to beat these yankees. these orders that he objects to so much, what he really finds offensive about them, it is not the union soldiers that are misbehaving. soldiers are going to misbehave, i am sorry, that isn't the nature of it. when he really objects to is the directive for that misbehavior is coming from the very top. in 1862, it is coming from john pope, commanding the army of virginia. it might be the case, that is ordinary soldiers were running around stealing chickens,
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killing cattle, and otherwise wreaking havoc on the virginia countryside. lee could understand that. what he can't understand is the general in charge of the union forces not only tolerating it, but actually sanctioning him, directing it. that, lee finds profoundly offensive. and, it is why he has the response that he does. >> we are starting to get close to the end of our time together. we have so many other questions, we will have a couple more minutes i think, our audience is really -- let's talk about, we do not have time to get into all of the tactical decisions made during civil wars, we don't even have time to really get into -- we could be here, we had a couple of questions from the audience about physical fitness and mental fitness for that
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battle, there are questions about that, and let's focus specifically on the third day when the bottle was truly lost. i am sure a lot of people in the audience in gettysburg, you could really see the vast expanse that that brigade was expected to cover. it is really breathtaking when you are out there. -- comes to him and says, 15,000 men could not take this position. and he does it anyway. can you talk about what was he thinking in that battle? strategic decisions? what's figured into that in the war? >> a lot of people, ask this question. they stand at the angle looking towards seminary ridge and the virginia monument. this is what could he have been
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thinking? you are going to send soldiers across that open area? they're going to get slaughtered. and of course, what was the result? the result was the feet. people think, what could have lee possibly been thinking? people have suggested, lee was suffering health problems and that affects his clarity of his decision making progress. it is, true he experienced health problems during the war. he was probably the most senior all of the major commanding figures of the civil war. he is much older than grant, much older than mclaughlin, much older than most of the great generals. he is older than wellington, and napoleon. there are some arguments that could be made saying perhaps he had got to be in more of a rear echelon position, and try to take command on the field, he suffers a series of heart attacks during the civil war.
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the first of these heart attacks occurs in the spring of 1863. but, he bounces back from that 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, and 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, louise army has pounded the army of the potomac. five of those -- have been wrecked by louise army. they were next to useless in terms of combat, and readiness. the only things that were really left of the 12th court and the six core, the sixth quarter he needs as a reserve,
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the 12th core is needed to -- what does that leave? it leaves two divisions of the second core holding cemetery ridge. so, what is holding the back door to the union position? really, not effectively. not much more than 3500 men. whereas lee house an entire fresh unsightly division, who can be supported by another division of troops that have already been in action. yes, james after the war, i emphasize after the war, insisted that he had disagreed vehemently and told lee it was the wrong thing to do. lee -- as time went by after the war.
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especially after louise's death. i have the very strong suspicion that longstreet, whatever reservations he expressed at that time, didn't express severe enough reservations to cause lee to have any doubt. but ultimately, the rationale that justifies what we did can be seen by looking at what you could call the cognate wars of the american civil war. if you look to the crimean war, at the great battle of the alma, lord -- launches the exact same kind of headlong, straightforward attack against russian positions that are entrenched against artillery. and ends up with a victory. the same thing with the battle of -- in the north italian war in 1859. everything you could learn from military example in the 1850s
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would suggest that lee is doing the right thing. the proof is in the pudding. it almost worked. the confederate forces, pickets division, 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 waterloo -- but it's also true about gettysburg. it came very, very close to success. it was not a rash decision. it was not an unproven supple tent thoughtless decision. it almost worked. and i have to say this bluntly. i, at least for one, i'm grateful that it did not. because the consequence of that, if we had been successful, at gettysburg, oh my goodness.
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the army of the potomac having been beaten on so many fields, so many times, could very likely have gone -- and lee could have had a full and open field in front of him and there would have been the demand for peace negotiations. alexander stevens, vice president of the confederacy, was on a boat, in chesapeake bay, waiting to come up to washington. what would he have represented to lincoln, if he had had? and then what would we have had? i divided country? a ball can ice north america? if north and south divided, do you think it would have stopped? no, there would have been a northwest confederacy, of pacific confederacy. and we would have had in north america almost what we saw in the balkans in the 1990s. and then, and then, what would have been available to stop the tide of german militarism in
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world war one? of nazism in world war ii? of the cold war? it's not a pleasant thing to contemplate. >> no, and something that sets the american civil war apart from other countries, it's pretty unusual, to only have two sides. how you are referring to it, it's usually a few more than that. but it's hard to contemplate what we would be living in today. >> you know, years later, serving on the supreme court, were two veterans. one was edward white and the other was all over when bill holmes, who had been a union lieutenant. every year on the anniversary of antietam, homes would present white with a red rose. a romantic gesture. whites response was this. my god, he said. if we had
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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 we said earlier, lee had an abbreviated action. much, much older. had had heart attacks at that point. but nevertheless, an impactful figure after the war. and then having a resurrection after that with the monuments and everything else you discussed. can you talk a little bit about his postwar -- well, during his life -- his postwar existence and touch on his tenure at washington college. who is robert easily, when he
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was no longer the confederate general? >> there are so many surprises in the life of robert e. lee. but i think there is nothing more surprising than that which occurs in the last five years of his life. when the war is over, he is indicted for treason. he is never brought to trial. but he is indicted. or does he do? he's looking for some form of employment. he also wants to look around for employment because this is going to get him as far as from the prying eyes of washington as he can get. he's offered the job of president of washington college. i did an job. washington college was this little college in lexington, virginia, upper end of the shenandoah valley. it hardly had a pulse at the end of the war. and yet, 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, he
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doesn't hear anything. he writes and lee writes back and says, well, i've been indicted for treason. if you can handle that, i will 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. he turned it down because he said the classroom is not my milieu. i'm not comfortable with that. all of a sudden, now, he will become president of a college. and you are thinking, well, this won't turn out well. no. he goes to lexington. it is curious. one of his generals wrote to the trustees and said, it's great you've got lead to become president. he's going to be a great figurehead. don't give him work to do. just put him on the letterhead. and let him be figurehead of
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the college. you know something? the trustees became figureheads. robert really ran the place. he 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 of you is that you will behave as a gentlemen. doesn't that sound a generous? no. do you know what that means? it means robert 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 best? fundraising. who would have thought of
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robert lee as development officer? and yet, lee has this remarkable talent for shaking the apples out of the trees, especially the apples of northern trees. he gets old abolitionist abolitionists like henry ward beecher to sponsor meetings for the encouragement of washington college. by the time that lee dies in 1870, the college, which was almost defunct, has been made an educational powerhouse, rivaling the university of virginia. he so remakes washington college that after his death, trustees rename the place as washington and lee university. a tribute to the fact that the place probably would not have survived had 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
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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. he's a massive civil war buff. he had hero worship of lee and jackson. he is raised on a lost cause teaching. so as we are approaching this examination of the lost cause, of li and seeing him as a person rather than a hero to be venerated or a devil to be condemned, as we try to figure out who the man's, tell us, how can i introduce my dad to a more modern approach this civil war so that he may be 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
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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 respect different from us. they too are the confluence of strains. they are the products of all 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 i'm not always sure how to do it. and sometimes they are not even sure what the right thing is to
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do. and 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. if that is how we live our lives, why are we surprised, then, that 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. but those tend to be, on the whole, the exceptions. that. there are not that many monsters and we can be grateful for that. heaven knows the ones that have lived, hitler, stalin, now, those people, while they have 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
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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 sad music of humanity. nor harsh, nor grating, the 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
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in the past and perhaps we won't put halos on them. but perhaps we won't put tails on their backs and force on their hands. >> and to and on one question, where you included in 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.
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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 -- remember the union regiments that fought there. and there are some peculiar union monuments. there is a monument to the 42nd new york, close to the angle on cemetery ridge. the 42nd new york shows an indian chief in it tp, and you are thinking, wait, they've got the long war? no, this was the tammany regiment, raised by tammany hall. and the symbol of tammany hall's chief tammany.
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so you have a monument there and people say, 42nd new york. when that was put up, the dedication -- preached of justice and righteousness of the union cause. and the people who directed that monument where the veterans of the regiment. and they were there, saying, yes, that's right. we were in the right. it was a moral cause. it was marvelous and wonderful. and we embrace it. it is a memorial to our troops. okay, that generation dies off. and then the grandchildren of those soldiers. they come to gettysburg and look at that monument and say that is a monument to the 42nd new york, my grandfather fought to the 42nd new york team. looking at it as a monument. and then, their generation passes off, and their grandchildren come to gettysburg. they come to gettysburg with a guidebook in hand, and say oh,
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this is where the 42nd new york stood. there is the monument. it is a marker. how do we deal then monuments? i think we have to ask a series of questions. back in 2017 after charlottesville, i went together with one of my former students, we wrote an article that was published in the civil war -- and it we offered what we called a decision tree. what do you do about monuments? especially monuments, talk about difficult people. what we did was, we went step-by-step, we said is this monument doing this, that, and the other? if so, take it down. if not, go to the next question. there is no automatic conclusion to come out of that decision tree. it all depends on what you are
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putting into it, and what conclusions are drawn. 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 this? can we tolerate this? what does it mean? what does it really symbolize? are the symbols multiple? when we say for instance, the confederate monuments were put up in this era, does that mean there were monuments to jim crow? some of them were. you might say there is an aspect of all of them. there is also a time when there were 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 is also that part 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?
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or maybe is there room for monuments for people who lose? to the people you weep over? so, there is complexity built not only into human nature, but into the monuments. our decision tree was a way to respect the complexity, and to move through it. so that we honor everybody's input, and the decision maybe at the end, yes take it down. but at least a point, it has come to the end of the process. at the end of a process, we can all together be confident that we have fought our way through this. if we do not, then even when the monument is gone, we will continue to fight, and tear, and rip at each other. even at the monument is not there anymore, we will keep at it. because even in the absence of the monument, the rage will be there. it is the rage that can poison democracy.
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in the pursuit of truth, that is the help of democracy. if there is a word that i would give people to -- tonight it's a historian, that is the word i would give. >> i feel like there is no better way to end this tonight than that. to everyone in the audience, thank you so much for your excellent questions. i am sorry that we could not get to all of them. but rest assured, many of them are answered in the book. so if you have not yet got your copy of robert e. lee, you will certainly learn something that you did not know about the figure before. so thank you again for joining us this evening. allen, we appreciate your time, your willingness to meet with us virtually. i wish it would have been otherwise, but we will take what we can get. just, thank you again and best of luck on the rest of your tour.
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>> clare, thank you so much. thank you to the whole audience, all of your wonderful questions, and i hope to see you all again sometime soon in the wonderful city of atlanta. ♪ ♪ ♪ per. >> watch this program and thousands more online at c-span.org/history. >> now, our guest today which interest or guest right now >> our

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