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Debunking Lee without a Clue

In today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Richard Cohen wrote a scathing article on General Robert E. Lee. I suppose it was his questionable contribution to the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War.

And let me clear before I start my rant. I am not defending slavery. It needed to be ended and I am sorry it took a nasty civil war to do it. As a Wisconsinite, I would have fought for my State and then been on the right side of the moral argument. Had I been born in Virginia it might be a different story.

So no, my goal here is not to defend the indefensible but to say something about judging historical people on the basis of political correctness with little to no understanding of the times or places they lived in.

In the column Cohen takes on the task of debunking Lee and the Lee cult that grew up in the South following the war and is still in evidence today. His main concern seems to be how do black people feel when they see the adulation of Lee who was a slave holder and the South’s best general meaning had they won so would have slavery persisted.

In other words, it’s all about 21st century political correctness and sensitivity rather than a realistic evaluation of the man and the cause(s) Lee and other southerners fought for.

In Cohen’s world judging Lee is easy. Lee was a slave holder. Lee was a traitor to the Union. Slavery is wrong. Betraying your country is wrong. Therefore, the south should not celebrate Lee (at all, ever, end the Lee cult now).

In Cohen’s overly simplistic analysis of Lee he downplays the notion of State’s Rights as even being a factor in the Civil War. Cohen does not seem able to get his mind around the idea the many southerners including Lee did not like slavery even while they owned them. He doesn’t seem to grasp that in 19th century America many Americans did not trust an intrusive Federal Government (sounds familiar) and that they were more loyal to their individual states than they were to Washington.

In the movie Gettysburg there is an interesting exchange between Gen. Longstreet, Lee’s right hand man and a British officer sent to observe the army. In response to a question posed by the Brit Longstreet says something like, “we should have freed the slaves and then fired on Sumter.”

Whether or not this actually happened I don’t know. What I do as a student of the ACW is that the sentiment Longstreet expressed was a sentiment held by many southerners. The South did not have the moral high ground because of slavery and most knew it. What they could not tolerate was having their homeland invaded. Cohen does not seem able to understand the concept that people can be uncomfortable with much of what their governments are up to and yet be loyal to their country.

For example, I consider myself a loyal American even while I believe Obama is destroying it with a socialist agenda. The two notions are not mutually exclusive.

When South Carolina fired on Sumter the Confederacy was small. Virginia, Lee’s state did not secede until Lincoln called for 75,000 men to forcibly keep South Carolina in line.

One can debate the rightness or wrongness of that but one should keep in mind that the Federal Government of 1861 was not the monstrosity it now is and in 1861 a person’s loyalty was often to their locality rather than far away Washington. This is a significant issue when it comes to judging Lee and it seems clear (from what I’ve read on Lee) that Lee made a painful decision to be loyal to Virginia over his loyalty to Washington. Other Virginian officers such as George Thomas stayed with the North. It was painful for him too as both generals had friends and relatives on the other side.

It’s very easy to judge a man like Lee by our 21st century standards where a strong federal union (for better or worse and often times worse) is the norm. It was not that way in 1861 and to judge Lee as not worthy of any honor and to call him a traitor is simply ignorant as well as insensitive to the southerners who fought the war because they saw their State as their country. (Note to Mr. Cohen, most southern soldiers were rather poor and few southerners owned slaves. Why do you suppose they fought?)

President Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves said this in his second inaugural address:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, …let us strive on to finish the work we are in, …to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

In order to be politically correct and sensitive to one group Cohen has managed to show malice and insensitivity to another. If he thinks he has done anything to help cherish a just and lasting peace with his debunking Lee piece he is badly mistaken.

In Robert E. Lee there was much to be admired and like all of us he also had his flaws. If we are going to judge him then we should judge righteously (Jn. 7:24) and judge ourselves first (Matt. 7:1, 5) to make sure we are not applying the norms of our times to their times. Let Lee be Mr. Cohen. Let Virginia be.

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