- Historic Sites
Getting Right With Robert E. Lee
How to know the unknowable man
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
In The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society, Thomas L. Connelly chronicles the rise of what he terms the Lee cult. Two initially rival Lee cliques, in Lexington and Richmond, coalesced and within a decade, by the end of the 1870s, were hard at work. Theirs was an all-Virginian operation—States’ Rights energized the cult as well as the Confederacy—spearheaded by the former Army of Northern Virginia generals Jubal Early, William N. Pendleton, Fitzhugh Lee (General Lee’s nephew), Lee’s former staff members Walter Taylor and Charles Marshall, and J. William Jones, a Baptist minister. The cult’s mission, Connelly writes, was to appropriate Robert E. Lee “as a balm to soothe defeat” and as the paladin of the lost cause. “To justify Lee was to justify the Southern cause.”
Through speeches, articles, biographies, campaign narratives, and the editorship of the Papers of the Southern Historical Society, cult members seized control of Confederate historiography and turned it to their own purposes, which was the production of Lee hagiography. This veneration, explains the Lee biographer Marshall Fishwick, resulted in a St. George of Virginia, a remarkable phenomenon in white Southern Protestantism. To a beaten South, suffering under the lash of Reconstruction, this sainted Lee, so without blemish of character that his defense of the cause and his ultimate failure could only be examples of God’s will, was truly a figure of worship.
Lee’s elevation was necessarily accomplished at the expense of other Confederate generals, and here the mixed motives of the Lee cult became apparent. Such rivals for military eminence as P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston were systematically diminished in the pages of the Southern Historical Society Papers, which its editor, the Reverend Jones, turned into a showcase for General Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Even the heroic Stonewall Jackson, struck down at his moment of victory at Chancellorsville, was carefully reduced to simply Lee’s lieutenant, his triumphs gained under the all-seeing direction of the general commanding. But these various demotions pale next to what Connelly terms the “crucifixion” of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet.
The assault on Longstreet was tied directly to the most difficult task the cult faced in its burnishing of Lee’s military reputation: explaining the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee partisans would not admit that Gettysburg was an outright Confederate defeat—it was merely a check—yet there was no way they could transmute it into any semblance of a victory either. The greatest single battle of the war could not be reshaped into anything much better than a failure to achieve Lee’s goals.
By the turn of the century a saintly Lee was no longer seen merely as a Virginian or a Southerner but as a national hero.
It could be reshaped into someone else’s failure instead of Lee’s, however, and Jubal Early took charge of that effort. Early was a grouchy, disagreeable sort with an undistinguished war record. He had actually been relieved of his last command, in the Shenandoah Valley, by Lee, who normally juggled subordinates without resorting to dismissal. Furthermore, at Gettysburg it was Early’s failure to press an attack on July 1, the first day of the battle, that was widely regarded as a main reason the Federals retained their hold on Cemetery Ridge, from which they repelled the later Confederate attacks. By directing fire at Longstreet, Early was intent on diverting fire from himself.
Longstreet made an easy target. Not only had his second-day attack at Gettysburg failed (albeit narrowly), but in the years after the war he dared to criticize Lee’s conduct of the battle. To compound his felony, during Reconstruction Longstreet embraced Republicanism. A barrage of articles on Gettysburg in the Southern Historical Society Papers, heavily freighted with innuendo and unsubstantiated charges, locked Longstreet into the scapegoat’s role. Jubal Early put the matter with perfect clarity. “Either General Lee or General Longstreet was responsible for the remarkable delay that took place in making the attack,” Early wrote of the fighting on July 2. “I choose to believe that it was not General Lee.” In that kind of contest Longstreet had no chance.
By the turn of the century the heroic, saintly Lee was no longer being seen merely as a Virginian or a Southerner but instead as a national hero. In a series of influential addresses and essays, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., grandson and great-grandson of Presidents, firmly ensconced Lee in this new role. Adams spoke of “the debt of gratitude this reunited country of ours—Union and Confederate, North and South—owes to Robert E. Lee of Virginia.” Journalists linked Lee with Washington and Lincoln as the “first triumvirate of greatness.” When the Hall of Fame was established at New York University in 1901, Lee was one of the first welcomed into the pantheon. Gamaliel Bradford’s wide-selling 1912 biography was called simply Lee the American. A Southerner nicely summed up the enhanced stature of the foremost soldier of the Confederacy: “Whatever else we may have lost in that struggle, we gave the world Robert E. Lee.”