May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Last May American Heritage published a collection of assessments of who or what is under-and overvalued in fields that ranged from cars to Presidents to movie stars. We drew on the goodwill of a great many people to do this, and thev came through nobly; the results exceeded our expectations. So did the responses they generated.
Roger J. Spiller chose as most overrated general Robert E. Lee, describing him as “a truly tragic figure, a man who by everyone’s agreement epitomized high character and soldierly honor but who also was a traitor to his country, a man of formidable military skill whose strategic and operational sense nevertheless was deeply flawed and who led his side from calamity to calamity.”
American Heritage has published some fairly controversial material over the years, but nothing has ever come close to igniting the fire that this did. Angry letters started sleeting in immediately; then, just days after the issue mailed, during a White House news briefing on May 5, the beleaguered presidential press secretary Michael McCurry got a momentary break from the topic of the year when a reporter asked him this: “ American Heritage has just published a contention by a professor at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College that Robert E. Lee was a ‘traitor to his country.’ Does the President, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, believe this?” (Mr. McCurry said he had “never discussed that issue with the President”; pressed further, he promised to “see if he has anything he’d like to say on the subject.”)
The President doubtless moved on to other concerns; not I. Mail kept coming in, the stream dwindling sometimes, then refreshing itself, almost like those famous long-ago epistolary debates in the London Times , with their successive spasms of renewal as the topic reached some ever more remote outpost of Empire.
Oddly, it was not the aspersion on Lee’s generalship that most rankled; readers were far angrier to have him called a traitor (although one might not think the term a wholly whimsical description of a man who led a four-year armed insurrection against the government he had vowed to defend). J. E. Reardon of Rockville, Virginia, wrote: “I honor Lee, Jackson, my great-grandfather—who surrendered at Appomattox—as well as two great-uncles lost in the war. As a U.S. Marine Corps veteran during the Korean War, who displays the American flag daily, does that also make me a traitor?” And of course plenty defended Lee’s military prowess, among them T. R. Connally of Mount Crested Butte, Colorado, who said that Spiller’s judgment “brings to mind the definition of a great football coach: ‘He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.’” The Floridian Homer Hirt told of the “young Billy Yank who, while sitting at a campfire with a grizzled veteran of the Army of the Potomac, stated, ‘I sure have a lot of faith in General Grant,’ and was startled when the sergeant spat into the fire, and retorted, ‘Yeah, but I got a hell of a lot more faith in Bobby Lee.’”
In the midst of this another son of Dixie, Henry D. Fincher from Cookeville, Tennessee, began his letter “with the indignation of one whose mother has been insulted . . .” and then surprised me by continuing, “I take issue with Ms. Moira Hodgson’s critique of barbecue.” He went on to mount an eloquent defense of the “sublime culinary creation, which, in the hands of a talented pit cook, is not simply good eatin’; it is a masterful blend of texture and taste.” (Mr. Fincher’s choice for overrated regional food: that “leathery contribution from the Northeast, the bagel.”)
This letter proved an agreeable portent. After the initial spate of Lee indignation, letters arrived applauding or challenging the choices in nearly every other category. Many complained about Bruce McCall’s disdain for the engineering qualities of the Volkswagen Beetle; Kevin Maloy wrote from Alaska to urge greater recognition of the economist Ludwig von Mises; Andrew Keshner of Suffern, New York, didn’t like Pauline Maier’s calling John Adams a “champion of independence” when he had been responsible for the Alien and Sedition Acts; Deirdre Brown of Croton Falls, New York (with whom I had the honor of attending high school), took issue with Roy Blount, Jr.’s indifference to Arbor Day: “Trees are living history. They stand as natural witnesses to human events, place markers that bridge our generations in their own lifetimes. Trees support us, provide beauty, and make the impersonal somehow intimate”; and Barbara Skorney of Portland, Oregon, wanted nothing to do with Max Rudin’s rehabilitating the much-despised yuppie; she thought the most underrated generation was the one that weathered the Depression and went on to fight the Second World War.
The variety and passion of all these responses are eloquent of history’s power to engage us, but this last one suggests an equally arresting aspect of the past—its fluidity. No one today, in the wake of a number of recent events that include the tremendous success of Tom Brokaw’s book, would be likely to call that generation underrated. Last year’s past is never quite the same as this year’s past.
The first overrated/underrated feature underscored this in so entertaining, kinetic, and, I think, valuable a way that we have made it an annual event. So here, once again, are succinct and eloquently expressed historical opinions that offer something to annoy and stimulate just about anyone. The editors want to thank all the writers for their responses and, of course, you for yours. And any of our R. E. Lee partisans who have had the pith to bear with us after last year’s affront will, I hope, find comfort in what Stephen Sears has to say about William Tecumseh Sherman.