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Lee Reconsidered

June 2024
2min read

I was disappointed but not surprised to see a fine writer like Geoffrey Ward succumb to the current fad of Confederate bashing. In reviewing three books on the War Between the States (“The Life and Times,” April), he attempts to trash two truly heroic Americans.

Nolan’s book, Lee Considered , has been generally dismissed as provocative fluff by all but the most ardent Northern apologists. The points Mr. Ward raises in his review are questionable. Lee has not been exempted from tough criticism, especially on his failure at Gettysburg. A spirited debate raged for years before Jubal Early et al. buried the anti-Lee faction led by James Longstreet. Many historians have taken Lee to task for tactical and strategic errors. Lee’s feelings about slavery (and blacks in general), though not politically correct by today’s standards, were much more enlightened than most people’s in the South and the North of his time. Since he was in the army, he had no use for slaves of his own, and he quickly freed those whom he came into possession of through relatives. Gen. U. S. Grant held onto his wife’s slaves until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed.

Lee’s audacity is what made him a superior commander. He knew that the South had little chance of winning a war of attrition against the North. Had he not been hampered by his government’s insistence on defending territory (and thereby denying Lee adequate striking forces), it is likely that he would have destroyed at least one of the major Union armies he faced in 1862–63. Such a victory could have gained the desperately sought European intervention.

As far as Lee’s dogged determination to fight on when he felt the cause was lost, what else could he have done? Even in the Confederacy of 1864, generals were under civilian control. In the summer of 1864 the South was far from finished. Only the fall of Atlanta, which ensured Lincoln’s re-election, ended all practical hopes.

Lee was probably not the greatest soldier who spoke the English language, but no one will argue that he was one of the greatest men to speak it. Lee’s true greatness stems from his humanity and his spirituality, not his military prowess. Mr. Ward is making an insupportable claim when he says Nolan’s book will affect future historical research. Nolan’s shallow technique could be used to tar any historical figure.

To equate Stonewall Jackson with William T. Sherman in waging war on civilians is ridiculous. Although both men took a no-nonsense approach to combat, neither Jackson nor any other Confederate leader ever raised civilian destruction to the level of “Black Davy” Hunter, Phil Sheridan, and Sherman.

No reliable historian has ever advanced the notion that Jackson had a “visceral pleasure in killing.” Jackson was peculiar, but no more bloodthirsty than any other ruthlessly practical commander, and certainly less so than the pack of villains epitomized by Sheridan, Hunter, and Benjamin “Beast” Butler. All of Jackson’s operations except the Antietam campaign were confined to Southern territory. Stonewall had neither the inclination nor the opportunity to make war on civilians.

Mr. Ward, in lending credence to Nolan and Royster, continues the recent campaign to demean the South. There is certainly some Southern history of which I am not proud, but there is much good there. Is it really necessary to “disenthrall” ourselves of genuine heroes? We have precious little to inspire us now. Some revisionist historians make lasting contributions to historical scholarship. These two opportunists do not.

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