Tom Berenger as the increasingly disenchanted and doubtful Confederate general James Longstreet and Martin Sheen as a noble but slightly and tragically vain Robert E. Lee in Gettysburg.
Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Scott is doing a virtual spit-take at the ad copy for a new biography of Robert E. Lee, a man Scott calls, in keeping with LGM’s stylebook rule of calling the American Civil War the War of Treason in Defense of Slavery (also in keeping with history), “traitor in defense of slavery”:
In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, Michael Korda, the New York Times bestselling biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and T. E. Lawrence, has written the first major biography of Lee in nearly twenty years, bringing to life America’s greatest and most iconic hero.
Scott’s bold-facing. Now his response:
Really? The very greatest American hero? We can’t think of a single of the many Americans who have not rebelled against the American government in order to protect the right of wealthy whites to own black slaves who might be worthy of this honor?
And he offers a few suggestions:
Martin Luther King? Abraham Lincoln? Willie Mays? The tailor who successfully hemmed the sleeves of my sports jacket last week?
Here you can feel him pause for a silent but definite Jesus H. Christ on Toast! before he continues:
I figure we should get around to honoring confederate generals sometime well after we lionize the nation’s telemarketers. Although I might be willing to rank Lee above the people who created those DirectTV marionette ads.
The object is to sell books, of course, as Scott knows, and he suggests the target audience for that blurb. (Commenter Jim is more direct if less colorful: “this is a sales pitch aimed at the re-enactors and lost cause-rs”.) Knowing that is only mollifying to the most jaded cynic.
Coming up on a hundred and fifty years since Lee was allowed to ride off from Appomattox Courthouse instead of being clapped in irons and hauled off to Washington to be tried for treason, we’re still selling an alternative history of the Civil War to Southerners and Confederate sympathizers in which slavery played no role and the South’s was somehow a noble cause or at least the soldiers who fought for it were noble men.
Another reader, Michael Confoy, links to a review by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner in which Foner gets quick to the point that Clouds of Glory isn’t an alternative history or a hagiography or an apology for Lee or the South.
As its subtitle suggests, one of Michael Korda’s aims in “Clouds of Glory” is “disentangling Lee from his myth.” In this he mostly succeeds. Although Korda greatly admires Lee, he challenges the image of a man who could do no wrong. He also challenges the Lost Cause portrait of the Old South as a bucolic paradise of small farmers and courtly aristocrats, a vision in which, he notes, “the reality of slavery played no part.”
This is good, but Foner goes on to make the case that Korda is still more than a tad too respectful of his subject and even somewhat neglectful of the actual record, and that’s too bad. Lee’s image in the popular imagination needs a thorough debunking.
Since the War ended, Lee has been used to help sell Southerners a flattering view of a war the South started as a defensive war taken on reluctantly to protect hearth, home, family, and, incidentally, “our peculiar way of lahf,” from Northern aggressors. Why, look at Bobby Lee, gentleman soldier, reluctant warrior (as reluctant a warrior as a career military man can be, at any rate), good and decent man, practically the reincarnation of George Washington, neither at heart or in principle a secessionist or a die-hard proponent of the South’s peculiar institution, forced by fate and the blunders of politicians to choose between his nation and his country, Virginia.
We’re not supposed to consider that Lee might have done Virginia more good by sticking with the Union.
This only works, of course, because Lee so looked the part. So handsome. So dignified. So fatherly. That stoically impassive expression not quite hiding the sadness in his eyes. How could a cause that had such an honorable man as its military commander be anything but honorable?
Not only could and did the focus on the image of Lee as a tragic hero take the focus off what he was actually fighting for, it can take the focus off the fact that the South lost, even be used to allow the South to award itself a moral victory.
Yes, we were outmanned and outgunned in the field but still our boys, Bobby Lee’s boys, were the better men.
As William Faulkner wrote in Intruder in the Dust about Lee’s biggest blunder, known gallantly as Pickett’s Charge:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago....
“This is my fault. This is all my fault,” Lee said to the remains of Pickett’s division staggering back from Cemetery Ridge.
Yes, it was, General, but the mistake began when you decided to cast your lot with the slavers. Your fellow slavers.
Ironically, Grant’s image has been used to help burnish Lee’s, the contrast between the two portrayed as complementary, two sides of the same wholly American coin. On the one side, the stately, formal, courteous aristocrat of the Old South, defender of a passing glory, on the other, the bumptious, brusque, impatient, practical citizen solider, harbinger of a new Western-looking America in which Billy Yank and Johnny Reb would be united again at last. And there’s that whole brother against brother thing again, sentimentalizing the war and taking the focus off its cause, the South’s real cause.
Lee and Grant weren’t complements. They were opposites. Comparisons should highlight that, not obscure it.
This, by the way, is one of the (many) things I like about the movie Gettysburg, how it subtly takes on the mythic image of Lee.
Martin Sheen’s Lee looks the part, acts the part, has qualities that make him right for the part, but still has a touch of vanity and a suggestion of emotional fragility that makes him suspect in the part. Add Tom Berenger’s Longstreet’s growing doubts and horror and it’s really something of a subversive portrait. Pickett’s Charge becomes emblematic of the Southern Cause—thousands of men sacrificed for the vanity and ambitions of elderly aristocrats.
On the other hand, one of the most stirring moments in Lincoln for me was Jared Harris’ entrance as Grant. The second he appeared I wanted to jump up and point at the screen, yelling, “That’s HIM!”
And the scene between him and Daniel Day Lewis on the porch broke my heart for both men.
Make sure you read all of Scott’s post and stick around for the comments.
Korda has a knack for describing the complex unfolding of Civil War battles in lucid prose. Most of the book consists of gripping, if perhaps excessively lengthy, accounts of Lee’s military campaigns…
If you’re looking for a book by a professional historian featuring lengthy (but I don’t think excessively so), lucidly written, and gripping battle sequences that gives Lee his due as a military leader but that’s it? I recommend Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam. Besides not glorifying Lee, it has the additional virtue of showing up Union General George McClellan as the magnificent asshole he was.
And Foner’s own The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery is a must read, must own.