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Reviews |  Robert E. Lee and the importance of biography


Monsters of Hitler’s Order are relatively rare. But monsters are not the only problem with biographers. There are also the Inconsistent, the Crazy, the Authors of Major Mistakes, the Myopias, the Disastrous Well-intentioned. How to write the biography of a myopic like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and explain how he could have misjudged Hitler in such a catastrophic way? How do you engage with an Out-of-Stepper like Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill (on the Dardanelles, Edward VIII and colonialism)? How do you deal with an incoherent like Ulysses Grant, fighting for the Union as a general in the Civil War but issuing an anti-Semitic order in 1862, or Woodrow Wilson, making the world safe for democracy but endorsing Jim Crow?

My review of Robert E. Lee asked many of these same questions. He raised his hand against the United States he had sworn to defend, and there is no word for it other than treason (Lee was charged with treason but was never brought to justice) . He fought with maddening skill during the Civil War to defend a confederacy openly devoted to the perpetuation of slavery. According to some accounts, he even whipped a slave who was trying to escape. And he became the pinnacle of “Lost Cause” mythology, which saw him as the peerless Southern rider and the ultimate rationale for white supremacy.

But then other realities interfere. If by “rider” Lee was meant to be a plantation aristocrat, Lee was certainly not a rider. His branch of the famous Virginia Lees was marginal, and Lee himself was the product of an unfavorable childhood. (His intrepid father, Revolutionary Famous “Light Horse Harry” Lee, abandoned him when he was only 6 years old.) This left him possessed with a thirst for security, independence and perfection.

Lee is a study of contradictions. He candidly admitted that slavery was “a moral and political evil in any country” – but mercilessly added that it was really more of a problem for whites and made “black people … infinitely better here than ‘in Africa, morally, socially and physically. “He urged for the emancipation of Confederation leaders, including the enlistment of emancipated slaves into Confederation armies – but the enlistment gamble did not take place only in the last months of the war, like a last desperate breath, when the situation of Confederation was already desperate. In the postwar years he discouraged the maintenance of “lost cause” myths and assumed the presidency of a small college which he turned into a pilot for progressive education – and yet no ‘showed no sympathy for the former slaves around him and made no effort to integrate into the college student body. Like the Germans of the 1930s and 1940s described by WG Sebald, Lee “always looked and looked away at the same time.”

Even the statues of Lee do not express a simple message. Confederate statuary has always carried within it a earthy refusal to confront the new racial and political world created by the civil war and the abolition of slavery. Ana Edwards, a community activist, hailed the removal of the statue as “indicative of the fact that we are somehow removing the layers of injustice that blacks and people of color have suffered when they have been ruled by supremacist policies. white for so long ”.