John A. Tures: July 4 brings annual bash of Lee's image

July 11, 2014 

It wouldn't be July 4th in America without an Independence Day parade, a hot dog eating contest, a fireworks show, and armchair generals refighting the Battle of Gettysburg.

The latest salvo came as a two-pronged attack from Michael Korda, who wrote "Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee" and from Christopher Dickey, who wrote "How I Learned to Hate Robert E. Lee" for The Daily Beast.

While Korda is with the New York Times, Dickey is a Southerner, raised in Atlanta and regarded as a minor deity in the South. Both come to the conclusion that Lee was less than a god.

But of course, so did Lee. The authors are forced to admit that Lee took the blame personally for losing Gettysburg. He opposed secession. They correctly reveal that not only did Lee speak out against slavery publicly, but set up plans to free his own slaves, educated them (against the law) and called for the Confederacy to free the slaves and arm them to defend the South (a policy Korda claims is "ambivalent" toward slavery).

And that's one of the two attacks that the authors launch on Lee. One points out that Lee bled the South to death, with horrible losses at Gettysburg (casualties on both sides almost exceeded all Vietnam War deaths in that one battle) and in battles with Grant at places like Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia.

The other blames Lee … for being so effective. His skill in battle "gave cover to all those incendiary Southern politicians who did not, in fact, feel ambivalent about slavery. These 'fire-eaters,' as they were called, not only wanted to perpetuate their peculiar institution, they wanted to reopen the slave trade with Africa, which was recognized even at the time as a terrible holocaust banned for half a century," Dickey writes.

So Lee is the problem because his fighting prowess supposedly prolonged the Civil War and protected the South for longer than it should have existed. And supposedly his failures brought about a quicker end to the South.

That's a bit of a contradiction.

It's also interesting that in the overwhelming number of cases, Lee was on the defensive, his Army of Northern Virginia under attack. You could blame him for Antietam and Gettysburg, perhaps, but other battles were on his soil, with the Army of the Potomac on the offensive in the battle. Didn't Lincoln, Grant, Hooker, Burnside and McClellan have a role in those attacks?

The most important thing we must consider is what to do now. Lee and those fire eaters are dead. Southerners are looking for heroes. Given the truth of Lee, his faith, honor, sense of duty, and militant opposition to racism , slavery and secession, wouldn't he be a better role model for students to study today than the fire eaters that some still hope to emulate, even defending the institution of slavery today?

Otherwise, we're no different from those folks who play with toy soldiers in blue and gray, or write novels about "what if" the Civil War had turned out different.

It's time to think about what we should do about the Civil War legacy today, and what we should teach our kids, rather than replay it endlessly.

John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; jtures@lagrange.edu.

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