Was Robert E. Lee a good guy?
No. I’m just going to get that out of the way right now. He was emphatically not a good dude for a variety of reasons, the foremost being that, you know, he ACTIVELY PARTICIPATED IN THE ENSLAVEMENT OF BLACK AMERICANS. By all rights, Robert E. Lee should be reviled as a traitor and perpetrator of genocide, not given statues and regional holidays.
And yet, he has been accorded the status of an American legend. His apologists excuse him by claiming that actually he did grant freedom to the people enslaved on his plantation before the 13th Amendment was passed, and he really only fought for the Confederacy out of a sense of loyalty and pride in his homeland, and he was a military genius so his actions were excusable, and…
I’ve talked quite a bit about our poor remembrance of our nation’s history, how we raise white men like Thomas Jefferson and his ilk to the status of demigods while glossing over the evil they have perpetrated. I think this trend is most evident when it comes to Confederate generals. There is a pervasive idea that they were brilliant underdogs, who against all odds put up a strong fight against the much more well-equipped and industrialised Union.
As a teenager I read books on Civil War battle strategies, and practically all of them reinforced this. I marvelled over Lee’s supposed genius, and fell for the story that he was anti-slavery but just very loyal to his home state of Virginia. Nothing I was taught in history class really contradicted this view, because our curriculum is designed to loft white men high, declaiming about their genius while providing a myriad of excuses for any perceived flaws.
So here is the truth about Robert E. Lee. I am hardly the first person to write about it – but as a student of history, as someone who spent a lot of time enthusiastically reading biographies of generals from both sides, as a brown person navigating the very whitewashed halls of American historical thought – I want to add my voice to the melee.
Lee was born into an immensely privileged family, part of the Virginian aristocracy. His wife was a descendant of Martha Washington, and his own grandfather was a renowned general in the American Revolution. His ancestral plantation was named Arlington, the very land on which Arlington National Cemetery is now located. The Lees’ generational wealth was built off the blood and sweat of Black people who had been kidnapped and tortured into servitude, and no amount of waffling about Lee’s supposed “kindness” to the enslaved people on his plantation can erase that fact. Whatever military skills he possessed, the victories he scored in battle, can never excuse the evil he actively participated in and defended.
But Lee granted them all freedom, right? Lee freed every enslaved person on Arlington long before the 13th Amendment became law, right? So that must mean he was anti-slavery!
Well, on Opposite Day, maybe. If being anti-slavery means re-kidnapping refugees from Arlington who had escaped North, and having them beaten for the audacity of wanting the same freedom Lee himself had never gone without, then sure. That’s what Lee did to an enslaved man named Wesley Norris, whose firsthand account of Lee’s brutality is linked above. Some historians have argued that Norris’s statements cannot be trusted – historians like Douglas Freeman, who (in 1934, 69 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment) called anti-slavery activists “irresponsible” and labelled them “agitators”. Freeman, by the way, wrote a comprehensive biography on Robert E. Lee, popularising the myth that Lee was a “kind slaveowner”, a man who cordially robbed hundreds of people of their lives.
This is the extent to which white supremacy has permeated historical studies: Shelby Foote, a famed Civil War historian, called Nathan Bedford Forrest one of the true geniuses to emerge from the war. A little background about Forrest: he was a slave trader before he joined the Confederate Army, and afterward he became the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan. During his time as a general he ordered a ruthless massacre of Black Union soldiers, for the crime of being Black and free.
This is the kind of school of thought which led to the countless books I pored over, books which labelled Lee and Jackson and the rest of the Confederacy’s generals as heroes. This is the kind of so-called scholar who has created the cult of Lee, the homegrown American religion based around a sparkling white history which never really happened.