The evolving Lee legacy

(Smithsonian National Postal Museum)

James C. Cobb has a thoughtful piece on the evolving legacy of Robert E. Lee.  The how and why of how Lee came to represent the ideals of the Lost Cause is a fascinating story we are still trying to untangle.  Say what you will about the Southern Historical Society and its disciples, but they managed to control the narrative for nearly a century.

2 thoughts on “The evolving Lee legacy

  1. Very interesting article, thank you for highlighting it.

    The idea of separating “the man and the cause” is one I struggle with frequently. Although my sympathies (and my ancestors) are all solidly on the Union side, I find many of the Confederate generals to be fascinating individuals I enjoy learning about. I just finished reading “Cavalryman of the Lost Cause” about J.E.B. Stuart, for instance. I admit, I like Stuart. He was young, handsome, dashing, and brave. I’d love to visit Virginia and see the sites associated with him. But I absolutely deplore what he supported and fought for. I do think it’s possible to separate the person from the cause – or, more accurately perhaps, “like” some aspects of the person while despising other aspects. But the question then becomes, is it right to make this separation? This is what I struggle with and it often makes me feel uncomfortable, even slightly guilty.

    I suppose in defense of such a separation I think about Grant’s comments regarding Lee and the Appomattox surrender. It’s obvious that he admired Lee as a soldier even though he believed Lee’s cause was one of the worst ever fought for. I disagree with Cobb in one respect about it being harder for us to separate the “man and the cause” today than it was at the time. It must have been extremely hard for men and women in the Civil War era to sort out their feelings about friends – and relatives – on the other side of the conflict.

    1. Sara, yes I am conflicted as well. I deplore the cause for which Lee fought. At the same time I believe we must have, if not sympathy, at least empathy for historical figures. There were Virginians who eventually sided with the Union, but looking at it from Lee’s perspective in April 1861 it would have been difficult to do so. I have a good friend from a country that has experienced internal politcal turmoil and she often says that when you believe your home and family are at risk everything else suddenly becomes irrelevant. It is easy to dismiss Confederate soldliers today, but we owe it to them to see things from their vantage point at that point in time.

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