Monday, September 15, 2008

Book Review: "Lee Considered" Plus An Examination Of Robert E. Lee In The Lost Cause

When I found "Lee Considered" by Alan Nolan on the shelves of the Adams Avenue Bookstore with a pristine book jacket and plastic cover, I knew I had a winner for the collection. I was optimistic going in that I had a winner for my continued study of the Lost Cause mythology as well. The author of "Lee Considered", the late Alan Nolan, was an expert on this subject with a number of related books and essays to his credit. Now that I'm finished, I'm pleased to say this is an excellent discussion of Robert E. Lee the man, the general, and the tradition.
That said, I'm also a little bit irritated.
Given that this review will also be covering what is known as the Lee Tradition within the Lost Cause mythology, I'm going to fold this into our ongoing discussion of the Lost Cause, and again refer you to my previous posts on the subject to get yourself up to speed. Also this post has some meat to it, so please take your time and hang in there, there is some important stuff at the end.
So here is the Lee Tradition in a nutshell (as an exercise, try to recall what you learned about Lee in school, perceptions of Lee you have, and representations of him you've seen in movies, art, books, etc). He is broadly remembered as an ardent anti-secessionist who only joined the Confederacy because he couldn't draw his sword against his native Virginia and was forced into making a choice, as a man against slavery despite being a slaveowner himself, a great conciliator in the post-war period, and most importantly, one of the greatest, most talented military leaders in history, and certainly the premier general officer during the Civil War. Basically a man who's record and reputation stand untarnished and unchallenged, a great man and brilliant general with his name on schools, buildings, and famous cars on TV.
Sound at all familiar?
Mr. Nolan sets out to demystify the man and explore each of these features of his reputation individually. He starts by explaining the genesis of the title "Lee Considered" instead of reconsidered; that despite piles of books on the subject, no single text has done. Nolan reminds us, in the words of Samuel Eliot Morison to the American Historical Association ,"The fundamental question is what actually happened, and why?..After his main object of describing events "simply as they happened, the historian's principal task is to understand the motives and objects of individuals and groups...and to point out mistakes as well as achievements by persons and movements." His point in writing this book is that this sort of attention has (and I agree) not been given to General Robert E. Lee.
In a stepwise fashion, Mr. Nolan moves us through the different tenets of the Lee Tradition, starting with Lee and slavery. Nolan works through Lee's prewar views, his opinion on arming and enlisting slaves into the Confederate army, and his postwar statements concerning his earlier beliefs. This is a skillful way to break down a difficult question based on the understanding that Lee was born into being a slaveholder and was in a society were it was taken for grant. We read letters from Lee's hand where his level of racism is no different than that pervading most people, North and South. We are also shown how Lee jumped on the post-war bandwagon trying to dissociate slavery as the primary reason behind secession and war. The point of this chapter is not that Lee was a hardened slave driver who forever hated black people, but that the answer is much more nuanced than, as the mythology would have us believe. This chapter really demonstrates well the lack of historical attention paid this man and the complexity of the issues surrounding him.
Nolan then moves to the secession question where the Lee Tradition would have us believe that Lee was against secession to the bitter end, but was tragically and honorably driven into fighting for the South and for his home state of Virginia. Thus, we are told, Lee has no accountability for his actions, that he was subject to "tragic forces". In a handful of pages, Nolan completely debunks this and uses Lee's own writings to show that Lee's loyalty was ambiguous at best. He does this by taking us through the timeline of Lee being commissioned a colonel in the US Army to his resignation 20 days later and accepting the commission of the newly seceded Virginia's commission as major general two days after that. This rapidity superimposed on the timing of the secession crisis and Virginia's secession, shows that Lee knew exactly what he was doing and that he made a conscious decision about where his loyalty lay. The point again is that when rigorously studied, Lee is far more flawed than our popular understanding.
The central section of the book analyzes Lee's war record and massive, rarely challenged reputation as the preeminent Civil War general and one of the best generals in American history.
This is the cornerstone of the Lee legend and one that brings up sharp opinions and feelings. Nolan is smart here in that he doesn't get bogged down dissecting campaign after campaign, or getting into the mire of comparing him to one general or another. He steps back and expands the context in which Lee, and any general officer should be evaluated (and most great ones, Eisenhower, Patton, Schwartzkopf, etc have been subjected to). He examines whether Lee's strategy at the tactical level matched with and furthered the overall strategic goals of the Confederacy.
Lee made his reputation for audacity and aggressiveness, and won fame on fields like Chancellorsville and Second Manassas. Nolan shows how this same tendency not only systematically bled his army white, but how consistently offensive warfare also went in contravention of the South's need to prolong the war as long as possible until the North gave it up (which came very close to happening on several occassions.) The view of Lee as an unfailingly brilliant general does not hold up under this sort of examination, so it follows that another part of the Lost Cause mythology was that, as the name suggests, the Confederacy was doomed to defeat from the beginning of the war, thus Lee was in charge of an army with no hope of victory, and he pushed the Union as hard as possible. Nolan makes his point and shows how the mythology of Lee as a superior general also doesn't stand up to close or broad examination.
The book doesn't fail to address the idea of Lee as conciliator and a quiet gentleman detached from the turbulent post-war period that the mythology teaches us. It is clear that he was quite active not only defending his actions and the actions of the South, but took an active role in writing and developing what would become the Lost Cause mythology; his correspondence with Jubal Early are solid proof of this.
The final chapter of the book, titled "The Lee Tradition and Civil War History" is simply a masterful summary of the Lost Cause, the role of the Lee Tradition within it, and how our perception of the Civil War has been so long and so comprehensively skewed. The fault here is not Lee's, it is those who would pervert his actions to further a goal, and those who would allow it to happen. Again, the question of the history of Civil War history is absolutely fascinating and should be the subject of academic treatment, but I digress...
In the final pages, Nolan writes that "the facts contradicting the Lee tradition...are not newly discovered. They are not obscure." Nolan's point is that for the early writers of Civil War history these facts "are exorcised, disregarded, or rationalized." Nolan then writes:
"The distortions of fact that mark the Lee tradition are not unique in Civil War history; on the contrary, they are suggestive of a larger and more widespread problem. Fiction - in the form of misinterpretation or the form of outright misrepresentation - is endemic to the study of the history of the Civil War...These fictions have ousted teh facts and gained wide currency, so that what is treated as the history of the Civil War is instead a legend, a folk epic told over and over again."
This is a premier study done by a clear expert on the man as well as historical method. It is well-written and challenging, with a great flow and rhythm to it. That said, Nolan has a bad habit of when quoting a primary source, he adds italics to the text and writes afterwards "emphasis added". Also, he continuously brings up the work of Douglas Southall Freeman, to the point where that name leads off more than one chapter.
My irritation I mentioned above comes from the fact that I felt a bit manipulated by all this: there is no need for added italics to prove a point. If you, to borrow a bit of poker parlance, have the nuts, then why jazz it up? There's no room for that in rigorous historiography and few are the authors that do it. The continuous invoking of Freeman, even leading off a few chapters with his name, lent a certain clumsiness to the discussion. Yes, Freeman's books are a substantial part of this mythology, but aren't the sole part. The constant bashing away at one entity was a bit heavy-handed and awkward, like there was some personal grudge being exorcised. The examination was of the Lee Tradition as a whole, not one author's role in building it.
These issues are not major detractors from the overall quality of the book, nor change the facts regarding the Lee Tradition and Lost Cause. The damage done by this mythology is slowly being undone and this text pushes that movement and learning further by leaps and bounds. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

jessica said...

book report
and that's a fantastic freudian type-o in paragraph 5.
Grant, I'm biased.