Donald Trump is once again cooing his love for General Robert E. Lee. Two years ago, while still president, Trump touted the commander of the Confederate Army, the slave owner, as a great general. This week, in a statement condemning the dismantling of a gigantic statue of Lee in Richmond, Va., Trump went over the top, hailing him as the greatest strategist of all American generals, a commander who, if he was alive today, would have won the war in Afghanistan. He also presented Lee as a unifying force in the years following the Civil War. Finally, he denounced the removal of the statue as a desecration committed by a radical left determined to extinguish our history and our heritage.
All of these claims are utterly false and politically dangerous, in the words of a disgraced former president determined to regain his power and prestige by intensifying the division he helped create, or at least sharpen, in the first place.
Let’s examine his statement point by point.
1. I just watched a huge crane bring down the magnificent and very famous statue long recognized as a beautiful bronze sculpture.
It was a 21 foot tall bronze statue atop a 40 foot tall granite plinth, a six story re-creation of Lee riding his horse in the open Confederate regaliaerated on Main Street in Richmond, along with six other statues of Confederate Generals, in 1890, after the Crash of the Reconstruction. In other words, the statue was explicitly designed to make white residents applaud (over 100,000 people attended the inauguration) and black residents tremble. This marked as historians David Blight and Gaines Foster wrote in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of Virginia, supporting the motion to bring down the reaffirmation of white racial supremacy in the South.
So yes, it was, as Trump wrote, a very famous statue, but to call it beautiful is weird and shameful.
2. Robert E. Lee is considered by many generals to be the greatest strategist of all.
Not enough. Lee was certainly a talented tactician, especially when he first took command of the Confederate Army in 1862 and won a series of battles that pushed General George McClellans Union Army who was on the verge of conquering Richmondback through the Potomac. He did so through aggressive and swift tactics that McClellan was unable to resist. However, as he moved his army further north and after President Abraham Lincoln replaced McClellan with General Ulysses S. Grant, Lee suffered catastrophic losses. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee ordered his troops to mount a frontal assault, in open terrain, only to see them shot down by much better-led Union troops, armed with rifles that fired bullets with greater range and greater precision. Trump wrote that with the exception of Gettysburg, Lee would have won the war, which is almost comical, since it was Lees’ tactics that lost Gettysburg, and his few victories in 1862, against McClellan, were the only battles he won. Against stereotypes, Trump is crazy about one of the biggest losers in military history.
3. If only we had had Robert E. Lee to command our troops in Afghanistan, this disaster would have ended in complete and utter victory many years ago.
This can be seen as the most absurd claim in Trump’s statement. Lees’ specialty, the rapid frontal assault would have been a recipe for certain disaster against the insurgent militiamen in mountainous terrain.
4. Robert E. Lee chose [to fight for the Confederate Army] because of his great love for Virginie. He should be remembered as perhaps the greatest unifying force after the end of the war, ardent in his determination to bring North and South together through many means of reconciliation.
This is where we come to the main issue with Lee and the most pernicious danger in Trumps touting Lee: Regardless of his talents and limitations as a strategist, Lee was deeply immoral, savagely cruel to his slaves (even according to the standards of the time), and a Confederate supporter to the end.
To say that Lee fought because he loved his home state of Virginia is to deny, tacitly, that he fought to preserve slavery. For many decades, this was the essence of the lost cause myth, the idea that the South seceded to protect the rights of states and a noble heritage. Generally speaking, it is almost universally discredited milk of lime; in Lees’ case, it is particularly deceptive. Ty Seidule, a military historian at Hamilton College and former chairman of the West Point military history department, told me on Thursday in a telephone interview that at the start of the Civil War there were eight army generals of the Union of Virginia. Seven of them remained with the Union; Lee was the only one to have abandoned to the secessionists. And just before the war, Lee ran a plantation with 200 slave laborers and divided all but one of their families, compounding his crimes.
Seidule, who is also the author of Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerners Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, further noted that during the Battle of Gettysburg Lee ordered his soldiers to kidnap black men. free and bring them back to the South, where they were enslaved. He also ordered his troops to kill the Black Union soldiers they had captured rather than keep them alive as prisoners. This was not only savage, but self-destructive, as it made more difficult trade negotiations for the return of the Southern troops held captive by the Union.
The idea that Lee advocated unity after the war is very misleading. David Blight, author of the biography of Pulitzer Prize-winning Frederick Douglass, wrote in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory that in the election of 1868 Lee organized a rally of about 30 former Confederate officers. It was promoted as an event to bring the country together. However, in a public statement, Lee said that without some radical policies and the oppressive occupation of the North (references to black suffrage and the early years of Reconstruction), the irritants that divided the nation would have long passed. In other words, as Blight said in a phone conversation Thursday, Lee was for reconciliation, but only on Souths terms. His point of view was that if you didn’t give these black people any rights, we would get along. Blight added that Lee was a fierce Confederate nationalist, there is no doubt about it, and he remained a supporter of the South until his death.
5. Our culture is being destroyed and our history and our heritage, good and bad, are being extinguished by the radical left, and we cannot let that happen!
It has become a familiar trope among those who complain, Trump most vocally, about the overthrow of Confederate statues. The movement to suppress them was sparked by the rise of Black Lives Matter following the police murder of George Floyd, but the most prominent figures who answered the call were not left at all.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who lobbied for the removal of the Lees statue in Richmond, graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, America’s most conservative military academy, served as an army medic, and then went on to become pediatric neurologist. He voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 elections (although he later said he was apolitical and ill-informed at the time). Northams’ bill to remove the statue has been challenged in two lawsuits, but the Richmond Circuit Court and the Virginia Supreme Court have had little support for his action. Many military officers, including retired General David Petraeus, have endorsed Lee’s delionization, among other measures, to break with the military’s racist past.
It’s unclear why Trump is so passionate about Lee. Part of it might just be a ploy to attract voters of a certain inclination. But it seems more personal than that. One clue could be his attendance, aged 13 to 18, at the New York Military Academy, where his father sent him for disciplinary reasons. These years, 1959-64, coincided with a peak of Lee’s worship within the US military and its university affiliates.
The story of the Army’s reverence for Lee forms a pattern that embarrasses and disturbs many officers today. As an institution, the military has embraced the mythology of the lost cause that is personified in Lee’s mythology for nearly a century. The embrace was deliberate and very political. Whenever there has been a movement in the military towards racial integration, there has also been a counter-movement towards Confederate commemoration, Seidule told me.
It all started in the 1930s when black cadets first registered at West Point. In the early 1950s, when President Harry Truman officially entered the military, the Secretary of the Army ordered that a huge painting of Lee, an image that included one of his slaves in the background, be hung in one of West Points’ main halls. In the 1970s, the military attempted to install a Confederate monument on the grounds of West Points, but an effort was unsuccessful. And over a dozen things in West Point have been named (and still bear the name) after the traitor general. Theres Lee Gate, Lee Barracks, Lee Road; at one point there was a Robert E. Lee award for the best student in the math department. It wasn’t until 1997 that the military history departments manual was revised to mention, beyond a short paragraph, the cause of the civil war or anything about the treatment of black soldiers.
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Now, the history department isn’t worshiping Lee at all, Seidule said. Then again, it wasn’t until 2019, largely at the instigation of Petraeus, that West Point unveiled its very first statue to Grant, the Civil War winner, the Union’s military savior.
Seidule does not know if the youngest Donald Trump imbibed this mythology during his years at the junior academy. It’s a real possibility, he said. Most Americans his age would have had a big portion of Lee the Great American. But West Point and its prep school branch were not alone in this hagiography. President Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander Europe during World War II, displayed a portrait of Lee in the Oval Office. Most history books, in high schools and colleges across the country, have incorporated the legend of Lee and the lost cause. Until the 1970s, Seidule recalls, no one wrote about black American Civil War soldiers anywhere.
Lee’s cult of trumps can be rooted in the era of his youth. Many Americans are casting aside the remnants of our original sin, but Trump, like many of his supporters, has not, and he shows no desire to do so. He preferred to pile up the rubbish, light a match and watch it burn the countryside.
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