Ken Burns, The Civil War, Robert E. Lee and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

May 2018
583
Michigan
#1
Taking a break from Roman/Napoleonic history, I re-watched Ken Burns The Civil War. I must say, the series has aged fairly well: Burns, a liberal, makes no apologies for slavery or racism (and praises the downfall of both) but allows the South a certain degree of dignity, rightly pointing out their military successes. He provides multiple perspectives, from Barbara Fields to the great storyteller, Shelby Foote.

Of course, as soon as I googled the series, the less desirable elements of society were highly critical of the fact that The Civil War wasn't condemning Robert E. Lee as a slave-owning racist the whole time (or calling him a traitor). Undoubtedly, Lee owned slaves, and held racist beliefs, those things cannot be denied. On the charge of treason, I am less convinced: he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army before being appointed head of the Virginia Militia. As for secession itself, in that sense (absent slavery), I am also not convinced that states do not have the right to secede, which includes those in California who support secession after Trump was elected President.

However, what is also undeniable is that Lee was a conscientious, honorable individual (even if his honor system differed greatly from my own) who was a very good general. Many contemporary Union officers held respect for Lee, at the very least for his abilities. It is certain that Lee believed slavery to be an institution of evil, yet he also held very racist views (even for the time).

My own beliefs on Lee, and the Confederacy, would largely parallel those of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg, abolitionist and (relative to the time) anti-racist. Unlike Shelby Foote, I would have fought for the Union (no idle boast, as I joined up for Iraq and Afghanistan), and most certainly would have shot Lee given the chance. However, just as Soult did for Moore after Corunna (or what Hannibal did for Marcellus after he perished), I would have given him a funeral with full military honors and even erected a monument where he died (if I had theoretically shot him). Likewise, Chamberlain saluted the surrendering Confederates at Appomattox Courthouse.

After googling The Civil War, I think there is a very anti-intellectual element of society that simply cannot comprehend that a man might shoot his enemy with all the passion of a staunch abolitionist, but still respect that enemy for the virtues they genuinely possess. In a similar vein, I disagree with nearly every political position of activist Saul Alinsky, but respect his genius regarding activism, and advise any activist to study his tactics.

I think it is sad that America lacks the intellectual maturity to both condemn the Confederacy for slavery and racism, but still respect the virtues of men like Lee, Jackson and Longstreet. Shelby Foote almost got it right (I disagree with his statement that he would have fought for the South, but that's his personal decision): while he does support many elements of the Lost Cause, he is just so reasonable about it, praising Abraham Lincoln, Grant and many Union officers and officials almost as much as he praises Confederate ones. In that regard, I try to view the ACW from the perspective of a "Northern Shelby Foote", giving credit where credit is due but firmly from within the Union camp.

Perhaps the real tragedy of the ACW was that because of the existence of the evil institution of slavery, Shelby Foote and myself (had we been of that era) would have tried to kill each other.

Image: Union and Confederate veterans shake hands at the 1938 Gettysburg re-Union.
 

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Feb 2019
208
Pennsylvania, US
#2
After googling The Civil War, I think there is a very anti-intellectual element of society that simply cannot comprehend that a man might shoot his enemy with all the passion of a staunch abolitionist, but still respect that enemy for the virtues they genuinely possess.
A lot of interesting thoughts here... I often wonder what the U.S. would be like if it weren't “United”... not simply for how that division would affect things culturally or politically, but if there would be any ripple effects in limiting the power of the federal government today.

I particularly like this observation you've made about society exhibiting what in known in psychology as “splitting” - it makes me wonder if this inability to accept or appreciate any good where there has been any element of “wrong” has more to do with an inability to accept, check or conquer one's own “darkness” and instead, attacking any semblance of it in others.

Sometimes I think that J L Chamberlain “played for the camera” a bit - he seemed to be aware of the gravity of his position in and era that would be documented and remembered... and I think he did what he could to model the ideals that he often couldn't / didn't extend to friends and family. I love him anyway, though.
 
Likes: frogsofwar
May 2018
583
Michigan
#3
A lot of interesting thoughts here... I often wonder what the U.S. would be like if it weren't “United”... not simply for how that division would affect things culturally or politically, but if there would be any ripple effects in limiting the power of the federal government today.

I particularly like this observation you've made about society exhibiting what in known in psychology as “splitting” - it makes me wonder if this inability to accept or appreciate any good where there has been any element of “wrong” has more to do with an inability to accept, check or conquer one's own “darkness” and instead, attacking any semblance of it in others.

Sometimes I think that J L Chamberlain “played for the camera” a bit - he seemed to be aware of the gravity of his position in and era that would be documented and remembered... and I think he did what he could to model the ideals that he often couldn't / didn't extend to friends and family. I love him anyway, though.
Federal power in 2019 is somewhat out of control, but slavery and school desegregation are two areas the federal government is wholly justified in flexing their muscle. NSA metadata and monitoring, however...

That is an interesting perspective on Chamberlain. From what I can tell, he was a true believer in the Union cause. Some of his "showmanship" (he was a professor of rhetoric, after all) probably had more to do with trying to mend the deep wound caused by the ACW and was, at most, minimally in the name of self-promotion. But you don't become Governor of Maine without knowing how to please the crowd.
 
Feb 2018
193
US
#4
I haven't watched the documentary, but what you say here seems a very fair and nuanced picture. I agree that there is a sizable element of the population that does seem unable to to grasp anything beyond a black and white picture. It is a fascinating psychological question.

Shelby Foote got me into history as a kid. Hats off to him!
 
Likes: frogsofwar
May 2018
583
Michigan
#5
I haven't watched the documentary, but what you say here seems a very fair and nuanced picture. I agree that there is a sizable element of the population that does seem unable to to grasp anything beyond a black and white picture. It is a fascinating psychological question.

Shelby Foote got me into history as a kid. Hats off to him!
You are the second poster to mention the psychology of being able to see things outside of black and white terms. I suppose it is a human flaw, and I have certainly been guilty of it in the past.

It is particularly bad because sometimes we hold people up to be "marble men" as Shelby Foote calls it. Much work on Lee from the South is too haigiographic. Likewise, even though I hold Abraham Lincoln to be the greatest American President, I still acknowledge that he violated some very fundamental civil rights: he restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suspended habeus corpus, and jailed Southern sympathizers without a trial. Without the context of him being in a crusade (after 1862) to end one of the most evil institutions in human history, this could look very bad for Lincoln's Presidency.

I think that when we can accept that people like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill etc... did or said some very bad things (Lincoln on civil rights and Churchill on Galipoli) while still respecting their monumental wartime leadership in the name of stopping tyranny, we will have the maturity to accept that people on the wrong side of history who disagree with us could actually have redeeming qualities as well.
 
Jan 2010
4,354
Atlanta, Georgia USA
#6
You are the second poster to mention the psychology of being able to see things outside of black and white terms. I suppose it is a human flaw, and I have certainly been guilty of it in the past.

It is particularly bad because sometimes we hold people up to be "marble men" as Shelby Foote calls it. Much work on Lee from the South is too haigiographic. Likewise, even though I hold Abraham Lincoln to be the greatest American President, I still acknowledge that he violated some very fundamental civil rights: he restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suspended habeus corpus, and jailed Southern sympathizers without a trial. Without the context of him being in a crusade (after 1862) to end one of the most evil institutions in human history, this could look very bad for Lincoln's Presidency.

I think that when we can accept that people like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill etc... did or said some very bad things (Lincoln on civil rights and Churchill on Galipoli) while still respecting their monumental wartime leadership in the name of stopping tyranny, we will have the maturity to accept that people on the wrong side of history who disagree with us could actually have redeeming qualities as well.
Good comment, as are all those in this thread. We expect people to be perfect, but none of us are. In wartime, you do what you have to do to win, regardless of how it may look to ensuing generations. Because if you don’t win . . .
 
Sep 2014
801
Texas
#7
I will confess here. I grew up reading Lee's Lieutenants and other books on the Civil War. I loved John Pelham, Mosby, Stuart, Lee, Jackson, but my father a career soldier from Mississippi told me the United States could not have survived if the South had won, and that they were wrong. I am old and no longer care what other people think, but my father was right, the South had been in the wrong.
 
May 2018
583
Michigan
#8
I will confess here. I grew up reading Lee's Lieutenants and other books on the Civil War. I loved John Pelham, Mosby, Stuart, Lee, Jackson, but my father a career soldier from Mississippi told me the United States could not have survived if the South had won, and that they were wrong. I am old and no longer care what other people think, but my father was right, the South had been in the wrong.
Agreed. A Southern victory would have created a situation exploitable by European powers to drive a wedge between two Republics: one fairly new and the other brand new. Not to mention slavery would continue, probably at least for a generation, if not many more. And without a victorious Union, the French adventure in Mexico might not have ended.
 
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Jun 2013
438
Connecticut
#9
This topic of Lee as an honorable man and military genius has been covered so many times on so many other forums, especially Civil War era forums, that it's nauseous.
The Confederacy was evil. Lee was a traitor and a poor tactician. That's pretty much the view today on multiple forums --- look them up yourselves.
The only ones who sympathize with anything Confederate today are those who had Confederate ancestors. Generations after the war they still have a tainted view, of what really was, what really happened at the time.
 
Likes: Spartakus X
May 2018
583
Michigan
#10
This topic of Lee as an honorable man and military genius has been covered so many times on so many other forums, especially Civil War era forums, that it's nauseous.
The Confederacy was evil. Lee was a traitor and a poor tactician. That's pretty much the view today on multiple forums --- look them up yourselves.
The only ones who sympathize with anything Confederate today are those who had Confederate ancestors. Generations after the war they still have a tainted view, of what really was, what really happened at the time.
This isn't other forums, so whatever was discussed there is irrelevant.

Exactly how was Lee a poor tactician? A poor strategist, sure: Gettysburg was a blunder of a campaign, and his general strategy was ill-suited to the Confederacy. How was he not an honorable individual, aside from the slavery and racism? Was it dishonorable when he expelled a student from Washington and Lee for assaulting a black man? Or perhaps when he condemned the erection of Confederate monuments, because it would go against healing the nation? Or the numerous times Lee urged reconciliation of North and South? Or when he instituted a student-run Honors system at Washington and Lee, which persists to this day? Or when, instead of following most of his contemporaries who blamed their mistakes on others, took full responsibility for Gettysburg, offering to resign and even telling his men it was his fault?

Of course, the mere act of owning slaves or being a racist is a black mark on Lee's record that cannot be absolved by any amount of Lost Cause literature. Nor can the fact that during the Gettysburg campaign his army kidnapped free blacks and sold them into slavery in the South be explained away. These things were wrong, and are forever attached to Lee as unbreakable, tragic chains of legacy hanging around his neck.

Further, no one is saying the Confederacy wasn't evil. Napoleon Bonaparte's French Empire, whose troops raped, murdered and tortured civilians during their campaigns in Spain, Germany and Russia was evil, but I still respect Napoleon for his tactical genius (not to mention the Napoleonic Code), in spite of his middling strategic and completely non-existent diplomatic skill. This is in stark contrast to Wellington's army, where such acts were punished severely and it was made clear to his army that such behavior would not be tolerated. The few times his army did act inappropriately (Badajaz) was genuinely the exception: what was standard practice in Napoleon's Army (foraging, aka stealing from the local population) was a capital offense in Wellington's army.

As to his tactics, within 90 days of taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he pushed the Federal Army from within 6 miles of RIchmond to within 20 miles of Washington, DC. And Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor etc... His strategic sense was far less praiseworthy: he adopted an offensive strategy that involved heavy casualties that was simply unsuited to the manpower of the Confederacy. If he was a bumbling tactician on the level of Lord Cardigan, why did Winfield Scott, a general whom Wellington himself called "The Greatest Living General" want Lee to command the Union Army (or nearly have a mental breakdown when Lee turned him down)? Why did Garnet Wolseley, who was IMO one of the greatest Victorian Era Generals, say that there was as much to learn from Lee's campaigns as there is of Napoleon's campaigns of 1796?

I am sure that many would like to think of Lee as a one-dimensional, Southern racist. While there are many Confederate generals who might more closely conform to this generalization (John B. Gordon, Nathan Bedford Forest etc...), Lee was not one of them, and neither was Jackson, and certainly not Longstreet (who joined the GOP, endorsed equality for blacks and rightly dared to question Lee's flawed strategy during the Gettysburg campaign).
 
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