Man, Not Myth

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011-2012, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the April 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


Illustration of Ambrose Burnside from the August 24, 1861 Harper’s Weekly

The topic of the presentation at the April 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable was how Robert E. Lee lost the Civil War. With this in mind, there is a page in the August 24, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly, which contains a short note about Robert E. Lee. The note gives a brief description of Lee’s military career in the U.S. Army and then concludes with this. “After filling this honorable and agreeable post in the military service of his country for several years, he crowned his career by deserting his flag at the moment of his country’s sorest need. When the Richmond politicians passed what they called an Ordinance of Secession, Robert E. Lee threw up his commission and accepted the rank of General in the rebel army.” Unionists who read that quote may feel the urge to shout their huzzahs, but before they do so, they should know that on the same page Harper’s Weekly has a note about Ambrose Burnside in which Burnside is described as “gallant,” “a remarkably handsome man,” and “very winning in his ways.” These assessments of Ambrose Burnside call into serious question the credibility of Harper’s Weekly to judge military leaders. Any publication that applies the word “winning” to any aspect of Ambrose Burnside can only be considered a dubious evaluator of military prowess. Be that as it may, if the speaker for the April 2012 meeting is correct, then rather than castigating Lee for abandoning the Union, Harper’s Weekly should have thanked Lee for siding with the South, since this was, according to the speaker, the major factor in the Confederacy’s defeat.

Illustration of Robert E. Lee from the August 24, 1861 Harper’s Weekly

It is extremely difficult to accept that Lee was responsible for the Confederacy’s loss when Lee’s Confederate colleagues included Braxton Bragg, Joseph E. Johnston, John C. Pemberton, and John Bell Hood, who in no way, shape, or form comprise a Mount Rushmore of military genius. But maybe it is possible to make a compelling argument that Lee was the chief culprit for the South’s demise. If nothing else, it is intriguing to hear a case presented for the point of view that Lee was the reason for the Confederacy’s defeat, if only because making Lee appear fallible provides an examination of Lee that does not mythologize him like so many such examinations do. Because Lee truly fits the description of a larger than life figure, it is easy to forget that Lee had a life, that he was a human being and not an abstract image formed from the unattainable, unrealistic features that others have yearningly attributed to him. To make this point, I cobbled together a few sentences from the Foreword of an excellent biography of Lee by Emory M. Thomas. “People usually venerate in a hero someone who exemplifies (or who they believe exemplifies) virtues which they admire or to which they aspire…Lee has been several sorts of American hero, and within the American South he has attained the status of demigod.” “It is well to remember that Lee was once possessed of flesh and blood. This is important because so many have made so much of Lee during the years since he lived that legend, image, and myth have supplanted reality.” “In life Lee was both more and less than his legend.”

Whether or not Lee deserves blame for the Confederacy’s defeat, there is a heroic dignity about him. Lee proved his bravery and earned his heroism in the Mexican-American War, and what he did in the Civil War only added to this, even though it was done for the wrong cause. But Lee’s heroic dignity does not come solely from anything that he did militarily, and it certainly does not come from the contrived rationalizing of the myth of the Lost Cause. When the oppressive cloak of Lee’s legend is removed from him, Lee can be seen to have an earnest heroism of the sort that we admire in our acquaintances: surprisingly shy, disarmingly humble, unfailingly considerate, and meticulously assiduous, with a quiet self-possession devoid of arrogance. Lee’s heroic dignity comes from his humanity and from the life he lived, in spite of any personal flaws or inconsistencies or bad decisions. It comes from a lifetime spent living by a principle that he articulated in his diary. “Dissimilar as are characters, intellects, and situations, the great duty in life is the same, the promotion of the happiness and welfare of our fellow men.” Maybe Robert E. Lee did lose the Civil War, but he never lost the qualities that made him great, despite the attempts of many to take those qualities from him by trying to make Lee more than he was or by focusing on his deficiencies and his errors.

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