In Defense of Kelly’s Defense of Robert E. Lee

by Bill O’Keefe

When General John F. Kelly recently said that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man and that the Civil War resulted from a failure to compromise, critics denounced him as a “Lost Cause” apologist who was ignorant of history and insensitive to racism and bigotry. His background, education, and accomplishments in the Marine Corps suggest, however, that such character assassination is a classic case of identity politics.

Anyone who has studied the Civil War objectively sees it as one of our greatest tragedies. In 1861 the United States was a fragile union only weakly held together by a Constitution that had only been ratified 73 years earlier. Today we hold that slavery was evil. But, outside of abolitionists here and in Europe, that was not the prevailing view then. It should not be surprising that a system that had existed since 1800 B.C., and still does in some places in the world, would be slow to change, and that the process of change would create deep and difficult tensions.

Critics who point to compromises affecting black slaves — starting with the Constitution — make a legitimate point that patience and slow progress benefited slave owners at the expense of blacks. We cannot know for sure what would have happened if South Carolina, Mississippi and other intransigent slave states had found common ground with the Union through further compromise. We do know that 620,000 deaths would have been avoided. And, we can be fairly confident that evolving economics and culture would have made slavery less viable. Whether those changes would have shortened the bigotry and racism that continued during the post-war period — and which exists to a lesser degree today — is unknowable.

In the attacks on General Kelly, the word “compromise” has been used pejoratively. Writers ignore the fact that our system of government is built on compromise to avoid the tyranny of the minority by the majority. Henry Clay once observed that politics is about governing and that if you can’t compromise, you can’t govern. That fact is very much in evidence today.

 In an attempt to show General Kelly as a “Lost Cause” apologist, critics have created a false narrative about Robert E. Lee. One writer in The New Yorker went so far as to say that Lee attempted to overthrow the United States government. Others have claimed that he was defending slavery.

As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Historical facts more than demonstrate that Robert E. Lee was more than honorable; he was a man of conviction, integrity, deep spirituality, and humility. He did not support secession and believed that slavery was evil.  He was also spiritually naïve in believing that God would emancipate blacks on His schedule. He was respected by Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant.

And Dwight Eisenhower (who had his portrait in the Oval Office) said that Lee was, “in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. . . . selfless almost to a fault . . . noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this:  a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities.” Americans, he said, could continue to learn something from the Confederate general because a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be “unconquerable in spirit and soul.”

General Lee’s reputation will withstand the current attempts at revisionist history because, in the end, facts do matter.  And, General Kelly is learning that as Winston Churchill said, “Politics is almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.”

Bill O’Keefe, a resident of New Kent County, is president of Solutions Consulting.

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21 responses to “In Defense of Kelly’s Defense of Robert E. Lee

  1. There is plenty of evidence that Lee, while flawed, had admirable traits of humility and compassion.
    What I see as the real problem is the godlike status conferred upon Lee by his Southern admirers after he died. As the years went on and the mythology grew, getting a clear picture of Lee became very difficult because revering him had become a cult. In Richmond, newspaper editors embellished the Lee image for years.

    In some ways, for what I know about it, the heroic images painted about Lee after his death are at odds with the real man and what really happened.

    Having worked as an American journalist in the Soviet Union, I could see some unsettling similarities with how Lenin and his ilk were revered in the extreme with dogma that could not be questioned, and Southern-fried Lee love.

  2. The relevant question is how did Lee himself feel about the Civil War and memorials to it after the war…

    Did Lee want the Civil War memorialized with statues of himself and other Confederate leaders?

    If Lee were alive today – how would he feel about these memorials?

  3. Some of the Lee deification stemmed from the post-war argument between supporters of General Lee and the supporters of General Longstreet about the wisdom or folly of Lee’s order to charge the Union line on July 3, 1863 – that is, Pickett’s Charge. Factually, the charge was a failure, and Longstreet had objected to Lee’s decision to order the charge.

    And since Longstreet strongly advocated reconciliation to the point where he became a Republican, many former Confederate leaders took the Lee side of the argument so far as to make Lee virtually god-like. Sort of like many “progressives” have done with Bill Clinton, ignoring his sexual abuse of women.

    As to Larry’s questions, I’d guess Lee would support memorials for the men who served in the Confederate Army and Navy and, possibly, to selected Generals whose leadership produced noble or great results. For example, a statue of General Albert Sidney Johnston at the Shiloh Battlefield where the General surprised Union troops and almost drove them into the Tennessee River and died in the effort. I somewhat doubt he’d support all the statues that were erected in the 20th Century. But this is just my guess.

  4. I believe General Kelly and Bill O’Keefe have got General Lee, in all his essentials, about right. Of course, too, Robert E. Lee was a human being, suffering from all of our inherent faults, limitations, and emotions, as they were for him caught and wrought up in the weaknesses and passions of his own times. Judged against that reality is what makes Robert E. Lee a great man.

  5. Breaking news! General Lee, like General Franco, is still dead. My 40-year-old set of Freeman’s Lee biography, and the companion set of Lee’s Lieutenants, may end up on E Bay any day. Likewise my nice print of Lee and his Generals. Lee was clear as a bell that he wanted zero war memorials, zero celebrations. The question of secession was settled and slavery was abolished and my southern ancestors were to be loyal Americans again. Of course he was a brilliant military commander, worthy of study by all future officers, highly committed to the version of honor common at the time. But he rates continued admiration mainly because of his efforts at reunification after the war.

    Kelly’s really stupid comment was that the war resulted from a failure to compromise, when the war actually followed decades of efforts to compromise, back to the Constitution itself. Lincoln got that one dead right – the nation could not survive half free and half slave. Now reading a fascinating biography of the man who really lit the match, John Brown. The war started in Bleeding Kansas well before the 1860 election and the barrage at Ft. Sumter.

    • Some thoughtful people argue that John Brown insured that compromise was impossible, and war then impossible to avoid, a body blow to most unionists who wanted to believe that slavery was on its way out in any case, without war. Who knows? I sure don’t. Nor did Lincoln, although he dearly hoped for compromise leading to the eventual death of slavery due to forces like the industrial revolution, until of course in mid-civil war he realized rightly that compromise had been irrevocable written out of history by bloody events beyond all imagination, that American had crossed its Rubicon, a political insight which even then was extreme to some at the time. So Lincoln called it mandate from God to finish the monster no matter the cost in blood, indeed that blood was the only final solution. Kelly’s comment in my view however was neither stupid or ill informed. He was judging Lee.

      • Yes, this author (Reynolds) agrees that Brown’s raid made war inevitable, but even more he credits Brown’s impassioned defense of his own actions during his trial, his condemnation of slavery, his stoic acceptance of his fate and the heroic status conferred upon him following his hanging. The raid was a failure; the trial a triumph. Southerners assumed abolitionists were pacifists and cowards and Brown proved otherwise.

    • Reed, I agree. There’s the real Lee, a fundraiser for institutions he loved, Washington College and his church, and consistent advocate of acceptance of defeat from Appomattox onward, in the years of economic ruin after the CW. And there’s the Lee of “godlike status” as Peter put it, and the cult of the Lost Cause, that came much later. I don’t think we can parse out which Lee people intended to honor when they gave to pay for yet another statue of him. Or which War: was that statue of the nameless soldier erected merely to remember the the local boys killed and homes burned, the human and material sacrifices of War, or to promote Jim Crow in front of the Courthouse in order to intimidate potential black voters? Was the War about repelling an invasion or preserving slavery? Of course, it was all these things, to different degrees to different people. I for one will be ready to pull down that statue in Alexandria at Washington and King Sts, or the one in front of Mathews CH for that matter, whenever the likes of this one in the center of Boothbay, ME (and hundreds more in New England alone) are removed.

      Ironically, many of these generic soldier statues were cast in the same molds and sold by the same manufacturers to both northern and southern communities.

  6. While I disagree with Kelly, it was wrong of me to deride his opinion with the S word. Request permission to take that one back….He too is a superstar soldier and honorable man.

    What does it say about us that 150 years after the fact, we are still arguing when 20-20 hindsight reveals: slavery was evil, it was propped up by active, pernicious and pervasive racism that sought to dehumanize our fellow human beings to justify stealing their lives and labor, our southern ancestors tried to secede to preserve that “peculiar institution”, the wages of sin really are death, and the sins of the fathers are being visited upon subsequent generations, just like the Good Book warned.

    • Thank you Steve. I also believe both you and Acbar are right too. History is hydra headed, so many sided and faceted as to be unknowable in all its details and circumstances. Hard as we try, we can never get to the bottom of it, if only because we can never put ourselves, our own flesh, blood, and emotions, into it as the players at the time are always forced to do. And this goes off the charts when trying to get into, and get a grip on, war, events so horrible they place unimaginably horrible stress on all involved, and quite literally drive most mad if only for a time or a lifetime, twisting history and human action often beyond comprehension. But I suspect that this fact of war, and the ugliness of history, however painful, should not stop us from trying, because it is often the best and sometimes only way we can learn about ourselves and how we got to this place.

  7. Despite growing up just a few miles south of where young Robert E Lee grew up I’ve never understood the deification of RE Lee. people say Lee was a great tactician but his decisions at Gettysburg lay waste to that claim. In reality, Stonewall Jackson was the better battlefield commander. Unlike Lee, Jackson seemed to have grasped the new realities of war where defense and maneuvering worked better than offense and ill-conceived charges against fortified positions.

    However, it was Lee, along with the rest of the Confederate hierarchy, who seemed incapable of understanding that the US Civil War was a war the South could not win. The early victories, in Confederate territory, were analogous to the early Japanese victories in WWII. While they provided hope back in Japan the world wise Admiral Yamamoto knew Japan had entered a war it could not and would not win. Lee never seemed to grasp that reality. The South had an ineffective Navy and couldn’t break the northern blockade. The North was far more industrialized – akin to America’s claim to be the arsenal of democracy 80 years later. The British and French were staunch abolitionists and were not going to come to the Confederacy’s aid.

    Lee led hundreds of thousands to their death fighting in a war that should never have been started and could never have been won. His inability to see the futility of the war after Gettysburg led to the unnecessary slaughter of soldiers and civilians and set his beloved Virginia back at least 50 years. When he lost it was unconditional.

    Lee may have been a gentleman and his troops may have loved him. However, I struggle to see him as a hero and I suspect if he were here today he’d say the same.

    The gallant statues of Confederate leaders are not a part of history. They are propaganda. Put statues of thousands of dead and dying southern soldiers at the base of every Robert E Lee statue and you start to see history. Across the park from Lee put statues of slave quarters and enslaved people and you start to see history. And somewhere put a very large statue of Lee leading his tattered Army of Northern Virginia to surrender to US Grant and you start to see history.

    The South in general, and Virginia, in particular, has been on this delusional “Lost Cause”, “War between the states” nonsense long enough. Either put out enough statues to tell the whole story or put the Confederate statues in museums where they belong.

    • This is not a engineering problem Don.

    • DJ, I agree with all except the part that Lee did not understand the futility of what he was doing. There is much evidence that he did understand that, recorded even in Freeman’s adulatory biography. Lee persevered out of the same sense of duty to his State that caused him to turn down the federal commission offered him by Wingfield Scott; by 1863 he hoped that from a stalemate, or at least a ceasefire before either side’s capabilities were annihilated, the politicians could negotiate an end to the fighting, and indeed it was to give them leverage to that end that he proposed the invasion of the North that was halted at Gettysburg. Whether he thought slavery remained a negotiable item on the table after 1863 is debatable, but at least he wanted the best economic deal he could achieve post-war for his people; the evidence is that Stephens and the others who met with Lincoln late in the War to negotiate peace terms were far more out of touch with the realities and far more caught up in pro-slavery illogic than Lee. In contrast, Lee was perfectly ready to negotiate the surrender at Appomattox with like-minded Grant, something the politicians in Richmond could not veto.

      Also, you say, “The gallant statues of Confederate leaders are not a part of history. They are propaganda.” We agree; but there were many more statues erected across the South as memorials to the dead. Most of the latter were from the late 19th as opposed to the early 20th century, and distinguished by the generic soldier on top (not a specific “leader”) and by the catalog of names of the fallen from the local community inscribed on the sides of the pedestal. Such a statue, but from the other side of the conflict, was the one in the photo from Boothbay, ME above. IMO, these should remain as they are, where they are.

      • I agree generally with your analysis of Lee’s views on his task at war, its limitations, and possibilities. I’d add that Lee came far closer to realizing his objectives several times during the war than is commonly appreciated. Indeed, some believe that only Sherman’s march through Georgia late in the war saved Lincoln’s presidency, and the union as we know it, and that such an “achievement’ as causing Lincoln’s removal from office, had it come to pass, would have been the work of and thanks mainly to Lee’s generalship and leadership, despite enormous odds and bad luck.

        I generally agree with you on the Statutes, although few appreciate the roll they had to play to bring the union back together after the debacle called “Reconstruction, which might also be called “Deconstruction”, such are the irreconcilable paradoxes of war and huge complexities involved in the healing of the wounds of war.

        As regards Japan and Admiral Yamamoto as compared to Lee and the Confederacy, there are similarities of substance but also very great and very substantive differences in the roll and accomplishments of each man that render their similarities at war (before, during and after), quite awkward and irreconcilable. Both men, despite their very great differences, were nevertheless great men, in my view.

  8. “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.”

    Nobody will ever say it better than Faulkner. Maybe it’s a bad thing he captured it so well and it has remained alive, like a festering infection. Agreed, it has gone on waaaaay too long.

  9. I think DJ pretty much nailed it sans any sugar-coating…

    Lee himself – wanted the statues not built and the war forgot and the country to heal and move forward but that’s not what those who demand his statues remain are listening to – neither “the South will rise again” folks nor the folks who think the statues are “history”.

    Most all of these statues were put up in the Jim Crow era – by largely white folks without the support and concurrence of black folks.

    The statues up north were largely not statues of great generals on horse back.. they most often were ordinary soldiers and the words memorialized their sacrifices not their “great leadership”.

    note the words on this statue – in Fredericksburg

  10. Yes… there are some.. and you would expect them in DC but further north is most northern states – the statues are of ordinary soldiers.. and not controversial because they simply do not have the same agenda as many of the statues in the South.

    ” “It’s often forgotten that Lee himself, after the Civil War, opposed monuments, specifically Confederate war monuments,” said Jonathan Horn, the author of the Lee biography, “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington.”

    In his writings, Lee cited multiple reasons for opposing such monuments, questioning the cost of a potential Stonewall Jackson monument, for example. But underlying it all was one rationale: That the war had ended, and the South needed to move on and avoid more upheaval.

    “As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated,” Lee wrote of an 1866 proposal, “my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; [and] of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.”

    Obviously the folks in the South who proceeded to erect statues of Lee and others in the early 1900’s were not students of history….

    There is a simple truth to this – it’s easy to find it in the written history – if people really want to …. Lee was opposed to statues – for the very reason they turned out to be the divisive force they are now.

  11. We have Lee H.S. down the road here in Ffx..at the moment.

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