Robert E. Lee has always been the focus of much Southern love. He’s been praised as a god among men by many conservative writers who have lionized him with fake narratives of his life and accomplishments. Legends were built around Robert E. Lee. Idols and monuments. A popular TV show featured an orange car bearing the Confederate flag that was named after him—just one example of how popular culture long romanticized ol’ Marse Robert.
Now, another old orange beater is praising the mostly mythical glory of Robert E. Lee. Donald J. Trump contends that if Robert E. Lee were in charge of Afghanistan, we would have prevailed. And, he went on to say, it is only because we lack his military genius that we have not succeeded.
Forget that Donald J. Trump had four years to find a military genius he liked, and that Robert E. Lee lost the only war Donald Trump seems to know anything about. Robert E. Lee is the perfect example of everything we should have never done as part of our war effort, but did anyway.
Robert E. Lee lost.
This is not difficult to understand. Robert E. Lee lost. Robert E. Lee made himself famous by fighting for slavery, and he sacrificed the lives of a lot of Americans in his failed cause.
Robert E. Lee is the historical example of what not to do.
We need to stop lionizing Robert E. Lee and lay out exactly who Robert E. Lee truly was. Spoiler: He wasn’t good. From The Atlantic:
Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander, A. P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As the historian Richard Slotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”
As the historian James McPherson recounts in Battle Cry of Freedom, in October of that same year, Lee proposed an exchange of prisoners with the Union general Ulysses S. Grant. “Grant agreed, on condition that black soldiers be exchanged ‘the same as white soldiers.’” Lee’s response was that “negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange and were not included in my proposition.” Because slavery was the cause for which Lee fought, he could hardly be expected to easily concede, even at the cost of the freedom of his own men, that black people could be treated as soldiers and not things. Grant refused the offer, telling Lee that “government is bound to secure to all persons received into her armies the rights due to soldiers.” Despite its desperate need for soldiers, the Confederacy did not relent from this position until a few months before Lee’s surrender.
After the war, Lee did advise defeated southerners not to rise up against the North. Lee might have become a rebel once more, and urged the South to resume fighting—as many of his former comrades wanted him to. But even in this task Grant, in 1866, regarded his former rival as falling short, saying that Lee was “setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to be hardly realized.”
Robert E. Lee’s greatness as a military leader is only real to those who appreciate that he allowed Black people to be paraded around for sport, denied their surrender, and was a vicious slave owner who beat his slaves, divided families, and led troops into worthless battles.
This is the Southern strategy.
Rewriting history is popular. For Donald J. Trump, who knows almost no history, it’s a necessity. And with a chorus of fawning conservatives ready to reinstate the Three-Fifths Rule, it is a lot easier to make out that Robert E. Lee was an incredible hero who succeeded.
“Except for Gettysburg!” Well, except for an election or two, and except for slavery being evil, and except for the loss of American lives, I suppose. By that same standard, except for the 2020 election, I guess Donald J. Trump could declare himself a winner.
Republicans know what they are doing. Revisionist histories let the losers redefine mistakes and pretend they were not mistakes at all. We study history to learn from the past and avoid repeating it. But there’s a real danger, here. Changing history in this way is comfort food for a lot of people who want to remember history differently, who are comforted by the idea that everything is always perfect and their idols have no faults, and resist change because they believe it will disrupt their imagined perfection and lossless history. This is the chisel they use to divide Americans against each other.
Proposing two realities—one real, the other conjecture—entrenches division.
Ignoring the truth comes easy for Donald Trump. Inventing realities, past and present, is second nature. Raising money by selling a lie? Old hat. He will always have buyers in a generation that desires to disbelieve reality.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.