The Civil War, then and now: Robert E. Lee and the Problem only Donald Trump can Fix


By Samuel Damren

This is the second commentary in a 4-part series discussing the Civil War, Then and Now.  The first commentary examined Donald Trump’s desire to be seen in the same positive light that Robert E. Lee’s role as a military commander in the Civil War is portrayed by the Myth of the Lost Cause.  This commentary examines the methods employed by those same propagandists to extoll Lee’s supposed virtues as a Southern gentlemen and how those tactics re-surface in the politics of Donald Trump.

The “lawful” enslavement of Africans by the Confederate States ended with  South’s defeat in the Civil War.  Southerners knew that legal enslavement could never return.   In response to the newly established rights of former enslaved  persons to participate the democratic process, many Southerners chose to resist the threat posed to antebellum society by these changes. 

Southern white grievance was stoked by the colossal loss of wealth to  Confederate society caused by the emancipation.  However, former slavers in the South recognized that the economic grievance suffered by only the two percent of Confederate society that previously owned enslaved persons could not form the basis for a wide spread political movement.  Instead, former slavers turned to lies, a re-imagined history and the projected villainy of the North to spin the Myth of the Lost Cause. 

Under this false narrative, the Civil War caused by the Confederacy’s secession became a “War of Northern Aggression.” State’s rights – not the right to enslave persons of African descent - became the purported guiding light of Confederate  political virtue. 

The brutality and cruelty of enslavement were excised from history with the lie  that the victims enjoyed and flourished in their circumstance.  Propogandists of  the Lost Cause doubled down on the falsehood to re-orient enslavement as a  “benevolent institution” designed to save a race of sub-humans from their own frailties and depravities.  

In the Myth of the Lost Cause, racism was portrayed as a natural expression of the supremacy of the white race.  The hero of this falsified narrative was Robert E.  Lee.

Seen for what it is, this carefully constructed storyline of white grievance and righteousness is a pack of lies.  Just ask Professor Emeritus of History at West Point Ty Seidule.  Seidule was born in Virginia, raised in the South and is a  graduate of Washington and Lee University.  He served in the United States Army  as a colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division.

In his recently published memoir and historical examination of the topic,  “Robert E. Lee and Me, A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause,” Seidule describes how Southern culture became infused with this false  narrative.  As a boy, young man and soldier, Seidule acknowledges that he embraced the values of the storyline and its deification of Robert E. Lee. Later, as an academician at West Point, Seidule recounts how the true facts  underlying the narrative started getting in the way of the myth.

There was no sudden epiphany.  Seidule simply started having questions and  began picking away and then digging away.  He is the author of several scholarly books examining West Point and military history.  His academic and military credentials are impeccable. 

So, what are the true facts that counter the myth of Robert E. Lee as hero of the  Lost Cause?

At the onset of the Civil War, there were eight colonels from Virginia on the  faculty of West Point.  Only one of them renounced allegiance to the United  States and joined the Confederate Army:  Robert E. Lee. 

Did he do it out of “love” for Virginia as Donald Trump proclaims in his September 8, 2021 Statement lamenting the removal of Lee’s statute from the Richmond public square?  No.  As Seidule explains, the more plausible motive  was money.  Unlike, the other Virginia colonels at West Point, Robert E. Lee’s  family and in-laws were rich in their ownership of enslaved persons and the  families’ wealth was inextricably tied to the institution of lawful enslavement.

Did Robert E. Lee regard states’ rights as opposed to the continuation of lawful  enslavement as the guiding principle of the Confederacy?  No.  None of the  Confederate hierarchy did.  In fact, the newly adopted Confederate Constitution which recognized and protected “the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States” also expressly barred existing and future Confederate States from enacting laws “impairing the right of property in negro slaves.”

Was Robert E. Lee a racist white supremist who believe that persons of  African descent could be seized as property by white slaveholders?  Yes.  According to Seidule, in Lee’s “ignoble” retreat from Gettysburg, his army  kidnapped hundreds of free Pennsylvanians of African descent.  According to an U. S. Army lieutenant eye witness, one of the victims “accepted torture,  mutilation and eventual death … rather than submit to enslavement in Virginia.” 

Did Robert E. Lee abide the cruelty and brutality of enslavement or was he a  benevolent slave owner?  By the time he joined the Confederate Army, Lee had owned enslaved persons for more than thirty years and managed three  plantations. When his father-in-law died in 1857, Lee became executor of the Estate charged to wind up its affairs in five years.

His father-in-law kept his enslaved families intact and under his Will, they were to  be freed.  As Seidule learned, however, Lee did not grant them immediate  freedom.  Instead, he worked them for five years and during that time  purposefully broke up families by hiring out or selling family members to other slavers.  Only after losing a court case in which he tried keep them longer, did Lee free the remaining enslaved persons under his ownership.

After the Civil War, Lee was unrepentant.  He became President of what is now Washington and Lee University and held that post until his death in 1870.  Lawful enslavement was over; but, according to Seidule, Lee’s views on the “problem”  caused by emancipation echoed across time in the speeches of heirs to the Lost Cause.

In 1907, in a ceremony marking the centennial of Lee’s birth held at Lee’s Chapel  on the grounds of Washington and Lee University, Charles Francis Adams Jr.  spoke.  A Yankee, he was the grandson and great-grandson of American  Presidents but spoke glowingly of General Lee as a man of “character,” a great military leader and noted that white Southerners were the victims of  Reconstruction which “subjected the disenfranchised master to the rule of the enfranchised bondsman.”

Two years later, as Seidule recounts, Adams refined the point.  He called African  Americans “a distinct alien element” in the body politic.  “Who should solve this  problem?” asked Adams.  He answered that the white people of the South should  give the vote to African Americans only when they were ready and that only white  Southerners would know when that date arrived.

The politics of Donald Trump build on this heritage.  To Trump, Barack Obama was  an alien Kenyan element in our body politic and the products of Obama’s terms  as President were a “problem” that only Trump could “fix.”  In one of many  remedial acts, Trump sought to limit or curtail Obama’s DACA program.  The  cruelty to be worked on DACA recipients by this “fix” was a present-day version of  Lee’s callous separation of enslaved families he was obligated to free under the terms of his father-in-law’s Will.

While Trump never called into question the right of African Americans to vote,   he tailored Charles Francis Adams Jr.’s racist views on minority competence to  participate in the democratic process to a different storyline.  Beginning this new  myth, Trump repeatedly questioned the election tallies of non-white voters in big  cities.   He next asserted and continues to assert that government officials in those jurisdictions either incompetently supervised elections resulting in “tremendous” voter fraud, including the counting of votes by illegal aliens; or, that those officials engaged in outright voter fraud themselves. 

Consistent with the false underpinnings of the myth of the Lost Cause, Trump’s only proof for this drumbeat is the bald-faced lie that the 2020 Presidential  election was stolen.

In his book, Seidule derides the Confederate notion of democracy as one which  allows states to secede from the nation if their favored Presidential candidate loses election.  Trump recasts this Confederate sentiment and projects himself as “victim” when he asserts that big city votes in key states should be selectively  thrown out of 2020 Presidential election results and that he be reinstated as  President.

This brings us to January 6, 2021, the subject of the next commentary.

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