Monsters of Hitler’s order are relatively rare. But monsters are not the only problem for biographers. There are also the inconsistent, the out of tune, the major mistake authors, the short-sighted, the disastrously well-intentioned. How do we write a biography of a short-sighted person like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and explain how he could have misjudged Hitler so catastrophically? How do we relate to an out-of-step like Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill (on the Dardanelles, Edward VIII, and colonialism)? How do we treat an inconsistent like Ulysses Grant, fighting for the Union as a general in the Civil War but issuing an anti-Semitic order in 1862, or Woodrow Wilson, making the world safe for democracy but backing Jim Crow?
My examination of Robert E. Lee has raised many of these same questions. He raised his hand against the United States he had sworn to defend, and there is no word for that other than treason (Lee was charged with treason but never brought to trial). He fought with maddening skill during the Civil War in defense of a Confederacy openly dedicated to the perpetuation of slavery. According to some accounts, he even flogged an enslaved person who tried to flee. And he became the pinnacle of the “Lost Cause” mythology, which treated him as the incomparable southern knight and the ultimate claim to white supremacy.
But then other realities intrude. If by “gentleman” Lee was supposed to be a plantation aristocrat, Lee was certainly not arrogant. His branch of the famous Virginia Lees was marginal, and Lee himself was the product of an adverse childhood. (His irresponsible father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, of revolutionary fame, abandoned him when he was only 6 years old). That left him possessed by a thirst for security, independence, and perfection.
Lee is a study in contradictions. He frankly admitted that slavery was “a moral and political evil in any country” but mercilessly added that it was actually a bigger problem for whites and made “blacks … immensely better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically “. “He urged the emancipation of the Confederacy leadership, including the enlistment of emancipated enslaved people into the Confederate armies, but the enlistment tactic came only in the final months of the war, as a desperate last gasp, when the situation The Confederacy was already desperate.In the postwar years, he discouraged the promotion of the myths of the “Lost Cause” and assumed the presidency of a small university that became a pilot of progressive education; however, he showed no sympathy for the former slaves that surrounded him and made no effort to integrate into the university’s student body.Like the Germans of the 1930s and 1940s described by WG Sebald, Lee was “always looking and looking away at the same time.”
Not even Lee’s statues convey a simple message. Confederate statuary always brought with it an energetic refusal to confront the new racial and political world created by the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Ana Edwards, a community activist, praised the statue’s removal as “representative of the fact that we are removing the layers of injustice that blacks and people of color have experienced when ruled by white supremacist politics for so long.”