Lee: Great General, American Hero
April 19, 2008
BRIAN BERGIN IS “DISMAYED” that the Daily News-Record was appreciative of R.E. Lee (“Dismayed About Article on R.E. Lee,” April 10). Well I am dismayed at Mr. Bergin. Like many of his ilk, his main fault is that he applies his modern views to history and so slants the truth.
Lee was not a slave owner in the sense of having a large plantation, the popular image of slavery. Pre-war, he was a soldier stationed all over the country, including non-slave states. His father-in-law was the grandson of George Washington, and owned 196 slaves, which Lee inherited with the understanding they would be freed within 5 years.
Lee disapproved of slavery, and in 1856 he wrote to his wife “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” But Lee was, first, a soldier defending the United States and doing his duty. He was like every other soldier, non-political. He had opinions, but he did his duty.
He did not resign his commission to defend slavery, and made his stance perfectly clear: “I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.”
His only motive was to defend his home and state against the federal government, which he believed did not have the right to invade his home. Back then, you were a Virginian first, a citizen of the United States second. In those days, the federal government was not the all powerful and controlling ogre it is today. Many states, north and south, believed they had the right to secede. Virginia didn’t leave the Union until Lincoln called for volunteers. Virginia debated secession for months before Lincoln’s call for volunteers pushed her into secession. That is when Lee resigned.
Slavery was not the main issue in 1861 when Lee resigned. Lincoln, the consummate politician, had already said that his goal was to “Preserve the Union” not free the slaves, and if he could do that without freeing any slaves, he would. His Emancipation Proclamation, two years in the future, didn’t free all the slaves. It was a political attempt to help the military situation. Lincoln should be condemned as the unprincipled, politician he was. Lee was defending his home.
As for whether the ROTC students should have attended the performance, they study the tactics and personalities of all military figures. If the military only studied “the good guys,” who would be left to study? George Washington? No, he had slaves. Andrew Jackson? No, ditto. Julius Caesar? No, ditto. Eisenhower? No, his army was segregated. Rommel? No, he fought for the Nazis. Napoleon? No, he tried to conquer Europe. Westmorland? No, he napalmed women.
Point is, all these generals are studied for good reasons, and if Mr. Bergin’s opinion were the determining factor, there would be no one left for the ROTC to study. The ROTC studies tactics and personalities to learn how these people won their battles. Students of military history don’t particularly care about why a general was on this side or that side. Rather, they care about what the general did to win or lose. What was his personality like that made him what he was, good and bad?
Lee was one of the greatest generals ever. Mr. Bergin needs to recognize him for that and applaud the ROTC for studying him, not condemn him for misinformed reasons slanted by his ill-considered views.
The ROTC now knows more of what made Robert E. Lee “tick,” which is what I would want anyone defending me to know.