Trump characterizes Robert E. Lee as a unifier and premier war strategist. Here’s what history shows
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Trump characterizes Robert E. Lee as a unifier and premier war strategist. Here’s what history shows

Opponents of honoring the vestiges of slavery fought for years to change the face, or faces, of Monument Avenue, a promenade in the former Confederate capital memorializing military leaders and a politician who led a rebellion against the United States.

Richmond, Virginia’s homages to the Confederate president, two generals and a naval officer came down last year following unrest over the police killing of George Floyd. But one man’s bronze likeness, that of Robert E. Lee, remained upon Traveller, the horse that the monument’s supporters fought to keep him astride.

Like Lee at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, they lost the battle and the war.

The 12-ton, 21-foot-high statue was removed Wednesday from its four-story plinth on Monument Avenue. While many had battled to vanquish the slave-holding general’s sculpture from the public square, there was plenty of opposition, including from former President Donald Trump, who last week praised the service and wartime acumen of the man who had betrayed the United States.

The 45th President, no stranger to defeat himself following the 2020 election, has long kept an army of fact-checkers typing away. Yet even by fabulist standards, his statement on the monument and the man it commemorates warrants closer dissection. Here are some of his claims:

Many generals consider Lee ‘the greatest strategist of them all’

Trump is correct that President Abraham Lincoln wanted Lee, then a colonel in the US Army, to help lead the North and he declined, later telling his sister he could not “raise my hand against my birthplace,” Virginia (which had seceded the day before Lincoln’s offer).

It’s also true that, in a handful of Civil War battles, Lee earned accolades, But the superlative employed by Trump ignores the storied careers, highlighted by military experts, of Gens. John Pershing, George Patton, William Sherman, David Petraeus and Douglas MacArthur, all of whom defended the United States rather than rebel uprisings.

Loyalty to country notwithstanding, Lee’s tactics have been highly scrutinized — most notably his style of leadership on the battlefield and his penchant for unnecessary aggression. Per the former, Lee was quoted in a conversation with Prussian army Capt. Justus Scheibert saying, “I think and work with all my powers to bring my troops to the right place at the right time, then I have done my duty. As soon as I order them into battle, I leave my army in the hands of God.”

Like other Confederate leaders, he suffered from poor maps and unprepared staff, but he also made his own problems, wrote historian Joseph Glatthaar, who has penned numerous books on the military, including two on Lee.

“His most egregious problem was to repeat an error that surfaced in his initial campaign: Lee attempted to coordinate too many independent columns. He overburdened himself and his staff. … What Lee achieved in boldness of plan and combat aggressiveness he diminished through ineffective command and control,” Glatthaar wrote in “Partners in Command: The Relationship Between Leaders in the Civil War.”

‘Except for Gettysburg, (Lee) would have won the war’

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia scored many notable victories — including when it was outnumbered at the Battles of Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville — but he lost almost 30,000 troops in those campaigns, partially owing to his aggressive tactics.

Gettysburg, where almost 40% of his troops fell to casualty, was far from his only defeat. He also lost at Malvern Hill before faltering in the war’s final days at Five Forks and the Appomattox Court House, where he surrendered.

Lee was ‘perhaps the greatest unifying force after the war’

Trump is correct that Lee was “ardent in his resolve to bring the North and South together through many means of reconciliation,” but those efforts were limited to White Americans.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Adam Serwer, writing for The Atlantic, are two of many who have dismantled the mythology and hagiography of a “kindly” Lee who voiced his opposition to human bondage while declining to end his involvement in the institution before the Civil War.

Yes, he called chattel slavery a “moral & political evil,” but he also wrote, “I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former.”

He went on to say that Black men and women were better off in bondage in the United States than in their homeland and described the relationship between master and slave as paternalistic, Christian and necessary.

“The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure,” he wrote in 1856.

The patriarch of one of the wealthiest and most famous families in Lee’s birthplace of Westmoreland County freed his slaves decades before the war, but this did not move the general to do the same. Upon inheriting his father-in-law George Washington Parke Custis’ slaves, Lee was told he could free them immediately if Custis’ estate was in good standing, or within five years.

Lee chose the latter, and historic documents indicate he was a much crueler taskmaster than were the Custises.

Wesley Norris was born on Custis’ plantation and told in an abolitionist newspaper of running away with his cousin and sister after learning Lee intended to keep them enslaved for five more years. Upon capture, the trio were returned to Lee, who demanded to know why they’d absconded. Norris said:

“We frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty.

“We were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered.

“Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired.”

It’s been recognized ‘as a beautiful piece of bronze sculpture’

Aesthetic aside, public odes to the Confederacy were recognized as an affront to a healing nation by none other than Lee himself, who died 20 years before his statue was erected by those seeking to promote the Civil War’s problematic “Lost Cause” narrative.

“Lee feared that these reminders of the past would preserve fierce passions for the future,” historian Jonathan Horn wrote in a 2016 op-ed. “Such emotions threatened his vision for speedy reconciliation. As he saw it, bridging a divided country justified abridging history in places.”

Lee wrote to a fellow ex-general in December 1866, “As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated; 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; & of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.”

The year before he died, Lee declined an invitation to a confab of former Union and Confederate officers who had served in the Battle of Gettysburg, which a newspaper reported was, in part, aimed at discussing “enduring memorials of granite.”

“I could not add anything material to the information existing on the subject,” Lee wrote. “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

For what it’s worth, descendants of Confederate luminaries Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson — whose likenesses, too, have been removed from Monument Avenue — told CNN after the deadly 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, that they believed such monuments were no longer suited for public display.

“We cannot ignore his decision to own slaves, his decision to go to war for the Confederacy, and, ultimately, the fact that he was a white man fighting on the side of white supremacy,” Jackson’s descendants wrote. “While we are not ashamed of our great great grandfather, we are ashamed to benefit from white supremacy while our black family and friends suffer. We are ashamed of the monument.”

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