Robert E. Lee and the Abuse of Principle

Lee: Use his life as a warning, not an inspiration.

As both political parties and the President of the United States seem to be determined to subject the American people, economy and standing in the world to disaster in the defense of principles, it might be a good time to reflect on the fact that principles detached from reality have little value, and that rigidly adhering to principles to the detriment of the community and civilization is not a virtue.

In the current issue of Humanities, historian James Cobb makes these points vividly, if tangentially, while reflecting on the odd reverence with which Americans, and not just Southerners, regard Robert E. Lee. I am proud to say that the lionization of Lee never made sense to me, not even when I was a small boy. But he is the epitome of someone who is revered as a role model and hero for his supposed character and values rather than what he actually did with them.*

Cobb begins his essay with this anecdote: 

“After President Dwight D. Eisenhower revealed on national television that one of the four “great Americans” whose pictures hung in his office was none other than Robert E. Lee, a thoroughly perplexed New York dentist reminded him that Lee had devoted “his best efforts to the destruction of the United States government” and confessed that since he could not see “how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me.” Eisenhower replied personally and without hesitation, explaining that Lee was, “in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. … selfless almost to a fault … noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities … we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.”

Amazing. Not just a man “of Lee’s caliber,” but Robert E. Lee himself, was significantly* responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of men (between 600,000 and 700,000, to be more accurate), the maiming of many more and the devastation of a nation in defense of an institution, slavery, that is and was morally and ethically indefensible. What good were those “rare qualities” of character if they did not guide Lee away from the worst decision of his life, and one of the worst decisions of anyone’s life? No one is good “in theory.” Abstract goodness isn’t goodness at all, but only posturing. Principles are vital as constants to guide us through the chaos of life, but allowing them to send us, our community or our nation tumbling off a cliff or plunging into the sun is not ethical, intelligent, or forgivable.

Accepting that Robert E. Lee possessed fine ideals and a sterling character, we should use his sad life as a warning, not a model. It is easy for me to see that, as I frequently pass by (as well as visit, since both of my parents are buried there) Arlington National Cemetery, which is just a few miles from where I live. The cemetery was originally Robert E. Lee’s estate, and was converted into a burial ground by Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, the Union quartermaster during the Civil War, as an act of vengeance and contempt. Meigs held Lee personally responsible for the war and the fact that his son was one of its casualties, so he designated Lee’s property as a graveyard by the act of burying his son’s body almost literally at Lee’s doorstep. If an individual’s ideals and character lead to pain and death, if loyalty and integrity cause a person to embrace, as Ulysses S. Grant correctly termed Lee’s “cause,”  “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse,”  then that individual isn’t ethical, and certainly is no hero.

That person is a fool.

*The original version of this post read “directly” here. That was unfortunate hyperbole, and factually wrong, as well as unfair to Lee. I have changed it.


* There were many instances in Lee’s life when his character and and values led to admirable conduct, of course. His immediate acceptance of responsibility for the failure of Pickett’s Charge was one, meeting his returning soldiers personally and exclaiming, “It was all my fault.” Another was his insistence that the Confederate army surrender rather than take to the hills in guerrilla resistance that might have extended the Civil War indefinitely. But noble conduct in the wake of a fiasco you helped create is never as admirable as avoiding the fiasco at the outset. It is just more obvious.

34 thoughts on “Robert E. Lee and the Abuse of Principle

  1. I think Lee makes a very interesting and a very good character study (along with Benedict Arnold’s). He was personally a man of high morals and principles, and unfortunately, a sense of duty. He felt it was his duty to follow his state rather than his nation and he did his best to serve that state with all the high principles and convictions he had. The problem wasn’t that he was serving with high principles, honor, and bravery, the problem is that the cause he felt duty-bound to serve was the wrong one. History is littered with good and principled people who did terrible things because of their sense of duty. I think the contrast between Lee and Grant is one of the most interesting ones in US history.

    • All you ‘loyal unionists’ can say what you like, but the facts staring you all in the face today are that Lee, Jackson, Davis and the Confederacy were RIGHT. Every evil they predicted about the consolidation of ‘the union’ has come true. You people talk about morals and ethics when it’s obvious that you wouldn’t know them if they walked up and slapped you in your idiotic faces. Your vitriolic hatred of Lee, and through him, the South, only goes to prove that we still deserve, and will one day have, a separate national identity and our independence from you people. May God hasten the day.

      • Wowsers. An ethical dilemma…when is it unethical to identify derangement as evidenced by a comment unhinged to reality or common sense as such? Is the line drawn at “I am the Lizard Queen!!!” It it even further along, as in, “ARGTGHHYYJHTRREWSQEDFGY!!!!” Or a bit before,as in “Barack Obama is a great and skilled leader!” Or, “Wow! That Britney Spears can sing!

        I’m not sure where the line is, but I’m certain “The South will rise again!” is well over it. My sympathies to your analyst.

  2. The Civil War was certainly one of our nation’s worst lost causes and a cause well worth losing. However, we have always been a people who, when viewing the brave men who fought in that conflict, were able to separate the men who fought from the cause itself. Perhaps that is why President Eisenhower was able to find in Lee a man who was “noble as a leader and as a man.” I might add that Stonewall Jackson joins Lee as just such a person.

      • No one ever suggested that war is not a nasty business, but out of the blood and guts there does come a certain nobility and indomitable spirit that seems to rise above it all.

      • Bullshit, Jack. It was Grant’s men who nicknamed him, ‘The Butcher’ for repeatedly ordering them to charge Confederate works simply because he knew that he had an almost limitless supply of men. Lee and Jackson were masters of strategy and tactics; using their men effectively. It is Lee and Jackson’s tactics that are still studied at West Point – not that drunkard Grant.

        • They don’t study Pickett’s Charge, though, do they, Mark? And your comment is a non-sequitur, irrelevant to the post. I didn’t claim that Grant was the superior strategist or tactician (though he won and Lee lost—and in war, as in baseball, that’s what counts. A great manager whose team loses is still a loser.) But Grant fought for his country and against slavery. If Lee had the principle to do the same, a lot fewer men would be “butchered.”

          • The point is that the “slavery” has been a mere pretext. The Confederates, since long, wanted to get rid of the slavery, only that they didn’t know how to do! The States of the north pretended the abolition of the slavery but didn’t want the black people in their countries!

  3. You once praised Davy Crockett for the following statement:

    “I leave this rule for others when I’m dead: Be always sure you’re right–then go ahead.”

    Robert E. Lee was presumably sure that he was right even if many, including myself, believe he was wrong. I think most would also agree that, whatever Robert E. Lee did, he “went ahead”. Why the praise for Crockett (who also fought in a rebellion against a power that disapproved of slavery) but not for Lee?

    • The answer is obvious, don’t you think? Davy’s Law is to be sure are ARE right, not be sure you think you are right. History gives no awards to those who bravely screw up. Lester Maddox thought he was right. John Wilkes Booth thought he was right. Richard Nixon thought he was right. They were wrong, so was Lee…and if he had aligned his values, properly, he could have figured it out.

      • At this moment, we are the judges of history. However, are we right to judge the past by our own standards? What was right years ago is wrong today and vice versa. Will today’s hero be tomorrows villain? Let’s hope the generations that follow us will be generous when it is our turn to be judged.

  4. I’m glad Lee fought for the Confederacy. I may be the only DOD executive ever to think Lee was a poor general. There’s a narrow corridor that runs from the Secretary of Defense’s office to the National Military Command Center. On the corridor walls–the last thing a Secretary will see as he goes to manage our war effort–are “inspirational” sayings chosen by the JCS.

    One of the framed quotes was Lee’s: “I was outnumbered so I attacked.” I was shocked and distressed that a Secretary of Defense should see this recipe for catastrophe from the man who gambled his whole army, for no good reason, and lost it.

    I argued with the Army historian–a friend who I respect–that Lee was a failure as a general and that we shouldn’t be quoting him. My friend told me I was full of it, and the quote stayed up.

    • He was both a poor general and a great one. Poor because he was stuck in Napoleanic tradition and couldn’t see, as Longstreet did, the future of warfare…which had already arrived.Great because of his unmatched ability to inspire his men and get them do do whatever he asked. You might say he was a poor general but a great leader.

        • Can one be a great leader and poor general? I don’t see how. Leading isn’t a theoretical exercise: it demands a level of success. A skilled leader who leads his followers to failure or worse can’t be called “great,” unless the mission was hopeless to begin with—and even then, a great leader (and greatness includes wisdom) should know when to stop, pursue a new course, or even surrender. Was Mao a great leader? Not the way I would evaluate “great.”

    • I agree with you, Bob. That war was Lee’s to lose. He (and the Confederacy in general) didn’t have to win, he just had to avoid losing. But he kept trying the beat the Union, and paid a stiff price for it. It’s odd: Grant got a reputation in some circles as a stolid, unimaginative, head-down slugger. A man who just sent men in to be butchered, but had so many to spare that he won anyway. But Lee’s rate of casualties was higher than Grant’s. That he could afford those losses less than Grant just made it worse.
      The tide is turning however, and a significant number, perhaps even a majority, of historians now believe that Grant was the greatest general produced by the Civil War, not Lee.

  5. History has been kind to Lee because we value his personal character so highly, but you hit spot on the danger in holding loyalty over integrity as a virtue. If you are not doing the right things, it is irrelevant how nobly you are doing them. Excellent post, Jack – may I repost it?

  6. Individuals like Jack Marshall have been bashing Robert E Lee for 150 years. Nothing new about that. They enjoy villifying the South because they would like for people to believe there was something noble and holy about the actions of Sherman and Grant in their so-called moral war against southern civilians. Marshall’s quoting of Ulysses S. Grant in his bashing of Lee is almost cartoonist. (As if Grant was a model of integrity and was not responsible for thousands of death. I can’t believe a character like Marshall thinks he specializes in ethics. It is obvious that he is just another fool who is very careful to be very politically correct.

    • Your invective doesn’t deal with the issues, and is simply name-calling without substance, discredited by your absurd conclusions. I have never villified the South. They were wrong, and Lee knew they were wrong. There is nothing admirable about supporting a wrongful cause that kills thousands out of loyalty. Grant is quoted because his quote regarding Lee was accurate, he knew him, and he was a contemporary. It does not hold Grant up as any exemplar, but he was fighting for the right cause. As for Sherman, you are ignorant. Sherman, unlike Lee or Grant, tried to minimize casualties, and his campaign, like the atom bomb in WWII, saved lives by ending the war sooner.

      Finally, there are people less concerned with political correctness than I am, but not many. You, because of your evident bias, managed to draw all wrong conclusions from a clearly written essay. You may not be a fool, but this comment certainly represents you as one.

  7. Pingback: There Is a Difference Between Ethical, Legal, Moral | The Pink Flamingo

  8. Fifth it is not only Eisenhower whom had a picture of Robert E Lee in his home but also Winston Churchill and called him the perfect example of the Christian knight. Blaming Robert E lee for the war and the desk in the war is probably the most illogical statement I’ve ever heard.

    Of the war came about because Abraham Lincoln chose to use force against the seceding southern states. In order to do that he had to march through virginia. If Robert E lee are not the general in charge of the army of Northern Virginia there still would have been plenty of adequate replacements including , Stonewall Jackson, AP HIll and others.

    As for questioning least military prowess this is patently absurd there is no competent military historian actually served as an officer in the military that does not consider Lee one of the finest generals ever produced.
    The majority of men who died in the Civil War died of malaria type this yellow fever and other diseases. During that time the Lincoln in distraction had chosen to blockade medicine and food from the south.

    Those to bash Robert E lee are just part of that contingent it can find a single thing honorable about a single confederate soldier, yet overlook the brutality of William Sherman, Phil Sheridan and other genocidal union soldiers who turned their wrath of the native American population after the war.
    The constitution of the state of Virginia clearly stated that it had the right to withdraw from the union and anytime as did, Massachusetts. In fact the New England states had three conferences of secession at Hartford Connecticut, the first over the war of 1812, the second over theAllies Louisiana purchase, the third being the annexation of Texas.

    Since it was the Union that invaded Virginia and Virginia by its own constitution was now a sovereign nation he was getting down to protect his home state which was also his own nation. If you are looking for a person devoid of ethics just look to Abraham Lincoln,”Largest mass hanging in United States history”38 Santee “Sioux” Indian men
    Mankato, Minnesota, Dec. 16, 1862.
    Is a operation Anaconda blockading food and medicine cost at least 50,000 civilian lives in the south of the population of five million.

    • You have the right to your hero worship of Lee, but the facts don’t support you, and haven’t since 1863. Gen. Longstreet and Pickett would have told you what they thought of Lee’s ethics, which ultimately boiled down to using young men show trusted and idolized him as cannon-fodder in a conflict that he knew was 1) probably doomed from the outset, and 2) would be bad for everyone, slaves, Virginians, and Americans if he was successful.

      The reason Lee staying with the North was crucial was not that there were not competent Southern Generals, but that until Grant arrived on the scene, there were no competent Northern ones (and I think I made that clear initially.) If you are, Ron Paul=-like, seriously suggesting that the ethical course would have been to let the South secede, your judgment is so compromised that there is little point in arguing with you.

      Since I have never been one to assault the integrity or bravery of Southern soldiers, much of your comment is inapplicable to either me or my post.

      It was a bloody and horrible war, justly fought by the North, that might have been ended far sooner if Lee had followed his conscience rather than his misplaced loyalty. And there are few military historians who do NOT question his actions at Gettysburg, where he let his ego and inflated sense of infallibility lead his men to disaster.

  9. I am afraid your reach extends beyond your grasp historically. Grant chewed up soldiers at Cold Harbor, Burnside at Fredericksburg. Churchill (another” Lee worshiper”) had Gallipoli, Napoleon Waterloo and Russia, MacArthur in Korea. The weaponry had outstripped the tactics in the American Civil War. Jackson was a brilliant General, no military man would challenge that and Lee one of the best, there is no great General or political leader during a time of War that does not have his defeats.
    As someone who graduated from RMC and served 15 years I have never heard a Professor even intimate Robert E Lee was less than a brilliant officer save Gettysburg.
    One does not have to worship a man to see some of his strengths. Tell me was Lincoln ethical in suspending the writ of habeas corpus? Was Sherman ethical? Was Sheridan? Your penurious view of Lee’s character and military prowess are not logically or historically grounded, It is easy to say in retrospect well he should have turned his back on his fellow Virginians and his family, but that would be an impossible choice for him.
    My ancestors were Untied Empire Loyalists in North Carolina those of us with that background find the inconsistencies in an argument against secession given the American revolution ironic to say the least.
    Blaming Lee for six hundred thousand deaths irrational the blame goes to the United States Government and the Confederate States Government.. If secession is unethical then so was the Declaration of Independence. Once joined in union a state or region should thus have no right to separate regardless of what treatment or disadvantages that afflict them under that Union. Therefore China has an ethical right to invade Taiwan as it did Tibet, Russia did to Chechnya and so on.
    There is nothing ethical or unethical about secession it was a constitutional legal matter not an ethical one. Certainly the New England states entertained it in the Hartford conventions in 1807. Lincoln signed the proposed original proposed 13th amendment which would have granted slavery in perpetuity to the slave owning states if they returned to the Union he also signed article
    Rebel prisoners in our hands are to be subjected to a treatment finding its parallels only in the conduct of savage tribes and resulting in the death of multitudes by the slow but designed process of starvation and by mortal diseases occasioned by insufficient and unhealthy food and wanton exposure of their persons to the inclemency of the weather….Congressional Globe, 38th Congress, 2nd session, 1/24/1865, pg. 381
    In multiple engagements with Union forces lee faced two to one numerical superiority vastly better artillery, infinitely better logistics and supplies.. Lee suffered 166,000 or there about casualties, Union forces 106,000. That’s about 22 percent to 11 percent. However given the military advantage of the North in men and weaponry, combined with the semi starvation of Confederate troops that is understandable. I suggest you stay away from these kind of topics or educate yourself.

    • I’m afraid your comment reveals you as pompous ass, since disagreeing with my conclusions neither justify nor necessitated a gratuitous insult of my historical knowledge. I have been a student of the civil war and history for my entire life, and there is nothing in your post that is new to me, though plenty of leaps of logic that are amusing.

      1.”there is no great General or political leader during a time of War that does not have his defeats”—so what? Name another revered general who 1) was responsible for lengthening teh war he supposedly opposed 2) in his most important battle, made mistake after mistake and 3) lost the only war that he was famed for.
      2. “I have never heard a Professor even intimate Robert E Lee was less than a brilliant officer save Gettysburg.” Oh! Well that proves it, then. The post began with the acknowledgment of the Lee myth. So you quote it back to me. Devastating.
      3. “One does not have to worship a man to see some of his strengths.” Read the blog. I have praised Lee’s character elsewhere, and nobody is denying his brilliant campaigns.
      4. Tell me was Lincoln ethical in suspending the writ of habeas corpus? Now go check out the rationalizations list. This is “They did it too!” The post isn’t about Lincoln, or Sherman, or Sheridan. It’s about Lee. And I wasn’t comparing him to these, or Grant. I know all about Cold Harbor. I’ve written about that, too.
      5. The legalities of secession are irrelevant. Lee, who claimed to oppose slavery (but never quite was willing to free his slaves), was willing to get thousands of men killed in defense of it. Ethical and moral incoherence.

      Then your comment deteriorates into strains of “Dixie.”

      Get help, Quick.

      • Sadly, as I predicted, Fergus, Son of the South that he was, could only reply with a string of insults, and I banned him.

        I feel a little bad about the “get help” crack, but trying to re-litigate the Civil War in 2013 is not healthy, and his argument was incoherent.
        One thing worth mentioning—before he called me a narcissist in his spammed post, Col. Fergus accused me of an “ad hominem attack”, presumably because I said that he was a pompous ass. That was not an ad hominem attack, which properly means attacking the speaker rather than his position. I rebutted his position, and his statement “I am afraid your reach extends beyond your grasp historically…I suggest you stay away from these kind of topics or educate yourself” is the watermark of a pompous ass. Pompous asses can still have excellent abilities and good arguments—a lot of brilliant people are pompous asses…not this clown, but many. If you write like a pompous ass you risk being called on it, and that is NOT an “ad hominem attack.” It is a diagnosis, based on style and character, not substance.

  10. What of Henry Adam’s remark that Lee should have been hung for the damage he did to so many lives and the nation? Had the nation made the point that armed insurrection, and especially one to extend slavery into the territories, was both a crime and deserving of criminal punishment, might we not have avoided 80 years of Jim Crow?. The racial suppression via law and terrorism that continued for those additional 80 years–and still afflict us to some degree, was excused, underlain and romanticized by the “noble lost cause” narrative that Lee is central to. Had he been hung as a criminal, the greater good might have been served for many following generations.

    It is good for us to remember that Eisenhower himself was a racist at the time of his comment. As were the men leading the federal legislature and the vast majority of whites in the South and many of their counterpart in the North. It seems funny to discuss Lee, as he was and is embraced by “lost causers” then and now without mentioning the horror of the America of both the Civil War generation and the 1950s.

    Nice to crew over ethics, but a little reality here and there ought to intrude into our courteous discussion of Lee and racism. After all the Old South was nothing is not courteous.

  11. Does an honorable man renounce an oath, that he took, upon his honor? I think not. The southern politicians I can forgive, as they were “Politicians”. But, the military men of the south, especially the west pointers, in denouncing their oaths to their country, that they took, upon their honor, are a disgrace. Quartermaster Meigs had it exactly right. If it’s honorable to renounce an oath to your country, just because things weren’t going the way you personally had hoped, and wanted, then the word itself has been disgraced, along with all of the men who did so. What these west pointers did was selfish, and unpatriotic, and had nothing to do with Honor.

  12. First of all, this writer takes Lee entirely out of context. In 1860s America, most men’s loyalties were to “God, State, & Country” in that specific order. Lee simply followed the standard of ethics of his day. It was expressed by another future Confederate officer (John S. Mosby) thus; “Virginia is my mother, God bless her! I can’t fight against my mother, can I?” To whom is the greater loyalty due? A Government? Or would this article’s author, others of us, readily agree to make war against HIS (our) birthplace, family members and friends?

    One respondent commented about the oath of loyalty sworn by military men. Those are given as an adult. Loyalty to one’s home is given at birth. Furthermore, it is perfectly legal and acceptable for an officer to resign from military service and by that act being released from his oath. One officer did actually serve both side in the war and it was not held against him. He stayed with the Union through first Manassas (Bull Run) and decided he could not stomach fighting against his homeland, neighbors and friends. He resigned US service and went south. His actions were deemed acceptable and within the bounds of honor.

    Furthermore, to lay all the deaths of the war at his feet is ridiculous. Lee was one of the last to come to the South’s cause and then only after Virginia seceded. He did not take field command until 1862, then commanded only the one army, and was the first to surrender. Then there’s the fact that most of those deaths occurred because of disease, not battle casualties. To blame Lee for the war is even more blatantly ridiculous.

    He turned down an offer to command all the Union’s armies. Surely there could be no greater achievement for a lifetime of military service culminating in command of West Point Military Academy than that. Yet he turned it down. The is a remarkable example of following one’s principles.

    So looking at Lee as an example of honor and virtue among American leaders should be accepted. One might consider pointing out that he acted within the bounds of morals in place at the time.

    There’s another important point to consider. Lee freed his slaves and did not personally hold with slavery. It was neither illegal or immoral AT THAT TIME. Those actively opposed to slavery were merely a vocal minority. Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery but had no interest in opposing it politically. In 1861, the war was about preserving the Union. Technically, it only became about freeing the slaves in 1863 and then Lincoln only did so for military reasons. So to accuse Lee of serving to preserve slavery is also inaccurate.

    So to finish, it is important that we look at historical figures in the correct context of their times and to KNOW the history in which they played their part.

    • I was going to let this go as just another Lee worship rationalization piece, but for the luvva…

      1.Plenty of Virginians managed to make the right decision and oppose slavery, which was what was at issue. That Lee couldn’t find his way to that difficult but honorable path is entirely on him, context notwithstanding.
      2. One does not cancel an oath by leaving the service, or any profession, for that matter. There is no expiration date on honor. The assertion that “Loyalty to one’s home is given at birth” is desperate and silly. Who says???
      3. Re-reading the post, I’ll concede that “directly responsible” is excessive and factually incorrect. No, you can’t lay all the deaths at Lee’s feet. His decision to turn against the United States prolonged the war greatly and led to a great many deaths. I’m going to fix the error.
      4. It’s a remarkable example of someone making a tragically wrong call when faced with an ethical conflict. The right and more courageous call would have been to side with his nation and against slavery.
      5. Lee’s views on slavery were complex, but they were not as misrepresented by Lee’s cheering section. He didn’t free his slaves; they were freed by the conditions of the will of his father in law. He did not endorse abolition. Meanwhile, the single most important thing he did was to lead the rebellion aimed at preserving slavery.
      6. Slavery was legal. Slavery was, and always has been, unethical, and plenty of people recognized it during Lee’s lifetime and earlier. If it wasn’t immoral then, it’s not immoral now—the basis of morality, the Bible, hasn’t changed, you know.
      7. The vocal minority was right, as vocal minorities often are. Your defense of Lee would also apply to the Klan in the thirties and Bull Connor in the Sixties.
      8. “In 1861, the war was about preserving the Union.” Sophistry. The South opposed a Union that was hostile to slavery. The War was technically fought over the right to secession, but the reason for secession was slavery. Lincoln was on weak legal ground on secession, but on firm and higher moral and ethical ground regarding the need to end slavery.

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