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On and Off the Pedestal - Victor Davis Hanson


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On and Off the Pedestal

Robert E. Lee’s legacy has suffered over the past two years. After George Floyd’s death in 2020, a summer of protest, riots, looting, and iconoclasm caused Lee to undergo a Roman-like damnatio memoriae. His reputation descended abruptly from the tragic figure in Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary, The Civil War, in which the baritoned actor George Black often read Lee’s words, chosen to convey his supposedly consistent opposition to slavery. Today, 31 years later, Burns’s portrait of Lee has been vehemently attacked by Ta-Nehisi Coates and other wokerati as ahistorical and racialist; and Burns himself would have to produce a very different PBS series on the Civil War today.

Writing in the liberal Atlantic last year, General David Petraeus confessed his own growing discomfort:

[T]hroughout my Army career, I likewise encountered enthusiastic adherents of various Confederate commanders, and a special veneration for Lee…. It gives me considerable pause, for example, to note that my alma mater, West Point, honors Robert E. Lee with a gate, a road, an entire housing area, and a barracks, the last of which was built during the 1960s. A portrait of Lee with an enslaved person adorns a wall of the cadet library, the counterpoint to a portrait of Grant, his Civil War nemesis…. We do not live in a country to which Braxton Bragg, Henry L. Benning, or Robert E. Lee can serve as an inspiration. Acknowledging this fact is imperative.

Perhaps, but why did it become imperative in 2020, nearly 60 years after the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest achievements? In an incisive CRB essay earlier this year (“There Goes Robert E. Lee,” Spring 2021), Christopher Caldwell pointed out that General Stanley McChrystal had the same Road to Damascus revelations a bit earlier. In 2018, McChrystal—previously known for his key role in eliminating arch-terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for the Rolling Stone-“Joe Bite-me” incident that prompted his forced resignation, and for creating a successful corporate leadership company, McChrystal Group—decided that he had had quite enough of worshiping Lee. Writing also in the Atlantic a little more than a year after the controversial Charlottesville riots, McChrystal’s own mea culpa was more personal than Petraeus’s. The subtitle to his essay, “At 63, I Threw Away My Prized Portrait of Robert E. Lee,” was, “I was raised to venerate Lee the principled patriot—but I want no association with Lee the defender of slavery.” McChrystal’s essay began, “On a Sunday morning in 2017 I took down his picture, and by afternoon it was in the alley with other rubbish awaiting transport to the local landfill for final burial. Hardly a hero’s end.”

That eight-hour switch to “rubbish” was quick. Yet one might wonder exactly what were the immediate circumstances that prompted McChrystal’s confessional, given that there have been numerous scholarly as well as popular negative reassessments of Lee over recent decades. What explained the abrupt swing from his past decades of idolizing Lee to literally trashing him?

* * *

I confess I have never understood the veneration of Lee. In The Soul of Battle (1999), I contrasted the revered and kindly Lee—“his dignity, his manners, his composure” as Allen Guelzo puts it in his excellent and timely new biography—with the widely disliked, far rougher Ohioan, William Tecumseh Sherman, architect of the Union forces’ “March to the Sea”::snip:

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@Geee

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Today, 31 years later, Burns’s portrait of Lee has been vehemently attacked by Ta-Nehisi Coates and other wokerati...

I am reminded of something Winston Churchill said (I paraphrase) "If Hitler invaded hell, I would endeavor so say something positive about The Devil in the House Of Commons."  If/WHEN they attack someone/something I can almost always find a reason to support that person/idea. Now When they attack (say) The KKK, it would be a Hard Slog to find something good to say about them (they have passion?), but generally if Coates is against something/someone I'm For Them.

On R.E. Lee these people really are Quite Ignorant. The really don't know much/any history.

BTW

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One of the few books I consider A Must Read.

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Why we should admire Lee (Should Read)

April 1865: The Month That Saved America Jay Winik

April 1865 was a month that could have unraveled the nation. Instead, it saved it. Here Jay Winik offers a brilliant new look at the Civil War's final days that will forever change the way we see the war's end and the nation's new beginning. Uniquely set within the larger sweep of history, filled with rich profiles of outsize figures, fresh iconoclastic scholarship, and a gripping narrative, this is a masterful account of the thirty most pivotal days in the life of the United States.

It was not inevitable that the Civil War would end as it did, or that it would end at all well. Indeed, it almost didn't. Time and again, critical moments could have plunged the nation back into war or fashioned a far harsher, more violent, and volatile peace. Now, in a superbly told story, Winik captures the epic images and extraordinary history as never before. This one month witnessed the frenzied fall of Richmond; a daring last-ditch Southern plan for guerrilla warfare; Lee's harrowing retreat; and then Appomattox. It saw Lincoln's assassination just five days later, and a near-successful plot to decapitate the Union government, followed by chaos and coup fears in the North, collapsed negotiations and continued bloodshed in the South, and finally, the start of national reconciliation. In the end, April 1865 emerges as not just the tale of the war's denouement, but the story of the making of our nation.

Provocative, bold, exquisitely rendered, and stunningly original, April 1865 is the first major reassessment of the Civil War's close and is destined to become one of the great stories of American history

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