Grant and Lee: How do you respond to the opposing political beliefs they represe

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  • #4143

    Mr. Stephens

    I’m a Virginian. And I’m old enough to have had a great-great-grandfather who ran away from home at sixteen to fight for the Confederacy. But I’ve found it hard to put myself in the political shoes of one of the greatest Virginians, Robert E. Lee.

    Lee did think it was “somehow of advantage to human society” to base society on inequality. But I think Catton’s “somehow” is a bit of a cop-out. The Virginia Cavaliers had a well-thought-through society based on Virginia Governor William Berkeley’s singular recruitment of distressed Cavaliers in the middle of the seventeenth century. While it promoted order and settlement, Berkeley’s Cavalier values oppressed women, indentured servants, and, finally, African slaves. While their values did cause many Cavaliers to “meet the solemn obligations which had been laid on them by” their privileged position — witness General Washington as well as General Lee — it caused them also to misconstrue or to regret the Declaration’s Equality Clause, which Lincoln called “the sheet-anchor of American republicanism.” And to treat other people as less than themselves is never honorable.

    Perhaps I’m looking at things simply as a twenty-first-century American. Perhaps, despite my heritage, I haven’t done enough to understand Lee’s culture. I’m currently reading Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer, which discusses Lee’s culture a lot. I look forward to learning more about it.

  • #4281


    I agree that of the two opposing commanders’ ideologies, Lee’s is the more difficult to relate to. I think it is of importance, though, to note how the region’s cultural identity shaped Lee’s mindset. The South -far more than the North- prided itself on the preservation of honor, and the often violent defense of it (thus, the many tales of fistfights, canings, gougings, and the occasional sword- or pistol-duel). While Lee, as Catton notes, was of a background that was reminiscent of an older, chivalric and noble age (and that “…Lee embodied the noblest elements of this aristocratic ideal.”) and was probably above settling honor feuds with fists and guns, he still possessed an extremely strong sense of personal honor and loyalty to country- only that his greater loyalty lay with his state. Even his personal views led him to reject slavery and continued resistance; he had freed his slaves and rejected the institution, and after the war promoted peaceful reconstruction and equality for African-Americans and former slaves. I don’t think he fought as much to promote slavery or to separate from the Union, but to preserve Virginia’s rightful place within it.

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