I have a confession.
For most of my life, one of my heroes was Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who led the armies of the southern rebellion during the American Civil War. As a child, I was fascinated by the Civil War and quickly gravitated to Lee as its most brilliant general. In the books I read, Lee was portrayed as a reluctant rebel, forced by honor to defend his beloved Virginia. That he had owned many slaves was seldom mentioned.
Instead, my readings regaled me with stories of this gentleman soldier, kind and compassionate, dogged and determined, defeating and repulsing each Northern general he opposed. His final defeat was a sad event and the result of the brutal tactics of General Ulysses S. Grant, who was a drunk and butcher and eventually a terrible president. Even after I became an anti-racism proponent, this infatuation with Robert E. Lee went unexamined.
That changed last year when I read the book Grant, Ron Chernow’s award winning biography of Ulysses S. Grant. His description of Grant challenged all I had been taught and assumed. In Grant, I discovered an equally brilliant general, one who outmaneuvered every Southern general including Lee. While Grant did have a drinking problem, it was one he battled successfully for most of his life. He did so out of a deep commitment to serving his country and ending what he considered one of its greatest sins – the enslavement of black men, women and children.
As a president, he was responsible for the best eight years in American black history until the 1960s. Under his administration, the Klan was dismantled, blacks were educated and voted, their civil rights were protected, black Senators and representatives sat in Congress and white supremacy was temporarily thwarted. For this, he was deeply hated by white supremacists; many of whom would write the histories of the Civil War that I would read as a child. They sought to obscure and denigrate one of our more noble historic figures – someone who would have made a good hero.
Discovering the real Grant forced me to reexamine my infatuation with Robert E. Lee and to learn more about the Lost Cause movement that so influenced my childhood perceptions. In so doing, I discovered how subtly the meaning of the Civil War was and continues to be twisted. Lee was portrayed as a gentleman forced to defend his honor and not a disloyal soldier violating his oath of office. The War was reframed as a defense of states’ rights and not of enslavement. At the height of its power, the Lost Cause movement would build hundreds of memorials to Southern generals and soldiers across the nation, all with the intent of promoting a false narrative.
Perhaps one of my most vivid experiences of this narrative was when I visited the battlefield at Gettysburg. My family and I participated in a guided tour of Picket’s Charge, one of the most momentous moments of the war, where a Southern victory could have led to the rebellion’s success. As the guide led us across that grassy field, he waxed poetic about the bravery of Lee, Picket and the southern soldiers as they marched against a northern army hiding behind a stone wall on Seminary Ridge. Our tour ended at that wall, which was described as the high water mark of the Confederacy. We were then asked to look back across the field and remember all those who died in that battle.
Think about that.
In this story, the soldiers rebelling against the United States were the brave heroes who we should mourn. The northern solider were butchers, hiding behind walls and murdering the noble southerners. Though Picket’s Charge is largely seen as a strategic blunder that led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, the events of that day are named after this southern general. That event is not called Meade’s Stand, though it was Meade and the northern soldiers who won this battle. Instead, we are left with the impression that Picket’s defeat was a tragedy.
It was not.
Picket’s defeat would be the beginning of the end of the southern rebellion. His defeat meant that almost three million black men, women and children would soon be freed from enslavement. What died on Seminary Ridge was not a noble lost cause, but an ugly and brutal system of denigration, violence and murder.
Here is the truth about Robert E. Lee. He owned a large plantation with many enslaved men, women and children. Much of his wealth was tied up in these enslaved people. Like many in Virginia, his primary cash crop was humans, selling off parents from their children and children from their parents. He personally whipped disobedient slaves and had brine poured in their wounds. Lee argued that enslavement was a good practice, necessary for the disciplining and training of an inferior race. In other words, Lee was an ardent white supremacist.
Robert E. Lee is no longer heroic to me. I’ve become a fan of Ulysses S. Grant, the general who defeated Lee and ended his way of life. I have also become increasingly aware of how the Lost Cause movement continues to thrive in the United States. Our textbooks still offer its twisted narrative, our parks still have monuments to its lies, our movies still present its propaganda and tour guides at Gettysburg still mourn the wrong soldiers.
This is why racism is so insidious in the United States. We are still not united. Too many of us still understand the Civil War differently. We still have Confederate flags flying over southern state capitals. Too many people still admire Robert E. Lee. For many, the Civil War remains a tragic defeat instead of a glorious victory.
Our national heroes say much about us.
Honoring Ulysses S. Grant more than Robert E. Lee would be a good start in rethinking our history and nation.