The Greatness of Robert E. Lee

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Robert E. Lee was something of a paradox. His father, Light Horse Harry Lee had been a hero of the Revolutionary War, but something less than a hero in civilian life, amassing huge debts and eventually deserting his family. This must have conditioned Robert Lee to do better than his father had.
He became a soldier, and spent 32 years serving the United States until the Civil War. He didn’t approve of secession, but also couldn’t see fighting against his home state of Virginia. Having seen war in Mexico (the Mexican War of 1846, where many of the prominent soldiers of the Civil War also fought), he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of Civil War, as many were on both sides, but elected to serve his native state as best he could, as a professional soldier. It wasn’t the war he would have chosen to fight in, but at the same time he knew he was a very good soldier.
Many on both sides thought the war would be over quickly. Lee had no such illusions. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, thought the South could outlast the North. Lee had no illusion about that either. He knew the North was more industrialized, and could therefore produce more equipment for war, could transport it more easily than could the South (the North had more railroads), and the North also had a larger population from which to draft soldiers. He knew that if he couldn’t win the war quickly it would be impossible to win, so that was what he tried to do. He never quite succeeded, but at times came very close.
His role-model as a general was Winfield Scott, whom he had observed at close range during the Mexican War. Scott believed in maneuvering to make the best possible use of his troops, and Lee imitated him in that respect. Scott had also been fighting a war with a disadvantage in manpower, and maneuvering had given him his best chance to beat the Mexican army while losing as few men as possible.
But the Mexican army had been poorly trained, and Lee knew that this would not be true of the Union army. Up until the point that he took command Confederate armies had been almost uniformly unsuccessful, with only one or two exceptions. Lee changed that.
He had help, of course. Generals Stonewall Jackson, Longstreet, Johnston and Stuart all worked well at his direction, Jackson perhaps best of all, so that his death was a particular blow to Lee and the South. And both sides had very large armies. Lee at times had as many as 90,000 or so troops, while the armies he faced often had well over 100,000. It was a very large-scale war. The most publicized actions were in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the latter two invaded by Lee in the hope of not only drawing Federal armies out of Virginia, but of provoking a climactic battle that might decide the war. He came close to doing so in Pennsylvania, but failed at least in part because his various troops didn’t coordinate well enough to fight the Northern soldiers most efficiently. Lee also had the interesting trait, for a soldier, of not liking confrontation. He liked his subordinate commanders to use their initiative, which sometimes brought him good results, but not at Gettysburgh.
After Gettysburgh it rapidly became clear that the South couldn’t continue fighting much longer. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi had given the North control of the river. Fighting continued in Kentucky and Tennessee, but the commanders there weren’t able to follow up what successes they had. Meanwhile, Sherman’s army had entered Georgia and was making its destructive way from there to the South Carolina coast. At the same time Grant was confronting Lee with superior manpower and probably greater skill than the generals Lee had been fighting before. Confederate supplies had also broken down, so soldiers might go several days without food. Southern soldiers began to desert.
At that point came Lee’s surrender to Grant, to stop the fighting and further unnecessary bloodshed. That surrender began a terrible period for the South. Many people felt their cause had been just, and couldn’t understand why they’d lost the war.
And, exacerbating the situation, was the region’s military occupation and its treatment as a conquered territory instead of a part of the Union. There were feelings of resentment on both sides, preventing both from seeing the other’s point of view. Southerners resented not only the conquering Northerners, but the blacks who tried to assert their equality. Lee tried to combat these bad feelings.
Lee was a man of his times, meaning that while he disliked slavery in the abstract, he owned slaves himself. However, he freed those he had, according to his father-in-law’s will, within about 5 years, and 3 days before the Emancipation Proclamation. He said that he believed blacks to be generally not ready for freedom (as most whites did in that time and place), but in an Episcopal church when people were invited to come to the front of the church, and a black man did, no whites would–until Robert Lee did. The biographer, Emory M. Thomas, says that Lee’s actions often contradicted his words, frequently in a good way.
After the war ended Lee became president of Washington College, and showed he was more than just a military leader. He had strong feelings about education and implemented them at Washington College, changing its curriculum from study of the classics (though he didn’t jettison those) to study of mathematics, modern languages and engineering, which prepared his college to become a 20th century university. But his health wasn’t good (Thomas surmises angina pectoris and atherosclerosis), and he lived barely 5 years after the war.
Considering the hardships he’d undergone during the war (he was about 54 when it began, 58 when it ended, old for those times) it’s surprising he had even survived it. He shared the hardships of weather and poor food with his soldiers, and the responsibilities of command added to his physical difficulties, even if those didn’t immediately show.
Thomas emphasizes his attitude as being critical to his success as both a soldier and human being. He tried above all to be realistic, to see things as they were, and make the best of them. He saw failure as bringing as many opportunities as success, so he wasn’t happy with failure, but didn’t let it bother him as much as many, and always tried to learn from it. He also believed that his duty as a human being was to help others.
If Lee had had his way both North and South would have reconciled and let all bitterness go. Of course that’s not the way it happened. You would think the bitterness would be gone 150 years later, but it seems instead to be at least one of the bases of contemporary political bitterness.
The author of New Mind of the South points out that conservatism and racism aren’t exactly the same thing, though they frequently seem to overlap. She says that conservatives could understand when black people were able to buy houses in previously all-white communities that the owners of those houses had the right to sell them to anyone they wanted (though they didn’t care for the result). What they couldn’t understand was not having the right to refuse to sell to anyone they wished. Few people, it seems, can make the leap into understanding another’s point of view.
Lee’s view of democracy was more like that of the Founders than what is current today. He believed the people of the best families and proven competence should rule. An elitist sort of democracy, but very similar to the ancient Athenian practice. But his actions prove that he also had a sense of justice. He may not have had a high opinion of blacks, but didn’t blindly hate them. He wasn’t happy with the loss of the war, in which his family had lost much of their property and savings (as well as at least one grandchild), but found a way to make a living doing something he believed in.
How different from today, when the face of racism changes, but only glacially. Trayvon Martin is probably the mirror image of the white slave-owner who felt free to use the women he owned for his own satisfaction. The opposite picture, of a black man taking advantage of whites in some way was deeply frightening, and remains so. Few whites seem to have been able to make the imaginative leap into the minds of black people to see their point of view.
I used to listen to Michael Savage’s radio program, and some years ago he talked about losing a job he had applied for because of Affirmative Action. After some 35 years he seemed still to be angry about it. Apparently he lacked the imagination to understand that there had been a from of Affirmative Action before, known as segregation, in which any African-American could rarely get a decent job no matter how qualified.
Another man, an aide to Rand Paul, with whom Paul apparently coauthored a book, claims to celebrate the birthday of John Wilkes Booth every year, and compares Abraham Lincoln to Saddam Hussein. Whether or not the Civil War, and Lincoln’s actions within that war, were justified, had he simply allowed the South to secede, or had the South won, Rand Paul’s aide might now be having the opportunity to experience BEING property, as opposed to having it.
Robert E. Lee’s beliefs may have been pretty conventional for his time, though I’d say he was a relatively enlightened man. What separates him from many people then and now, besides his abilities as a soldier, is that his sense of justice didn’t center on himself. Everyone wants a happy life, but many don’t understand or agree as to what constitutes happiness. Lee’s understanding was one that many didn’t share then or now. His actions and demonstrated abilities say he was great, but part of his greatness consists in his refusing to claim greatness.

The New Mind of the South

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The South is the most interesting region of the United States for a number of reasons, race being one of the most important ones. I’ve been living in Virginia for the past 12 years, but can’t say I have much understanding of the Southern character or mindset. One reason is that I work nights and weekend, so my social circle is limited. But Tracy Thompson’s The New Mind of the South gives me a lot of insights.
Thompson is a Southerner herself, having grown up in the Atlanta area, but having left to pursue a career in journalism. So the Southern mindset is native to her, though she says she didn’t understand it very well for quite awhile.
One reason for that is the Big Lie. The Big Lie is about the Civil War (War Between the States to Southerners). That war remains the central event of our history, and the central trauma of the South. The Big Lie began to be concocted shortly after the war to rationalize what had happened, to justify Southern despair and anger, and their subsequent actions.
Perhaps the most telling example is that of Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America, who wrote sometime after the war that its cause was States Rights. In 1861 he had written it was because of slavery.
That’s the essence of the Big Lie: a war that killed some 650,000 Americans (at least) and devastated the South had been started over an abstract Constitutional principle. It was only after the war that universal public education was begun in this country, and Southerners took care to make sure that nothing was taught in their schools about the war that they disapproved of. So the war was fought because of the North’s jealousy of the South’s wealth, the North’s desire to push the South around, and the North’s desire to retain the tariffs on trade to and from Southern ports. Most slaves loved their masters, and were loved in return. Mistreatment of slaves was committed by overseers, not the masters. In fact, thousands of slaves volunteered to fight for the Confederates.
Thompson doesn’t document the truth or falsehood of this last piece of information, but she does note that one of her ancestors at the time fought on the Union side, as did a lot of north Georgians. The South was by no means monolithic in its opinions.
By the turn of the 19th century the Big Lie had been well-established in the South, and no one could grow up there without being influenced by it. Thompson was growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, and said it was alive and well there then, and quite likely for some time after.
Things have been changing in the South, though. The Civil Rights movement changed a number of things, of course, but on a lower profile, immigration has made quite a difference too. Some Southern states aren’t at all happy about the number of Hispanic immigrants pouring into their states, and Georgia and Alabama at least have enacted some draconian immigration laws. But Thompson visited the small city of Asheboro, North Carolina, a mostly rural area where a lot of Hispanics have settled. Not everyone likes them being there, of course, but they’ve impressed some natives, even very conservative people. One she quoted as saying that they have a tremendous work ethic, and create their own jobs, while sending money back to their native country (most of the settlers in the area are Mexican). Thompson observes that the Hispanic culture isn’t so different from Southern culture: both are quite conservative and family-oriented, and both are centered around pride. She quotes another Asheboro resident who visited the area in Mexico from which most of the immigrants had come, and found that it was very similar to the land around Asheboro, which in itself makes an interesting parallel.
Thompson also points out that the conservatism of the South is that of a region with repeated traumas. These traumas have produced an intense desire for stability, and without a trust in continued stability no one is likely to be very liberal. The Civil War was the worst, of course, but the Great Depression (though some Southerners joked that it was hardly noticed, since it came in the middle of hard times) prompted two very large migrations. The more famous one was that of blacks to the North, but there was another, of whites to the West, notably California. They took their customs there with them: evangelical Christianity and Southern community, formed close-knit communities with other Southerners, and eventually influenced the area around them, turning evangelical Christianity into big business.
That’s a convergence not everyone likes (including me), but the abstract idea of business being influenced by the morality of religion and religion becoming more efficient through business methods has proved quite practical. I don’t care much for the mainfestation, but it’s been a very successful enterprise.
The Civil Rights movement was the third great trauma for the South, and its effects are still resonating, particularly in politics. But at the same time, between immigrants, a mostly unpublicized remigration of black people to the South, and the at least partial demise of segregation, things are changing in the South.
For one thing, interracial marriage is much more accepted than before, despite the painful history of interracial sex. There have been books about black and white families related to each other, some of whom have become accepting, others of whom have not. One black woman received a qualified welcome from white relatives in Virginia (her white ancestor had moved from Virginia to Mississippi, where his descendents were born). Some accepted her and were willing to listen to at least some of what she had to say. But the women of the family seemed the least accepting. White slaveowners had considered sex with black women one of their perquisites, which caused a lot of pain to their white wives who were so casually disregarded.
It seems pretty obvious, though I hadn’t considered it before, that the horror of miscegnation that led to lynchings of any black man who even LOOKED at a white woman wrong had its source in the use of black women by white men for sexual satisfaction. It wasn’t acceptable, but was widely practiced, and remains one of the barriers to reconciliation between black and white.
But there are attempts at reconciliation going on. Confronting the sins of one’s ancestors and the suffering they caused isn’t easy, but there are a variety of places in the South (and perhaps elsewhere) that it’s being tried, based on the attempts at reconciliation in South Africa to heal the wounds of its own apartheit. Small as this movement may be in this country, it certainly is a hopeful development.
While Thompson doesn’t blink at the wrongheadedness of the South, past and present, she remains a Southerner, and loves the region and many of its customs too. It’s not as if the North or any other region was especially morally superior to the South at any point in history or today, and the South is unique in having had the greatest number of black people of any region. Whites influenced blacks in the south, but blacks also influenced whites. The most obvious example is music: jazz, blues, gospel, country and rock & roll all had their beginnings in the South and have tremendously influenced music from at least the end of the 19th century until now. No doubt there are other, perhaps more subtle examples.
And Thompson points out that, unlike the North, and other later-settled regions, the South was primarily agrarian, and consequently very family-centered. This is a positive aspect that has largely been lost in this era of factory farms, especially in other regions. It’s one of the positive things that still survives in the South, despite increasing urbanization, and is well worth imitating elsewhere.
Thompson says that people have always thought they had the South defined, only to find it morphing into something else. The miseries of slavery produced blues, jazz and gospel. Evangelical religion merged with big business. The South may still be insular in some places and some respects, but there are more black mayors of big cities there than in other regions. The horrors of life in the South have often been better publicized than its joys. It’s always been at least an INTERESTING region, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue.

Roger Zelazny’s Amber Series

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Roger Zelazny, the science fiction and fantasy writer, wrote two series about a place called Amber, first described as the place of basic reality, of which all other worlds were just a shadow, and there were many shadows. Of course the first description was over-simplified, and he expanded the definition quite a bit as his series progressed.
Amber is ruled by a dysfunctional royal family, although each individual is talented and most are intelligent. The father and ruler, Oberon, is vital and devious, and very long-lived, as are his children. His children’s main preoccupation is scheming over the succession, which raises their emotions to occasionally murderous heights.
The first book begins with the narrator awaking in a mental hospital and realizing that he doesn’t know who he is. He breaks out of the place, finds his sister’s house, and tries to get information from her without telling her his amnesiac situation. From there a lot of action, and while he accumulates information he still doesn’t remember much until he finally admits all he’s forgotten. Fortunately for him, there’s a cure.
Amber is based on a Pattern, and walking this pattern will, among other things, restore memory. It also gives or strengthens the ability to travel through Shadow. Corwin (the narrator) walks the Pattern and most of his life comes back to him. He’s been stranded on our version of the earth for more than 300 years after a fight with one of his brothers left him with amnesia. He’s tried before to realize his identity, but unsuccessfully. The brother currently running Amber is the brother he fought with and hates, and he decides he’ll try to overthrow him to rule Amber himself.
So far maybe only slightly different from most fantasy premises. But Corwin’s journey isn’t just about discovering new things, but realizing that his past perspective was incomplete. Things had not been as he’d thought, and he realizes that he likes many of his siblings and respects most of those he doesn’t like. As such, it’s a story of a story of reconciliation, something many of us have to undertake at one time or another.
Each son and daughter of Amber has a deck of cards, of which the trump cards are pictures of each of them. These cards are also a method of transportation and communication. You can use them like a phone, travel to the person you’ve contacted through them, or have the person travel to you. Corwin early in the series gets weak messages from his father and one of his brothers. His brother is imprisoned somewhere, and his father also seems very far away, but tells Corwin to take the throne if he can. Corwin makes a couple of tries at that, succeeding the second time.
But in the midst of that he’s also revisiting the past. He visits a world where he used to be a king, and meets someone he used to know and fell out with. He meets his oldest brother again, the greatest fighter in the universe, who has wisely decided he has no desire to be king of Amber, but protects a kingdom in the shadow world.
He has something to protect it from too, as there’s a black road running through all the worlds, with nasty things coming down it and attacking people and kingdoms. After Corwin has completed his arrangements and has invaded Amber he finds the black road there too, and is just in time to defeat an attack from it, in which his brother, who had taken the crown, dies. Corwin takes charge, but has a lot to do.
One of his first moves is to rescue the brother who’s been imprisoned, which opens up a large can of worms. Corwin discovers there have been two different groups vying for the crown of Amber, and this brother, Brand, has been the central figure of one of them. It gradually emerges that he’s something of a sorcerer and has the grand ambition to destroy the Pattern on which the universe is based and make a new one, with himself as the king, if not the god. He has therefore damaged the pattern by shedding the blood of the son of one of Corwin’s brothers on it, which is part of the reason for the black road.
It further emerges that the Pattern is one end of a spectrum, the other end of which is the Logrus at the Courts of Chaos, a place where the natural laws we take for granted are rather topsy-turvy. Corwin, his siblings, father and grandfather ultimately derive from the Courts of Chaos and made the Pattern as an act of rebellion. People living at the Courts believe that the Pattern has become too powerful, and the balance between it and the Logrus need to be adjusted. They’ve been allies of Brand, but don’t necessarily support his more megalomaniac ambitions.
So there are a lot of twists and turns in the series. Brand is finally defeated, after causing a lot of trouble, and so are his allies in the Courts of Chaos. Oberon reappears and tries to repair the Pattern, dying in the attempt. He wants Corwin to take the throne, but Corwin has realized he doesn’t want it, that his previous desire for it had been based on competition with his brothers. The end of the series seems apocalyptic, but turns out not to be. Brand, who has gone so far that he’s eternally untrustworthy, is killed, but takes one of his siters with him into death. The rest survive.
One might see this as the redemption of a family, but also as the redemption of the various aspects of an individual, some of which have to die for development to continue. One wonders just where Zelazny’s thoughts were coming from when writing this. Perhaps an archetypal situation spoke through him.
He wrote a sequel series to this one, but that one didn’t seem to have a deep pattern underlying it. Lots of action and characters, and interruptions, but no meaningful design. I believe he passed away not many years after completing that sequel, so maybe his powers were failing.
In the first series, as Corwin is riding towards the Courts of Chaos, a talking bird starts following him, talking defeatist philosophy to him. Corwin isn’t buying it. He’s going to try his best, and if that isn’t good enough, so be it. I can’t disagree. Even the supremely gifted in the story have to struggle, and some do it in better ways than others. Without that struggle there would have been no reconciliation, and that whole process, involving reevaluation, admission of mistakes and wrongdoing, and at least attempting recompense seems to be a most important one in human life. No one lives without making mistakes, but Corwin is able to learn from his and accept both his own part in what has happened and his misunderstanding of what had been happening. Which is something most of us probably have need of doing, as that seems to be one of the few valid ways to achieve peace.

Thomas Jefferson, his Slaves, and Cal Thomas

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There was an interesting confluence in the local paper the other day. One writer commented on Cal Thomas’s (the conservative columnist) racial attitudes in the Trayvon Martin case right next to a column by Thomas fulminating about how Ho Chi Minh wasn’t comparable to Thomas Jefferson because of his record on human rights and his having established a one-party Communist government in Vietnam.
It’s true that Ho didn’t greatly resemble Jefferson, except in being instrumental in expelling unwanted foreign powers from his country. One might have expected Thomas to sympathize with him THAT far, but apparently not.
The third element in the confluence was a book by Henry Wiencek, Master of the Mountain, which I am currently reading, and which deals with Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves. Jefferson is well known for his uneasy feelings about the institution of slavery–and for having never freed his slaves. The reason for the latter seems to be that he was deeply conflicted about race.
When he was growing up Jefferson was often taken care of by black people, and loved and trusted them. As a young man he denounced slavery, and was given a rude reception, after which he was quieter about it. As a somewhat older man, with a family and a large inherited debt, he apparently changed his mind, though perhaps not entirely. Wiencek says the crucial decade was approximately between 1780 and 1790, when Jefferson realized that slaves were financial assets, and because they reproduced their worth appreciated.
The value of some of his slaves also appreciated because he trained them in a wide variety of skills. He switched from growing tobacco to growing wheat, and wheat demanded more skills than tobacco. He needed to have a smith on the plantation to make plows and metal tools, he needed draft animals with suitable shelters, to grow suitable foods to sustain the animals, to manure and rotate crops on the fields. He needed slaves with sufficient skills to do all these things, and he managed to train a number of them, who took responsibility for many things, and were sometimes rewarded with money (though not as well as their white counterparts) for doing their jobs so responsibly.
Those highly trained slaves were a minority, though. Most of the slaves worked in the fields, where less skill, but much industry was needed. Jefferson didn’t like punishing slaves himself, but that was an essential part of making sure his plantation ran as he intended. For that he used overseers, who whipped not only adult slaves, but also the relatively young boys who worked in the nail factory Jefferson had establishes, and which brought him a good profit.
A number of his slaves seemed to be happy, some of them testifying to that long after his death, but not all were. During the Revolutionary War one of his slave families ran away to the British, who were promising to set slave free. Unfortunately for them, they died of disease, as many of the soldiers were doing at the same time. Running away from a plantation that was fairly secure to follow an army seems something only desperate people would do.
Another, later slave was the child of one of Jefferson’s favorites, and was generally well-treated. He started working in the nail factory Jefferson had on his plantation, which produced enough nails to make a good profit. The slave didn’t do well at first, but eventually became extremely skilled at the job. But though he had a relatively high status he repeatedly ran away, once being gone for a year before being captured and returned. He vowed to seek religion then, but ran away again. We don’t know what happened to him ultimately, but may surmise that it wasn’t pleasant.
The Marquis de Rochefoucault-Liancourt, a friend of Jefferson’s from when he was ambassador to France, visited the plantation, and observing how skilled many of the best slaves were, inquired as to whether these hadn’t developed far enough to be freed. Jefferson denied that they were, but said nothing very germane. Once he had begun to retreat from advocating freeing the slaves he came up with a variety of excuses and comments: Slavery would soon end. Ending slavery had to wait until whites could be mentally prepared to accept it. Slaves were childish and too incompetent to be free. Slaves couldn’t be freed until they could be exiled to some other country or countries because they would cause too much disharmony here. Slaves had been freed, but the experiment hadn’t worked. This last was untrue: it had worked so well in Virginia, where Quakers had instigated manumission of slaves (then illegal) that the manumissions were legalized retroactively.
With all Jefferson’s ideals, intelligence and inventiveness, he was stuck in the reality of owning slaves, and didn’t really want to abolish that, since it was convenient and profitable for him. As in many other things, he was an innovator in finding more efficient ways to run his estate. After switching crops from tobacco to wheat, for example, he had men in a wagon follow the harvesters, sharpening the scythes and sickles that were being used, so the harvesters need not pause.
He also built a large and efficient kitchen for that time, especially because he was ending his term as President and expected large numbers of visitors thereafter. Most plantations had cooking done in shacks with rudimentary equipment. Jefferson’s cooks learned to produce the French cooking he loved.
Another notable aspect of the plantation was that the slave cultivated their own gardens and sold a large amount of the produce to Jefferson. At first glance this seems like a benign arrangement, except that there was a huge disparity between the rations Jefferson allowed his slaves and those he provided for his overseers. Without the gardens his slaves would have rapidly starved, especially the elderly, no longer able to work. Their rations were cut in half at that point.
So Jefferson, for all his good qualities, and he was a very talented and energetic man, wasn’t quite the role model for civil rights that Cal Thomas implies. He was unusual for his mileau in even questioning the institution of slavery, but refused to take the next step and free his slaves. George Washington, on the other hand, did free his. When elected the first President of the United States, he at first took very few slaves with him to Philadelphia (then the nation’s capitol) for fear they would escape to freedom. But later he deliberately brought slaves with him and freed them. He didn’t publicize this, and I only found out about it in the past few years, but on this subject Washington was action, while Jefferson was talk.
In my opinion, the other commentator in the local paper was right to question what a young Cal Thomas would have done had he been stalked by someone bigger than him who had a gun. It’s already been pointed out that if Trayvon Martin had been the stalker and killer there would have been very little question of his conviction. As the commentator points out, Thomas, like many other conservatives, prefers to ignore the evidence of racism, and seems not to have enough imagination to understand what it might be like to actually be persecuted himself.
As little as he likes Ho Chi Minh, and as much as he reveres Thomas Jefferson, it would be nice if he would realize that Jefferson, for all his talents, abilities and contributions to the founding of this nation, was also infected with the pathogenic idea of racism, which continues to cause monstrous suffering in this country.