President Trump sent certain segments of population into outraged spasms on Friday when he described Robert E. Lee as a “great general.” Trying to lend context to his infamous “very fine people” remark about the 2017 Charlottesville protests, Trump said this:
I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general. Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals. I have spoken to many generals here, right at the White House, and many people thought — of the generals, they think that he was maybe their favorite general.
Trump is, of course, completely correct. Robert E. Lee has always been regarded as a military genius, and for good reason. This is not controversial to anyone with a sixth grade education in American history. But surveys show that many Americans don’t even know when the Civil War took place, and a sizable number think Lincoln led the Allied Forces rather than the Union Army, so it’s no surprise that basic statements of historical fact have become contentious in our age of aggressive stupidity.
I found myself in the crossfire of the controversy when I posted on Twitter in support of Trump’s statement and provided my personal list of the best Civil War generals. I give Lee the top spot, followed by Jackson, Grant, Sherman, and then Nathan Bedford Forrest. You could certainly make an argument for Longstreet, Sheridan, Thomas, or Cleburne in any one of those spots. But you cannot make an argument for a list of top Civil War generals that completely excludes all Confederates. There aren’t five Union generals better than Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson. There isn’t even one, in my view. In his Valley Campaign, Jackson marched his brigade of shoeless farm boys 600 miles through the mountains over the course of a month and a half, winning five pivotal battles against a combined force that outnumbered his 2:1. Grant never did anything quite like that, though he was impressive in his own right — and the victor, after all.
But I was informed by hundreds of people that I am a racist, just like Trump, for daring to give the Rebels any credit at all. We have reached a point where we cannot acknowledge any of the achievements of morally flawed historical figures. We must pretend they never existed. Driving this point home, a number of people insisted that ranking Confederates as great generals is like ranking Nazis as great generals. That’s ridiculous, because of course some Nazi generals were great generals. Erwin Rommel was a great general, as anyone who has studied WW2 knows. The fact that he was fighting on the side of abject evil does not erase his military genius.
If we cannot acknowledge the greatness of morally compromised military commanders, then we cannot acknowledge the greatness of any military commander. Not a single one of them would pass muster by the standards of today’s anachronizing blowhards. Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great — all must be removed from the history books. Even the Union commanders in the Civil War get thrown out with this bath water. Grant was an anti-Semite who tried to evict all the Jews from his military district. Sherman was a war criminal. Lincoln was a racist who publicly professed his bigotry during a debate with Stephen Douglas:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
If we are not willing to see things in their historical context, and to accept that people in the past weren’t as racially enlightened as we are today, then we will be left with no heroes, no great men at all. But if we are willing to forgive Lincoln his virulent racism, and Grant his predilection for ethnic cleansing, then we must extend a similar generosity to men like Robert E. Lee.
Nothing will make slavery anything less than a moral abomination. And it is true that slavery was a very significant motivating factor behind secession, as Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina all made abundantly clear in their Declaration of Causes of Seceding States. But it is equally true that many men who did the fighting on both sides did not perceive themselves to be fighting over slavery. There’s a reason Lincoln waited two years to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He said early on that if he could keep the country together by keeping slavery, he would do it. To him, and to the Union soldiers on the ground, it was a fight to preserve the Union. The sad fact of the matter is that most Northerners were racist themselves and would not have charged into gunfire for the sake of liberating the slaves, no matter how distasteful they found the institution.
For their part, many southern soldiers thought they were fighting a war of defense against hostile invaders. There’s a reason Jefferson Davis did not send his army to capture Washington, even though perhaps they could have done so after the stunning Confederate victory at Bull Run to start the war. This is the reality Robert E. Lee confronted. He was offered command of Union forces but declined because, as a loyal Virginian, he could not march against his home state. He saw it as a choice between defending his home or the Union. He chose his home.
Perhaps you would have chosen differently. Perhaps you would have taken up arms against your own family. Perhaps you would have been more enlightened than almost everyone else and seen the struggle in the same light that spectators in the future would see it. I congratulate this hypothetical version of yourself, in that case. It’s true that Robert E. Lee lacked this sort of enlightenment. It’s also true that when he was faced with a difficult dilemma, he made the choice he thought was right, and then proceeded to win battle after battle against a foe with superior numbers, superior weaponry, and superior resources. That’s why he’s a great general.