". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Reading Wednesday -- Robert E. Lee

Off and on this fall I've been reading accounts of Robert E. Lee, particularly in the context of where, in hindsight's 20/20 vision, he decisively lost the war of southern aggression, Gettysburg.

Michael Korda's The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (2014) is a curious work within this context.  He fairly closed the book with the loss of Gettysburg, however, he doesn't go all the way through the battle.  Korda spends nearly 100 pages as a single chapter on the lead-up to the battle itself, and the first two days, and then, just stops. There's no description in the course of these pages of what his starveling army did in Maryland and Pennsylvania, though Korda carefully makes clear that in Lee's own mind his army wasn't plundering, because they paid for everything with the valueless CSA currency and the worthless CSA "government" vouchers that were redeemable when the war was over. There is no mention of the African Americans, many of the born free in both MD and PA, that the army's officers in particular grabbed randomly in order to sell back in VA, or the just grabbing of people's possessions such as women's clothing and other furnishings.

He does, however, describe in a few admiring words the crossing of flooded rivers in torrential downpours as "epic" -- but with no mention of how much the retreating army was slowed down and balked by the weight of its booty, or that many of the kidnapped captive African Americans drowned.

This is followed by a long chapter's  loving descriptions in detail of the long series of battles and siege of Richmond by Grant two years later, in 1965 titled Lee and Grant -- how much each respected the other.  Then "Appomattox" in which we get far more attention paid to the gorgeousness of Lee's dress uniform, contrasted with Grant's mud-bespattered "private's" field outfit -- an outside observer, not knowing the identities of the men involved, would have assumed the handsome, tall immaculately groomed and poised Lee to be the victor of a long war, not the short and swordless Grant.  Much, much attention is lavished upon Grant's supposed shame at not having a sword of his own hanging by his side and his yearning glances at the gorgeous gold-plated family heirloom sword worn by Lee.

As often as Korda assures the reader that he is a writer who hasn't bought into the apotheosis of Lee that both south and north had rolling even before the war was over, he halts repeatedly to admire Lee's saintly, refined, aristocratic superiority to all other men, who, unlike lesser military generals is utterly unconcerned with fame or other worldly matters beyond  his brilliance at engineering entrenching and other defenses when not actually fighting and winning battles (though evidently not enough to go to war with the CSA government to get his men fed, shod and clothed and given tents and blankets -- how unlike General Washington, Lee's model in all things).  Coarse drunken Grant knows little beyond the capacity for butchery -- which, when it came down to it, Lee shared the capacity to tolerate equally.  Lee simply didn't have the same numbers to spend that Grant did.

There are many places in this Korda biography of Lee that leave the reader scratching her head, some places where he even gets things wrong, which is not understandable with all the facts that we know about the war by the time of 2014.

What might be useful, except the book doesn't have footnotes -- only endnotes -- or a proper bibliography -- and often cites wiki! and movies! and fiction! and not often cites primary dox -- are the descriptions of the variety of officers in both armies who had been in Mexico in 1845, and who shared the West Point experience -- and how differently they regarded the secession and rebellion when it arrived.  These go far beyond the unexamined favorite platitude so many roll out about how important this was in terms of the war of southern aggression.  Ultimately, Korda shows us, this shared past experience mattered not much at all -- partly because, for one instance, Lee had no recollection of Grant in Mexico -- moving as Lee did in the aristocratic circles of that army -- while Grant remembered Lee's exploits and character very well.

As mentioned above, Korda's book was published in 2014, a year ago. None of us in 2014 could have imagined that in 2015 the New Orleans city council would vote to bring down the Lee monument of New Orleans primary traffic intersection, Lee Circle.

By the way, Lee never set foot at any time in his life in New Orleans, and New Orleans and Louisiana became Union controlled at the same time as Lee given the command of what then was renamed the Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of 1862.  Lee had no interest in the western war.  All his energy was devoted to the defense of "my own country," Virginia. Or, to put it another way, states rights is the best way to lose a war.

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