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(March 21, 2021) Any historian who claims that esteem for Robert E. Lee results from a postbellum Southern legend is wrong. Only a month after the Appomattox surrender, Union General Ulysses Grant wrote, “All the people of the South except a few politicians will accept whatever Lee does as right and be guided by his example.”
Former West Point historian Ty Seidule’s recent book demonizes Robert E. Lee, Confederates at large and their descendants. He minimizes Northern white supremacy and assumes his critics are deluded by a postbellum Lost Cause Mythology, which mislabels General Grant a “butcher” and falsely claims the South was beaten by overwhelming numbers. He’s wrong on all points.
First, wartime Northerners—not postbellum Southerners—labeled Grant a butcher during his first campaign against Lee. As a West Point Civil War textbook states: “Many . . . Northern . . . newspapers were appalled at the cost of Grant’s campaign, labeling him a butcher.” Seidule coauthored that book.
Second, three months after Lee’s surrender, General Grant explained to War Secretary Stanton: “The resources of the enemy, and his numerical strength, were far inferior to ours. . . I therefore determined . . . to hammer continuously against the armed force of the enemy and his resources, until by mere attrition . . . there should be nothing left to him but . . . submission.”
Undeniably Lee was the most respected commander on either side during the War. After nine months of temporary duty in Georgia and Tennessee, Lee’s third corps joyfully rejoined his Virginia army a week before its first battle against Grant. When the soldiers caught sight of Lee during a welcoming review, one wrote: “[A] wave of sentiment swept over the field. Each man seemed to feel the bond which held us all to Lee. The effect was that of a military sacrament, in which we pledged anew our lives.”
Lee earned such respect by sharing his soldiers’ hardships and taking responsibility for the army’s failures. He commonly slept in a tent instead of a nearby residence and his battle report to President Davis after defeat at Gettysburg praised his soldiers but offered his own resignation.
Third, Seidule fails to understand that the 1860 Republican platform banning slaves in the federal territories was really targeted at blacks, per se. The idea originated with Congressman David Wilmot in 1846 when he introduced a bill to bar slavery in the territories that might be acquired when the Mexican War ended. He explained:
I make no war upon the South, nor upon slavery in the South. I have no . . . sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause . . . of white freemen. I would preserve for free white labor a fair country . . . where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.
In 1854 future President Lincoln said: “The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these [western] territories. We want them for the homes of free white people.”
The month before his September 1862 Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s home state of Illinois voted two-to-one against black suffrage notwithstanding that blacks composed only 0.4% of her population. Moreover, Seidule may credit Lincoln with too much nobility. Charles Francis Adams, Jr.—the son of Lincoln’s ambassador to Great Britain—stated that most wartime Northerners believed that the proclamation would spark a slave uprising to suddenly end the war by forcing Confederate soldiers to return home to defend their families.
Only nine days before releasing the proclamation Lincoln admitted that it might provoke a slave rebellion. While meeting with a visiting group of Chicago abolitionists he stated that he was aware of the potential “consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South” but considered emancipation to be “a practical war measure.”
While condemning as desperate Lee’s January 1865 request that the Confederacy enlist black troops in exchange for their freedom to be followed by a “general . . . plan of emancipation,” Seidule fails to appreciate that Lincoln’s decision was also driven by desperation. In late June 1862 Northerners expected the Confederacy to soon collapse since Union General McClellan’s army was only six miles outside of Richmond. But two months later Lee’s army was at Washington’s doorstep, which was defended by a demoralized Union army freshly routed at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Only three weeks before his proclamation, military reversals had so depressed Lincoln that he remarked he was “almost ready to hang himself.”
Seidule ignores Northern racism aimed at quarantining blacks in the South. Twenty of the twenty-two states that joined the Union after Texas in 1845 were states where blacks composed merely one percent of the respective populations. The two exceptions were the border states of Oklahoma and West Virginia. All of the first eleven that joined after the Civil War had started arrived with two new GOP senators.
The Party’s chief reason for wanting Southern black suffrage during Reconstruction was to fabricate GOP-controlled vassal regimes until new states could be formed out of the organically Republican western territories. That’s why the first Republican Reconstruction President, Ulysses Grant, won only a minority of America’s white popular vote in 1868. Prior to the War the states outside the Confederacy had only 2% of America’s blacks and 94% of them could not vote.
Dr. Seidule recently moved from West Point to New York’s Hamilton College, which has a prominent statue of Elihu Root. As America’s Secretary of War from 1899 – 1904 Root killed hundreds of thousands of brown-skinned Filipinos who were fighting for independence from the Washington government.