Michael Brendan Dougherty takes a unique route to the exploration of identity, and seeks to resolve a conflict within himself.
On October 13, 1870, the New York Times reported massive French defeats in the Franco-Prussian War as the German onslaught advanced. The city of Orleans was in flames. Strasbourg had surrendered. Metz and Paris lay under siege. In January, the victorious Prussians would announce the unification of Germany at the Palace of Versailles. Readers of the Times would have recognized the names of Sheridan and Burnside. In the closing months of the war, Lt. General Philip Sheridan of the U. S. Army advised Bismarck on the conduct of total war while former Union general Ambrose Burnside served as an unofficial mediator between Bismarck and the French government, helping to negotiate an armistice and relaying assurances that elections for the French Assembly would be allowed to proceed.
By 1870, Americans had watched the European wars of national independence and unification for two generations. Some celebrated the birth of modern Italy and Germany; others dreaded the political, social, and ideological turmoil of the age. Among the celebrants, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had asked an audience of young men in 1867 “Are we a nation?” He answered with an emphatic yes and interpreted the recent Union victory in world-historical terms as part of the inevitable march of nationalization against the pernicious forces of “denationalization.” He congratulated Italy and predicted imminent success for Germany.
Readers of the Times’s coverage of the unfolding events in France might have had fresh occasion to think of America’s own bloody struggle as they saw a notice of the death of Robert E. Lee. The General had passed away in Lexington, Virginia, having served since the war as president of Washington College, later renamed Washington and Lee in his honor. Only five and a half years had passed since Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, ending “the late terrible rebellion,” as the Times called it. The editors left no doubt in their readers’ minds about Lee’s guilt. Up to Lee’s fateful decision in April 1861 to resign his commission and fight for Virginia, “his career . . . had been one of honor and the highest promise,” the Times conceded. He had been a man of “personal integrity,” “loyalty and patriotism.” But this man of “splendid talents” had thrown in his lot with traitors.
The Times blamed his treason on the fact that “he seems to have been thoroughly imbued with that pernicious doctrine that his first and highest allegiance was due to the State of his birth.” Thousands, even his friends, would come to lament this “error of judgment,” this “false conception of the allegiance due his Government and his country.” With bitter vitriol, a Harrisburg, PA, paper called Lee “the worst man . . . ever born in America.” He had been a depraved, calculating, ambitious man. “And every man killed, on both sides, after the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, are murders clearly and justly chargeable to the dead traitor.” The editor’s style was muddy, but Lee’s guilt was clear.
Allen Guelzo leaves no doubt about his own judgment of Lee’s guilt in his new biography of the Confederate commander. He announces Lee’s guilt at the beginning, middle, and end of this biography, the product of seven years of research and writing. Guelzo has established himself as one of the most acclaimed students of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. His work is premised on America’s identity, from the beginning, as a nation, and a radically new nation at that. In a recent interview with Richard Reinsch here at Law & Liberty, Guelzo said that the United States was born not in an act of secession but of revolution, a nation that “got rid of the entire notion of monarchy, hierarchy, British law, everything that connected us in any way to the British past.” “All of those things,” he continued, “were thrown overboard and we created an entirely new nation, a Republic, based on entirely different principles than the British Empire had been built upon.” Conservatives have been arguing about America’s British heritage since at least the Second World War, but they have also argued over the word “nation,” especially as read through the text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. If the United States had indeed been a nation since the Declaration of Independence and even earlier, according to Lincoln’s First Inaugural, then Lee’s guilt is simple and unambiguous.
At least three presuppositions guide this book: 1) that it is the historian’s task to render such verdicts; 2) that the modern nation-state is a positive good; and 3) that Lee’s “country” in 1861 was the American nation and not the State of Virginia. I may differ with Guelzo on one or more of these points, but this is his book and he is entitled to tell his story his way. Guelzo identifies himself at the outset as a Yankee and a proud descendent of abolitionists who waged a righteous war for Union and freedom. Guelzo has read through massive amounts of primary and secondary sources, and he writes very well, though some readers may drift off in the detailed explanations of Lee’s engineering projects for the U.S. Army. He reconstructs Lee’s childhood as the son of “Light Horse” Harry Lee, his stellar career at West Point, his work as an Army engineer that took him all over America, his service in the Mexican War, on through the fateful decision to fight for Virginia, four long years of war, and accomplishments as president of Washington College.
Guelzo’s Lee is a man haunted by his fathers’ bankruptcy, a man pursuing independence, security, and perfection, a man of diminished glory as a general, and guilty of great crime. Beginning the book with a guilty verdict deprives Guezo’s account of Lee of much of its suspense and contingency. Even if we know the end of the story, we should be made to feel as if we don’t, as if everything could have been different. But it is hard to imagine how a mainstream historian published by a major press could ever in these days of cultural turmoil signal any hesitation about Lee’s crime. History is full of ambiguities that it is impossible for an ideological age to stomach.
Guelzo’s assessment of Lee needs to be read in light of the book’s Epilogue. Indeed, readers would do well to start with the final pages. Guelzo complains of modern assaults on the nation-state from globalist political theorists, such as A. John Simmons, and libertarians, such as Murray Rothbard. He sees danger in skepticism about the modern nation and the need for “the standard of absolute loyalty to a single political entity.” I think it safe to say that he sees this kind of deconstruction as morally corrosive. In our day, we are losing our ability to see treason against the nation “as a crime”—“the one inarguable crime of Robert E. Lee.” “Whatever the faults of the nation-state,” he continues, “it has proven since the eighteenth century, and perhaps even since the Peace of Westphalia, to be a frail but workable insurance against the kinds of incessant dynastic, ethnic, and religious warfare that used to be the common lot of the human race, and the most stable platform for the emergence and cultivation of democracy.”
“Whatever the faults of the nation-state” is a phrase that needs to be confronted soberly and not tossed aside so easily. If the nation-state ended the Wars of Religion, which is an open question among scholars, it also plagued the world with new wars of religion in the form of ideological crusades more destructive and of wider scope than the Thirty Years’ War. The twentieth century bore grim witness to the dangers of nationalism, especially when mixed with socialism and populism.
Which leaves the vexed question of whether the United States of 1787 was meant to be a nation-state. We ought not to be misled by the use of the word “nation” by Americans of that generation. They lived in the world before the French Revolution which unleashed the modern nation wielding an “armed doctrine,” as Burke remarked. Robert E. Lee, only one generation removed from the War for Independence and the son of a State at the head of that cause, thought of Virginia as his country. More than that, Lee was devoted first and foremost to his home, his land, and his kin. Guelzo does not hide how prominent these sentiments figured in Lee’s letters, especially as he made the difficult decision to resign his commission as a colonel in the U.S. Army and offer his services to Virginia.
To General Winfield Scott, under whom he served in Mexico and whom he admired, he wrote, “Save in the defense of my native state shall I ever again draw my sword.”
In a letter the same day to his sister Ann Marshall, he regretted secession, saw it as needless, and longed for reconciliation. Nevertheless,
in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native state. With all my devotion to the Union & the feeling of loyalty & duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my Commission in the army, & save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. I know you will blame me, but you must think as Kindly of me as you can, & believe that I have endeavoured to do what I thought right.
And in a letter to a young correspondent in the North, dated May 5, 1861, and printed three months later in the New York Times, Lee explained, “It is painful to think how many friends will be separated and estranged by our unhappy disunion. May God reunite our severed bonds of friendship, and turn our hearts to peace. I can say sincerely that I bear animosity against no one. Wherever the blame may be, the fact is, that we are in the midst of a fratricidal war. I must side either with or against my section of the country. I cannot raise my hand against my birth-place, my home, my children.” “I should like, above all things,” he continued, “that our difficulties might be peaceably arranged, and still trust that a merciful God, whom I know will not unnecessarily afflict us, may yet allay the fury for war.” “Whatever may be the result of the contest,” he feared, “I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation, perhaps, of our national sins.” And surely those national sins involved more than slavery.
In spite of this anguish, Guelzo concludes that Lee “publicly turned his back on his service, his flag, and, ultimately, his country.” But the identity of “his country” is the question at stake, and the principal question for his generation. It is easy to forget how open the questions of states’ rights, nullification, and secession were before 1860, and not just in the South. Consider the language and threats of the Hartford Convention during the War of 1812. Consider the debates in the Massachusetts legislature in the 1840s over the possibility of secession from the slaveholding South. Consider how willing the most radical abolitionists were to let the South go in 1860, some refusing to let their sons enlist in the Union army until the war became a war to end slavery.
Guelzo finds this easy to resolve. Lee did not. For Guelzo, Lee faced no real dilemma. “All of this was done for the sake of a political regime whose acknowledged purpose was the preservation of a system of chattel slavery that he knew to be an evil and for which he felt little affection and whose constitutional basis he dismissed as a fiction.”
Guelzo’s biography is ultimately a defense of the modern nation-state that emerged in the nineteenth century, the nation-state that replaced the federal union. Many Northerners fought bravely and honorably to restore the territorial Union as it was. But the federal republic—entered into voluntarily and held together by goodwill—could not be restored after four years of bloody war. It was reassembled by total war. The wonder is that centralization of power did not go further after 1865. Or faster.
The 1860s witnessed three major wars, or series of wars, for national unification: the Italian, the German, and the American. All three culminated in the birth of modern nation-states secured by force of arms. Whether the historical comparison obscures important differences more than it illuminates instructive similarities, many Americans at the time, and before and after the Civil War, North and South, thought in these transatlantic terms. They watched the decline of ancient empires—Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman—and the consolidation of nation-states as part of one epochal story, perhaps the defining question of their day. Some looked on in hope, some in fear. Some rejoiced to see the collapse of “tyrannical” multi-national empires as necessary and inevitable steps along history’s glorious path to liberty, equality, and fraternity, the triumph of human emancipation from the shackles of the past. Others saw the upheavals in Europe as harbingers of religious, intellectual, moral, and political collapse—a mood we don’t expect to find in the textbook caricature of an exuberant democracy boasting of its “manifest destiny.” In the South, especially for someone like Calhoun, the Revolutions of 1848 conjured up fears of social and political disintegration. This was one reason why he resisted the weaponizing of the Declaration of Independence into a tool for perpetual ideological revolution.
Generalizations are hazardous to make about something so complex as collective self-understandings a century and a half ago, but on the whole, the North and Midwest strike me as more favorably disposed than the South to the revolutions, wars for independence, and wars for national unification that swept Europe in the nineteenth century. Certainly leading public intellectuals in New England had been. Giuseppe Mazzini enjoyed widespread acclaim in Boston’s literary circles. Some intended to import his brand of romantic nationalism to America. And there were indeed some Southerners keen to justify their bid for national independence by comparing their cause to Hungary and Poland.
That the Northern, pro-Union press should have proclaimed Lee’s guilt comes as no surprise. The US had ended a bloody, violent, and protracted war only recently—a war that shocked Europe with its intensity and brutality, a preview of what modern industrialized total war had in store for the world. This was not exactly the lesson New World republicanism had wanted to teach Old World despotism in the nineteenth century. America was supposed to be on the winning side of history, and the North on the winningest side of all. Lee found himself caught between two Americas, and he is still entangled in conflicts between different Americas, perhaps more than two this time. Guelzo’s Lee offers one answer to the problem of what to do with Lee and his memory in a time of fragmentation, but it is doubtful Lee can ever be made safe for nationalism.