- - Monday, January 18, 2016


Robert E. Lee rode south on a morning in April 1861, crossing the Potomac to his estate in Arlington. He had turned down President Lincoln’s offer of every soldier’s dream — command of the army of the United States, a position he had longed for, and now he rode toward a position and a destiny he had never dreamed of. He could not know what lay ahead, but he could see a storm gathering.

Lee had hoped Virginia would not secede, indeed, hoped that none of the states would. The man who has been called America’s greatest soldier hardly resembles the mean caricature drawn by the politically correct in the strife and tumult of the present day. He had opposed secession, and he had opposed slavery, writing in 1856 that “Slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” He would free his own slaves and declare, “I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished.”

But wasn’t the Constitution a contract of consent and not coercion? “A Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness,” Lee wrote, “has no charm for me.” Moreover, a precedent had been set by those who now shouted the loudest against the South. New England had convened a secession convention about the War of 1812, mooted only by the end of that war.

Still, Lee, who was born on this day 209 years ago, could see the folly of secession, but there it was. He could not “raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” In a word, Virginia.

Slavery had caused the schism. But secession was far more complicated than some in later generations would surmise. Gen. George B. McClellan, like many Northern Democrats, was for the Union but against abolition. Ulysses S. Grant owned five slaves, four through his wife and one that he bought himself.

Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne of Arkansas, a native of Ireland who was called “the Stonewall Jackson of the West,” died in defense of Southern independence, but worked against slavery. In January 1864, he wrote a letter to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, urging that all slaves should be freed who swore allegiance to the South. The letter, alas, was not forwarded to Richmond by his superiors.

When Nathan Bedford Forrest, who sold slaves in Memphis before the war, heard that, he protested, “If we do that, what are we fighting for?” In his petition, Gen. Cleburne answered: “It is said [that] slavery is all we are fighting for, and to give it up is to give up all. Even if true, which we deny, [the abolition of] slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely a pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.”

Slaves who fled plantations in the late months of the war were often forced back to the plantations by Union soldiers, or interned in camps where they died by the thousands. The historian C. Vann Woodward, a professor of history at Yale, wrote that the handling of the freed slaves by the Union army “wrote some of the darkest pages of war history.”

Slavery as an issue gradually became less important to the South than independence, and Cleburne’s petition pushed the South to within a step of abolition. In March 1865, with the war lost and Cleburne dead at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee, the petition became moot.

But upon what meat did the North feed to have grown so pious? The South had bought only those slaves the North had sold to her. By 1800 over half of Northern exports were sullied by it. One historian said that “it was the wealth accumulated by the West Indian slave trade which more than anything else underlay the prosperity and civilization of New England and the Middle Colonies.”

At war’s end, the South’s economy was ruined. Many of her cities lay in ashes. One in five white Southern men had been killed or crippled. The slaves had been liberated but “the Negro” abandoned, totally unprovided for, as Frederick Douglass said, “turned loose, naked and hungry to the open sky.” With the poor whites marginalized, the impoverished of both races were pushed into the de facto slavery of the sharecropping system and the reign of Jim Crow, to be set against each other by demagogues. The Confederate flag developed a tragic binocularity, Southern whites seeing one thing and blacks another. America’s enemies would get the Marshall Plan after World War II. The South got Reconstruction after the Civil War, and traces of its poison fruit survive still.

Against the backdrop of Reconstruction, Lee crossed his own Rubicon, pleading with the South to avoid the anger and bitterness of a lost cause, and become good and loyal Americans. He became the beloved of his people, the great icon, and deserves the honor the South pays him still.

Phillip McMath, the son of a former Democratic governor of Arkansas, is a lawyer in Little Rock.

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