WOW, has it really been so long since I last posted? It has been a busy start to the new semester, but I hope to get back to posting more regularly.
In the meantime, I have a piece that was recently posted by Daily Beast, in which I step lightly into the current discussion about Robert E. Lee and slavery. Big-time historians like Eric Foner have pitched into this conversation, as has Atlantic senior editor Adam Serwer. In both cases, they leaned on a letter by Lee to his wife in which he maintains that slavery is beneficial for African Americans and, ironically, bad for whites. They also make much of a primary source that reveals Lee once hired slavecatchers to retrieve some runaways, and then had the captured men brutally whipped. Both are good sources that tell us much about Lee the slaveholder.
Yet back when doing research for my book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation, I discovered some primary sources that provide us a view of Lee and slavery from the perspective of peoples enslaved by him. The sources all found their way into my book, but I felt that in our current discussion about Lee’s legacy (because of the monument controversy), I needed to get the sources out there in the context of this debate. The Daily Beast was happy to oblige. I hope you’ll take a look and pass the link along.
In response to that piece, I have received some heated emails by those that feel the need to keep Lee’s reputation untarnished. None of them bear repeating here, but I can’t say that any of them shocked me. I have engaged with these folks enough in my life to know them very well, especially during my years as an NPS ranger at Richmond National Battlefield park. When you stand on the Cold Harbor battlefield and remind folks that Lee’s tactics killed a greater percentage of his men than did those of Grant “the butcher,” or when you discuss slavery as the cause of secession with folks more interested in giving a rebel yell during a tour of Malvern Hill, you get to know these modern defenders of the Confederacy really well.
In one discussion thread on Facebook (Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory page), I was accused of being “biased.” Public historian Nick Sacco responded to the postings (I responded to one of them that I felt most merited a response), and apparently it inspired him to blog about the problem of people dismissing an argument simply by declaring it “biased.” He nails it.
I’m guessing that many of the people who have angrily emailed me and responded to the article would be surprised to find that for the most part I am still not in favor of total removal of the monuments, especially in Richmond. My only point in writing the article was that when considering Lee and the fate of his memorials, the perspective of those that were enslaved by him needs to be part of the conversation. I’m not sure how that can be considered a bias, unless favoring open mindedness and having fair and productive discussion qualifies as having a bias.
On another note, I hope you guys are watching the PBS Vietnam War series. It is mesmerizing. I’m sure I will have much to say about it once it wraps up. Stay tuned.
One thought on “On R.E. Lee, slavery, hate mail, and “bias.””
Thanks for the shoutout, Glenn.
I was pretty heated about some of the comments being sent your way on the Civil War Memory Facebook thread, which I thought were totally unfair and missed the point of your essay. I had been thinking about writing a short bit on the problem of claiming “bias” without evidence for a while, but the thread finally pushed me to write out my thoughts.
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