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Robert E. Lee and Perspective over Time
Conventional wisdom has it that the further we move from an event, the more objective, clearly focused, and therefore insightful we become about its essential nature and meaning. Of late, I have come to question this homily. The more popular an event, the more we write about it, creating a mountain of material. After a while, we may be relating more to the mountain we have made than to the original subject. The literature can become like snow, blanketing the landscape and masking some essential features. The problem may be most acute in the case of World War II, where recent influential writing has imposed on this complex, difficult event a simple structure called the Good War, fought by the greatest generation in human history, without blemish, sin, or error. So all-embracing is the myth that an aspiring author must first address it rather than the event itself. Candid discussion becomes difficult; it may have been easier in 1945-46 than in 2003 to discuss freely the dropping of the atom bombs.
The vast amount of literature on the Civil War has helped us in many ways to understand that profound event in history. By the same token, however, the wealth of writing has settled into accepted patterns, molding how we think about and address the war. Much wine is poured into old jars. Conversely, some issues that do not spark mainstream interest become marginalized, even though they may have intrinsic importance. Thus, the crucial factor of disease, affecting army strength and capability as well as command performance, receives only minority treatment and is viewed in isolation as "medical history." Nostalgia or laudanum are rarely found in the indexes of mainstream works. In darker moods, I suspect that our scholarly roads have become so well traveled that we are caught in their ruts. Occasionally, however, a truly original work comes along, leapfrogging a standard explanation to retrieve a neglected aspect of the war. An example is Mark A. Weitz's A Higher Duty (2000), which argues that the significant wave of Georgia desertions came a year earlier than is generally thought and was connected not to William T. Sherman's invasion but to socioeconomic [End Page 64] factors, including the state's failure to distribute the widow's ration of salt in the poorer northern counties, leaving families destitute of preserved food, and helping to force men to come home to provide relief.
A review of recent literature on Robert E. Lee suggests that the major contours of debate have not changed significantly, even though a great deal continues to be published annually. For example, the aristocratic Lee and yeoman Grant paradigm gets another airing in Thomas B. Buell's 1997, The Warrior Generals. However, at least two new books attempt to refresh our perspective by reaching back to suggest how Lee may have appeared in his own eyes and in those of his contemporaries. One of these works is Richard B. McCaslin's Lee in the Shadow of Washington (2001). The book asks whether the frequent comparison between Lee and George Washington is a product of postwar mythologizing or whether Washington actually functioned as a meaningful, formative model for Lee. The answer, says the author, is that the earlier Virginian was crucial in molding Lee's character and actions. Saddled with a failed father, Lee saw Washington as a surrogate parent, a choice encouraged by relatives. Lee married into the Washington family and, when the Civil War came, saw himself as a second Washington, fighting to found a new nation.
McCaslin's thesis casts light on Lee the man, but is less helpful in explaining the soldier. If Lee thought that he was aping Washington's methods of war making, he was a poor student. A year into the Revolution, Washington decided that he must fight a war of evasion, avoiding decisive and probably fatal encounters. A year into the Civil War, Lee determined to...