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Jefferson Davis sent Robert E. Lee an unusual note after the battle of Gettysburg. The dispatch did not contain any presidential recommendations or requests, only a clipped article from the Charleston Mercury criticizing Lee and his subordinates for failure in Pennsylvania. Why Davis sent this article is impossible to say, and Lee apparently was not interested in the president’s motivations. The General dismissed newspaper criticism of himself as “harmless,” but the Mercury’s condemnation of the army disturbed him. He considered the charges harmful to the cause, for his officers and soldiers were beyond reproach. Defeat, Lee insisted, was his responsibility alone. “No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me,” he wrote, “nor should it be censured for the unreasonable expectations of the public. I am alone to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess & valour.”1
As the press and public debated the cause and consequences of Gettysburg with nitpicking fervor, Lee assured Davis that the true story of the campaign would ultimately stand once the foamy wash of rumor and innuendo receded: “Truth is mighty & will eventually prevail.” Here, Lee’s theory of history reveals itself as a field of study in which objectivity, grounded in unbiased facts, leads to unvarnished truth; the reality of the past reappears in perfect clarity, full of moral and intellectual lessons for future generations to behold and absorb. Lee’s understanding of history provides insight into how he thought and not just what he thought. Like so many nineteenth-century Victorians, Lee rigidly ordered the past and the present in attempts to rid himself of moral confusion, intellectual clutter, and emotional ambiguity.2
Lee’s underlying belief in historical objectivity as the straight and narrow path to truth swayed back and forth in the unpredictable winds of war following Gettysburg, leaving him confused, depressed, and wondering if people could actually perceive the course of human events and align themselves accordingly. Although he nearly abandoned his faith in the comprehensibility of the human existence, Lee, like so many of his Confederate peers after Appomattox, sought sanctuary in the Victorian belief that the world was governed by fixed truths of right and wrong, of morality and immorality, and of purity and evil. This way of knowing, rooted deeply in the very intellectual structures of Victorianism, started to lose its dominance with the rise of modernism in the twentieth century. Yet the orientation of nineteenth-century Victorianism, in both form and content, has not disappeared entirely, even though the ideology behind slavery and hierarchy, which Lee so forcefully articulated and so unwaveringly defended, has essentially vanished.3
Ways of knowing are fundamental to the interpretive battles over Confederate history broadly speaking and over Robert E. Lee in particular. Americans engaged in the cultural battles over Confederate history often are caught between the Victorian belief in the knowability of the past and the modernists’ rebuttal that [End Page 7] history is highly interpretive, constantly changing in meaning, and ultimately an expression of power and authority in society. Disagreements over Lee continue to energize historical and political debates among Americans today, and a greater appreciation of distinct cognitive styles—one rooted in Victorianism and the other in modernism—reveals how people apply their own perspectives when focusing on the past. We can, as a result, better appreciate why the wars of historical memory continue to besiege Confederate heritage and the legacy of Robert E. Lee to this day.