The Myths of the war of Northern Aggression, Part I: Robert E. Lee, The Traitor and Oath Breaker


On Thursday June 4th, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the Commonwealth of Virginia will remove a statue in Richmond honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee “as soon as possible.”[1] Of course in modern American society, the images of the Confederacy are often debated as simply being cultural and historical symbols of the noble American South. This is one of the results from the historical revisionism of the true motives behind the Confederate insurrection since the end of the Civil War. This is what the myth of the noble south is predicated on. A fiction of cherry-picked imagery that denies the evil of chattel slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Regarding that myth, Historian Matthew A. Speiser writes:

“Specifically, they (Southerners) celebrated the South’s natural beauty and idyllic plantations, supported a white supremacist racial hierarchy in southern society, claimed liberty as a southern principle and the American Revolution as southern heritage, wrapped their sectionalism in a constitutional theory of state sovereignty, and nostalgically glorified the southern past.”[2]

The facts are simple, the Civil War was not the “Northern War of Aggression.” It was a war initiated by wealthy landowners in the American south to maintain and forward the institution of American chattel slavery for the sole purpose of maintaining their labor advantage as the Western territories were being established and settled. Poor White southerners were roused into this war by pure race propaganda. Further, the phraseology itself of the Civil War being contextualized as “The Union” vs. “The Confederacy” expresses the political reality, but the practical reality was that the war was between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America.

Southerners knew full well what they were doing, they knew full well that they wanted to leave the United States of America, in order to form a new nation that held to their cultural values of slavery and White supremacy as their “state’s right.”

“The South was not leaving the United States because of the power of northern economic elites who in reality, as historian Bruce Levine observed, “feared alienating the slave owners more than they disliked slavery.” The secession of South Carolina, approved by the convention 169 votes to none, was about the preservation of slavery.”[3]

The only reason that this scheme of asserting sovereignty came up was for the sole purpose of maintaining slavery and the racial class system of the South. The reality was:

“By 1861 only about one-third of southern families in the 11 seceding states held slaves and the non-slaveholders always posed a potential problem for Confederate unity.”[4]

Two thirds of the south, a serious majority, were not fighting for their right to maintain their own slaves. The were fighting for a separation of “races” that was necessary to maintain their way of life. Propaganda was a tool to further amplify the anti-Black racial animus to convince those who would not benefit from slavery persisting to support the “right” for the wealthy landowners to continue to benefit from slavery. Historian James Oliver Horton points to an article from a special pre-Civil War edition of the Louisville Daily Courier exemplifies this propaganda campaign.

The point of the Louisville Daily Courier article was to establish that if slavery were abolished it would create a socioeconomic situation of competition between poor Whites and freed Blacks. A race to the bottom of society, that poor Whites did not want to win. The article asserting that Blacks would become on “the level of the white race,” and the poorest whites would be closest to the former slaves in both social and physical distance. Questions became: “do they wish to send their children to schools in which the [N]egro children of the vicinity are taught? Do they wish to give the [N)egro the right to appear in the witness box to testify against them?” Then the article moved to the final and most emotionally charged question of all. Would the non-slaveholders of the South be content to “AMALGAMATE TOGETHER THE TWO RACES IN VIOLATION OF GOD'S WILL.” The conclusion was inevitable the article argued; non-slaveholders had much at stake in the maintenance of slavery and everything to lose by its abolition. African-American slavery was the only thing that stood between poor whites and the bottom of southern society where they would be forced to compete with and live among black people.”[5]

In other words "the testimony of Confederate leaders and their supporters makes it clear that slavery was central to their motivation for secession and war.”[6] Further, motivation was simply that Southern whites wanted to continue their idea of a color caste system that presupposed Black people as being inferior and in some cases being subhuman.

Their interest in slavery was far more important than simple economics. As one southern prisoner explained to his Wisconsin-born guard ‘you Yanks want us to marry our daughters to n____s.’ This fear of a loss of racial status was common. A poor white farmer from North Carolina explained that he would never stop fighting because what he considered to be an abolitionist federal government was ‘trying to force us to live as the colored race.’[7]

And the fact is, the South won that cultural war, and we still deal with the social realities of that victory as it has only been 50 years since the Civil Rights movement. The Civil Rights movement itself being 100 years after the Civil War was militarily over,. 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation is when African Americans were given EQUAL (not special) rights. That is at least 100 years of revisionist history or history that just didn’t take into account the status of African Americans; and modern neo confederates continue to do the same.

Which brings us to the “lost cause" narrative. Revisionist and Confederate apologists from shortly after the war ended, till today, have pushed this mythical narrative. Simply, that the South was not fighting for slavery but for states’ rights. Or that this was a war of “northern aggression” against the noble South wanting to maintain their gentleman’s culture. And in that, the role that Robert Edward Lee played, and the deification of him by southern neo-confederates becomes central to this narrative.

Lee himself, was like any other human being, complex. While he should be taken in context with the time that he was in, he did champion a cause to maintain slavery. This complexity is exemplified in this quote from a letter to his wife in 1856:

There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy.”[8]

On one hand he felt that slavery was evil yet posited that slavery was a greater evil to Whites than to the Blacks who were the actual slaves. Then the equivocation of “better off (in the US as slaves), than Africa” which is the type of hyperbole we still presented by people like Rush Limbaugh, Candace Owens and other alt right pundits. Yet, Lee was loyal to his state, which is one of the reasons utilized by southerners to venerate the man. However, he was disloyal to the United States of America.

When young Robert Edward Lee graduated from the United States Military Academy at Westpoint, his oath of service as a newly appointed officer would have been what follows:

“I, Robert Edward Lee, appointed a brevet second lieutenant in the Army of the United States, do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles for the government of the Armies of the United States.”[9]

It should be apparent at face value, that any US Army officer who took this oath, is or was a traitor and oath breaker to side with their home state over the United States of America. But it is not so clear for neo confederates and their sympathizers. These are the people that are against the statue of the Confederate general being removed, or for that matter any Confederate imagery being removed. While it is true that Gen. Lee was respected and admired by many of his peers from Westpoint who did not join the insurrection and continued to serve the United States; it is also true that if not for the foresight of President Lincoln many of them wanted Lee executed. Chief amongst those that desired this for Lee and other Confederate Army general commissioned officers to be executed was Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, a fellow West Point graduate who served under Lee’s command in the engineer corps but lost respect for him and considered him an insurgent. Meigs stated:

“No man who ever took the oath to support the Constitution as an officer of our army or navy...should escape without loss of all his goods & civil rights & expatriation,” Meigs wrote to his father. He urged that Lee as well as Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who also had resigned from the federal Army to join the enemy, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis “should be put formally out of the way if possible by sentence of death [and] executed if caught.”[10]

And under the military rules of that time, the 101 Articles of War, enacted 10 April 1805, death would be the clear penalty for the actions of any Confederate soldier or sailor that had deserted the United States Army or Navy to serve for the Confederacy. Under article 7 of the 101 Articles of War:

Art. 7. Any officer or soldier who shall begin, excite, cause or join in, any mutiny or sedition, in any troop or company in the service of the United States, or in any party, post detachment, or guard shall suffer death, or such other punishments as by a court-martial shall be inflicted.

However, Lincoln as a forward-looking statesman did not do so. Which more than likely averted years more of guerrilla warfare and insurgencies. But, now, the final cultural battles of the Civil War are being had. The fight to remove the symbols and images of the vestiges of enemies of the United States. It comes down to the fact, that Black Americans as citizens should not be subjected to the symbols and imagery of those who would want them in chains. The myth of the Confederacy being about southern culture should be buried. These symbols should be in museums to preserve history, but in parks and public lands, the symbols of traitors to our country should not be venerated. The recent deaths of Breanna Taylor, Ahmuad Arbery and George Floyd reflect the divisions in America present during and post-Civil War are still alive and well. The difference being, that African Americans are now citizens, not slaves, ad their rights need to be respected as the rights of others.

[1] Bill Chappell, “America Reckons with Racial Injustice: Massive Robert E. Lee Statue In Richmond, Va., Will Be Removed,” NPR/WBEZ, June 4, 2020, (accessed June 5, 2020), https://www.npr.org/2020/06/04/869519175/massive-robert-e-lee-statue-in-richmond-va-will-be-removed

[2] Matthew A. Speiser, “Origins of the Lost Cause: The Continuity of Regional Celebration in the White South, 1850-1872” Essays in History Annual Journal, University of Virginia (accessed June 5, 2020) http://www.essaysinhistory.com/origins-of-the-lost-cause-the-continuity-of-regional-celebration-in-the-white-south-1850-1872/

[3] James Oliver Horton, “Origins of the Lost Cause: The Continuity of Regional Celebration in the White South, 1850-1872” Essays in History Annual Journal, University of Virginia (accessed June 5, 2020) http://www.essaysinhistory.com/origins-of-the-lost-cause-the-continuity-of-regional-celebration-in-the-white-south-1850-1872/

[4] Ibid

[5] James Oliver Horton, “Confronting Slavery and Revealing the "Lost Cause"” National Park Service Online (accessed June 5, 2020) https://www.nps.gov/articles/confronting-slavery-and-revealing-the-lost-cause.htm

[6] Ibid

[7] James Oliver Horton, “Origins of the Lost Cause: The Continuity of Regional Celebration in the White South, 1850-1872” Essays in History Annual Journal, University of Virginia, Ibid

[8] Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995.) 173

[9] “Oaths of Enlistment and Oaths of Office,” U.S. Army Center of Military History, accessed June 5, 2020, https://history.army.mil/html/faq/oaths.html#:~:text=%22I%20_____%20swear%20(or%20affirm,set%20over%20me%20by%20them.%22

[10] Robert M. Poole, “How Arlington National Cemetery Came to Be” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2209, (accessed June 5, 2020), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-arlington-national-cemetery-came-to-be-145147007/

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