In the 2008 film Valkyrie, Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a German army colonel who played a key part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The film is a solid portrayal of a fascinating real life story. Hitler had every intention of fighting the war to the end and the colonel feared Hitler’s “never surrender” attitude would bring about the destruction of the German homeland. Although Stauffenberg was in the German army during the country’s worst years, and even participated in the the invasion of Poland most viewers of the film––not to mention students of history––would agree that Stauffenberg is a hero despite past sins.
Like the colonel-turned-assassin, Robert E. Lee has been viewed by many Americans as an unlikely hero for the past 150 years. The Virginia slaveholder felt torn at the onset of the Civil War, writing years later that, “though [I was] opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.” As for slavery, the other issue generally seen as the cause of the war, Lee ultimately chose his homestate of Virginia over the Union. Upon hearing word of Virginia’s formal secession, he resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the state militia, fighting for the Confederate States of America until his surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. After the Civil War ended, however, Lee became a leading figure in support of healing the wounds of the country. He always had qualms with secession and there is compelling evidence that he believed the institution of slavery to be morally reprehensible, calling it “a moral and political evil.” Thus, the slave-holding Confederate general turned a page in his life after surrendering at Appomattox, and dedicated himself to re-engaging with the North to promote sectional unity.
It has been over a month now since New Orleans removed the statue of the former Southern general, provoking both praise and controversy around the nation. The debate over Confederate statues and their place in our current society continues as the city of Charlottesville, Virginia has recently announced it will be removing a monument of Lee in the coming weeks. Dallas has also recently started receiving petitions and letters from citizens demanding the removal of Confederate statues within the city. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spearheaded the effort to remove four monuments in his city commemorating Confederate generals and statesmen, declaring in a speech that “these monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”
Some of Lee’s actions are controversial to the modern viewer. For example, he did not fully repudiate slavery, but in fact profited from it as a plantation owner. He chose to fight for the Confederacy, a society based on the idea of inherent white superiority. But to view Lee simply as a one-dimensional character who owned slaves and fought for a racist Confederacy is a serious oversimplification, and does a great injustice to the complex individual that the general was. Unfortunately, Landrieu does just that. In his speech, the mayor denounced Lee specifically, rhetorically asking, “Can you look into that young [African-American] girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her?” The side he fought for may not be ostensibly encouraging, but as for his personal conduct before, during, and after the war? Yes, Lee has been and continues to be an exemplar to many. He served his state honorably during the Civil War and gained the respect of both Confederate and Union soldiers for it. In fact, the New Orleans Historical Society notes that when the statue was unveiled in 1884, “like many monument ceremonies…[it] served as a moment of reconciliation for white Americans. Union and Confederate veterans gathered together on the same platform, honoring a man many Americans, north and south, regarded as the epitome of military brilliance, bravery, and loyalty.”
Multiple presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt (who grew up in the North during the Civil War), have commemorated Lee for his character and military tactics. Dwight Eisenhower, when asked by a citizen why he hung a picture of Lee in his presidential office, replied:
A nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities . . . we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.
Lee never fully supported secession and did his part to promote harmony once he recognized defeat. When some of his subordinates in the military suggested continuing the fight in a guerilla-style campaign in 1865, on the eve of the war, Lee harshly rebuked them, believing that doing so would only bring more harm to the nation. He laid his sword down and became the president of Washington College instead. He hoped to restore sectional peace by promoting ideas of unity to his students, encouraging one Confederate widow to “dismiss from your mind all sectional differences and bring [your children] up to be Americans.”
Like Colonel Stauffenberg, Robert E. Lee fought on a side that espoused an ideology contrary to the ideals of equality, freedom, and rights that many Americans hold dear. However, the modern audience must understand the complexities of historical figures if we are to do justice in analyzing their stories. We must not judge men and women simply by what side they fought for. Stauffenberg was horrified when he discovered Nazi policies towards Jews in occupied areas, just as Lee had some reservations about slavery, opposed secession, and promoted education for blacks in order to heal the sectional tear. To simply label them as evil because they fought under an abhorrent banner is naïve and does an injustice to their accomplishments and personal integrity. Stauffenberg has won over the hearts of many in the modern day for his actions despite being a high-ranking German during WWII. Perhaps we should not be so quick to condemn Robert E. Lee without fully analyzing his individual character.
Joshua Schmid is studying History and Politics at Hillsdale College where he will be a senior in the fall.