Friday, July 04, 2008

Civil War Sacrilege

One of the most controversial Civil War books of the past 15 years is a thoughtful 1991 treatise on Robert E. Lee by the Indianapolis attorney, Alan Nolan. Controversial in that it caused many of the best historians of our time to choose sides on its merits. There did not seem to be much middle ground in the discussions, which ranged from the notion that it was about time someone built upon the iconoclasm of Connelly’s Marble Man, to furious denunciations of Nolan for perpetrating a hit job.

Me? I thought it was pretty fascinating. Back on February 13, 1997, I invited the then 74-year-old Nolan to field questions about his book in CompuServe’s Civil War Forum. Here are some of the questions and answers from that day regarding The University of North Carolina Press’s, Lee Considered: Robert E. Lee and Civil War History.

Q. (Civil War Forum): Few titles have generated as much discussion and controversy in Civil War circles as your Lee Considered -- Civil War enthusiasts of every stripe are still critiquing your work, and prominent historians have weighed in on both sides of the matter. All of this confirms one reviewer’s conclusion that it is a book which "cannot be ignored." How has the response to the book been from your perspective, from reviews, and from engaging the public at speaking events?

A. (Alan Nolan): The response has been extremely gratifying. I frankly did not start out to write a book to shock or provoke, but it turned out that it did shock or provoke. It had extremely good sales, it was a main selection of the History Book Clubwhich is of course is advantageous to a bookand the review treatment of it was very interesting to me. It certainly had mixed reviews. There were some reviewers who, by God, did not like it. But it got a good many favorable reviews in the useful media, such as the New York Times, New Republic, American Heritage, and a number of academic publications, and one of the things that interested me was that there were many favorable reviews in the South. There were some unfavorable reviews in the South by old-line neo-Confederate writersthe Freeman schoolbut a lot of the young Southern historians liked it. And I thought the review treatment of the book, all in all, was extremely favorable. 

If you add it up and weigh it all based on reviews, it was favorably received. And I could tell from Round Table invitations that there was a lot of interest on the grass roots level, among Civil War buffs. It's just gone into paperback, and there's also a 3rd printing in hard back. The press doing the paperback is hopeful that it will be adopted by college professors teaching Civil War history, and I know Gary Gallagher at Penn State has included it on his reading lists for Civil War classes.

All in all it's been a good experience. If I've hurt anybody's feelings, I'm sorry, and I know I have . . . but I also think it's historic, and the people whose feelings are hurt are romantic. I belong to the non-romantic school about the Civil War. I think of it as sort of the American holocaust, and the idea that it was somehow glorious, or that leaders like Lee were somehow glorious, seems to me to be mythological.

Q. (Civil War Forum): I think you neatly dispel some commonly-held conceptions about Lee, such as the idea that he was offered command of all Union armies by Winfield Scott. Perhaps the most provocative section of Lee Considered, however, endeavors to show that Lee continued fighting the war long after he knew it was pointless. Could you summarize that argument for us here, and what you based it upon?

A. (Alan Nolan): Yes, I can summarize that. Leeand I quote this in the bookin a letter to Jefferson Davis on June 10th, 1863 (it's in the Official Records) expresses deep pessimism about the future of the war. That's before Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and surely he must have realized the significance of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. He had said a number of times that if his army was ever besieged, it was only a matter of time before they'd have to surrender, and he found himself besieged at Petersburg in June of 64. His official letters during the early weeks and months of the siege of Petersburg were extremely pessimistic, almost desperate, so I think that he knew at least 10 months before Appomattox that there was no way that his army was going to survivehe was going to have to surrender it.

And then of course in September of 1864 he wrote a letter that said he thought it was going to be impossible to keep Grant out of Richmond. And in November 1864 is Lincoln's reelection, and I think that everyone knew in November, 5 months before Appomattox, that the ball game was over. There wasn't even a miracle left. And he kept on going, had huge casualties in those monthsthe killed and wounded in the Appomattox campaign itself were 6200 people, in addition, of course, to thousands of captured. That book [Lee Considered] as a whole is a response to the deification mythology about Lee, and one of the things he has been glorified about is his dogged pursuit of the war. 

My point, based on the analysis I've given here, is that that is not glorious. I'm more concerned with the common soldier in his army, and the union army, who were killed after he knew it was over. If you believe that Lee did the right thing when he surrendered at Appomattox, for the reasons he stated, which was to avoid the useless slaughter of his men, then inevitably you have to ask if there was an earlier time when slaughter became useless, and I think the answer is yes. So he deserves to be criticized for that. I think he clearly had the authority to surrender his army at any time that he thought that it was hopeless. He thought that at Appomattox, but he also thought that at least five months earlier than that.

Q. (Civil War Forum): As you did your research, what surprised you the most about Lee, in comparison to the mental image you had of him before you began?

A. (Alan Nolan): I think that I hadn't realized how sort of Rholier than thouS he was. It seemed to me that he was enormously self-serving, always giving himself credit for what he termed his "honor." I didn't realized he was such a psalm- singer about himself. I also didn't realize how strong a believer, or advocate of slavery he was.

Q. (Civil War Forum): You speak of unfavorable reviews from neo-Confederate Southerners, but objection to your book as an attack on Lee comes from others too. How do you account for the power of the Lee mythology among people who do not have a historical or genealogical tie to the Confederacy, and whose political opinions are reasonably mainstream today?

A. (Alan Nolan): Well I think we've been bathed throughout my life, and I'm 74, with the sainthood of General Lee. It's something you're taught in school as a kid, and a lot of people have accepted that. That's why I named my book Lee Considered, instead of Reconsidered, because I don't think most people had considered the truth of such stories about his opposition to slavery, his seceding was an honorable thing, that he was such a magnanimous man. I think the people who accepted the myth of Lee are the ones who have the greatest admiration for him. And I respect those people, but I think they're mistaken. I disagree with them.

Q. (Civil War Forum): With regard to the point you raised about Lee's failure to surrender earlier, do you think Lee felt he had the authority to take such a momentous decision, given that the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia would have effectively finished the Confederacy? Could we not equally say his perseverance was a tribute to a belief in the supremacy of his political masters in such decisions?

A. (Alan Nolan): That is one of the defenses, and I addressed that specifically. Lee definitely did believe in civilian political supremacy. On the other hand, when he did surrender, he did so without authority. He simply advised Davis after the fact. There's an appendix in my book discussing his authority. As a matter of military law, he had the right to surrender his army without express authority of his government, and in point of fact, that's exactly what he did.

Q. (Civil War Forum): We've been studying Antietam here, and debating Lee as a tactician. Do you have any opinions on his overall qualities as a field commander, whether any of his genius was luck or the decision of others or whether the myth is operating in this area too?

A. (Alan Nolan): I think Lee was a very successful tactician, a very successful combat general, Antietam being one of his finest hours in that respect. I fault Lee as a soldier because I don't think he understood the grand strategy of the war.

Q. (Civil War Forum): You mention both Thomas Connelly's The Marble Man and William Garrett Piston's Ph.D. thesis and the book that came from it, Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant, in your book. What impact did these "heretical" works have on you in evaluating the Lee hagiography?

A. (Alan Nolan): Well, they made me feel that in reacting against the hagiography, that I wasn't alone in the world, or entirely crazy. As I mention in the introduction, Connelly wrote a book critical of Lee, and lived, and that was reassuring to me. But in terms of their ideas, they weren't necessarily the same as mine.

Q. (Civil War Forum): Given the limitations you've identified in Lee's character, how do you account for his enduring popularity with all ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia? Was this based solely on his ability to deliver victory, or is it another misconception?

A. (Alan Nolan): I think Lee, after the war, was sort of canonized by the South in the South's effort to come out of the war with something. Lee was built up by Jubal Early systematically, and by the public at large not systematically. And when you create a hero, amongst the whole lost cause myth, I think that the soldiers who had fought for that man are themselves dignified the more dignity he is accorded, so they go along with it. Napoleon is still a military hero in France, even though he was ultimately defeated, and his casualties, like Lee's, were horrendous. But he has been glorified in French history.

Q. (Civil War Forum): Was post-war Lee the apolitical figure, preaching reconciliation and forgiveness, that he is usually portrayed?

A. (Alan Nolan): My answer to that is no. He certainly on occasion could be very conciliatory, but his ordinary position was that of a defeated Southerner. He was very resentful of the North. He was very resentful of black people. He felt that the South should be readmitted to the Union with no conditions, and no delayhe wanted the U.S. to act as if the war had not taken place, 600,000 dead people were neither here nor there. He was a classic southern partisan after the war.

Q. (Civil War Forum): Jim McPherson in Drawn with the Sword refers to Civil War buffs as being relatively uninterested in history and more interested in the war almost as a grand sporting event or game. I know you're on the spot, but what do you think of buffs, Round Tables, reenactors, forum members, etc.?

A. (Alan Nolan): Well, I'm interested in Civil War history in all ways, and I take seriously anybody who shares that interest, even if their particular activity may or may not be one I personally engage in. I do think that most Civil War buffs are unusually interested in the blood and guts, battles and leaders, more interested in that side of it than the many other facets of itthe political and social history of the war is not as interesting to the typical buff as is the warfare.


A.J said...

I enjoyed reading the interview. Thanks for reposting it (I haven't thought of Compuserve in years!). I was especially taken by Nolan's discussion of his choice of titles -- Lee considered vs. Lee Re-considered. It's so true that many take things for granted without ever even thinking about them or questioning them. Lee's magnanimous nature is one of these things, I think.

dw said...

Thanks for the note, A.J.

Love it or hate it, Nolan's book sure got people talking about Lee, and the literature surrounding him.

Believe it or not, many CompuServe forums are still going strong (or hanging on), now branded under Netscape, and ultimately AOL.