Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History
By Alan Nolan
For those who called for a book burning of General Robert E. Lee and Lee Considered: Civil War History in 1991, little did they know that the author, Alan Nolan, was not fazed by such bigotry and narrow-minded thinking. As a boy growing up in Evansville, Ind., he and his mother—a Protestant married to a Catholic—were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. That experience left a profound impression on Nolan and deeply affected his historical scholarship. He understood that inequities in modern society are always anchored by beloved historical traditions.
Nolan doesn’t question Lee’s undeniable greatness. He bluntly states, “I believe Robert E. Lee was a great man—able, intelligent, well-motivated and moral, and much beloved by his army.” His most extreme critics were too outraged to read this point, or most of the book for that matter. If they had, they would have seen that Nolan’s argument was not with Lee, but with the Lee tradition. This school of thought claimed that the general was antislavery (see P. 30), opposed to secession, a superior strategist and tactician, always magnanimous toward the enemy and an apostle of reunion during Reconstruction.
Nolan drew on his legal training to interrogate each of these assertions, but he was careful not to reach black-and-white verdicts. He subjects the sources to brutal cross-examinations, but refrains from punishing Lee for “crimes” against humanity. Nolan’s purpose is to place Lee within his proper historical context so that we can better understand why he believed in slavery despite apparent reservations about the institution; why he violated his oath to the U.S. military despite his love for the Union; and why he worked behind the scenes during Reconstruction to support reactionary forces, even though he publicly adopted reconciliation.
Nolan’s use of evidence against Lee unfortunately creates the impression that he is prosecuting the general. He routinely finds contradictions in Lee’s words and then exploits those inconsistencies without seeing how Lee’s thinking evolved over time. Nevertheless, Nolan asks the right questions about Lee, especially his generalship. Too much emphasis, he insists, had been placed on evaluating the brilliance or boldness of Lee’s individual battles without considering the devastating losses that resulted from the general’s aggressive tactics.
Some have suggested Lee Considered is the product of an antihero age or a manifesto for the era of political correctness. Such an argument is a pathetic attempt by those unwilling or unable to engage the book’s substance. Thankfully, Alan Nolan was not an intellectual coward. He took risks, but always with the intent of opening up debate. Nolan, who died last summer, will be missed, for he pushed us to reconsider our most cherished historical traditions so we could liberate ourselves from the mythologies of our past.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.