Trump should consider Robert E. Lee's act of treason before defending him

There is something relentless about President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE’s capacity to simplify and willfully or otherwise misunderstand current events. But when he evokes history, especially to illustrate the present, the problems intensify.

The latest reprise of this appeared on the White House lawn as the president prepared to make his pilgrimage to the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association. The president doubled down to explain his infamous comment of two years ago that some people marching alongside members of the KKK and American Nazi Party in Charlottesville, Va., actually were quite decent folks — just citizens concerned about a plan to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, who killed more Union troops than any other Confederate general during the Civil War. After all, the president schooled us, why should that statue be removed? Lee was a great general — and, gesturing toward the White House, Trump explained that he’s heard many people say the same within its walls.

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Unlike most wars in which the victor writes the history, the story of the American Civil War is one that has been told at least as much by the prodigy of the vanquished. To give the president his due, the positive narrative over the decades of Robert E. Lee’s contribution to the Confederate cause was considerable.  

That point is just the problem, and it is why an increasing number of historians studying that period of history have come to take a long overdue critical look at Lee.  

Like all West Point cadets, Lee took an oath to the United States. As even the 45th president of the United States must know, the taking of that oath remains one of the most solemn moments in anyone’s life. Lee was not the only Confederate soldier to violate that sacred oath but, as one of the most senior generals in the U.S. Army at the start of the Civil War, he knew his oath of decades before remained consequential. That act of treason — a favorite epithet of President Trump’s, who might consider using it in its proper context — was well understood at the time for what it represented. It cannot be explained away by his greater love for Virginia than for the country to which he swore to serve faithfully and without reservation.

Lee never wrote a memoir. Had he done so, it may have answered critical questions: Why did he not sit out the war, rather than take up arms against his own country? Why did he keep fighting and condemning thousands of soldiers to their deaths when there was no hope of victory? And what exactly were his attitudes toward race relations?

Those who have admired Lee through the years have often downplayed his attitude toward slavery and looked the other way at the fact that he owned many slaves and, even after the war, was slow to release them.

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When his Army of Northern Virginia went north in June 1863 to seek out the Union Army and threaten Washington, he issued orders (not particularly observed) against looting. But he chose not to intercede against another activity in which his troops enthusiastically engaged: the capture and forced return to slavery of African Americans enjoying their freedom in Pennsylvania. Later, in 1864, with his army depleted by dwindling enlistments and desertions, he turned down a prisoner-exchange proposal with the North because of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s insistence that the South not exclude African American POWs in the exchanges.

Lee is often extolled for race relations because of his 1865 decision to support the recruitment of slaves in Confederate armies. This suggests a confusion of virtue with necessity. Those who believe his views were a reflection of his times would do well to contrast them with those of Grant, who already was grappling in the Union Army with equal-pay issues for blacks and whites.

In Appomattox Court House, Va., where Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, Lee was at first startled and then visibly annoyed that Grant asked one of his assistants, Lt. Col. Ely Parker, to copy the surrender document that Grant had quickly written in pencil. Lee had mistaken Parker for an African American and was visibly relieved to learn that he was a Native American. “Oh, so you are a real American,” Lee awkwardly said. “We are all Americans,” Parker famously responded.

After the war, unlike a number of southern generals such as James Longstreet, who worked hard and at personal risk to implement reconstruction, Lee refrained from using his considerable prestige to do the same.  

President Trump seems to take the view that Lee’s wartime record in taking up arms against the United States merits a statue in an American public square. Lee certainly made short work of Union generals in the first half of the war, sending many to early and well-deserved retirement. Yet, a strong case can be made that Lee rarely showed a capacity to think beyond the wingspan of his Army of Northern Virginia.

He seemed, for example, not to understand the compelling strategic argument expressed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis that the loss of Vicksburg on the Mississippi would immediately split the Confederacy and lead inevitably to its defeat; Davis was right, as was Grant in subsequently seizing the fortress city.

Lee’s defeat at the epic Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 is one that even his most ardent supporters cannot explain away. He took a fully manned, equipped, seasoned and (thanks to relentless looting of Pennsylvania farms) well-fed army to defeat at the hands of Gen. George Meade, a promoted corps commander who had been in charge of the Army of the Potomac for only five days. Meade thoroughly outgeneraled Lee during the three-day battle, and dispatched him and his broken army back to Virginia where they began digging trenches for the final two years of the war.

Lee continued to fight a defensive war whose only strategy was the forlorn hope that the enormous casualties inflicted on both sides would compel the North to give in. He clearly had taken the wrong measure of President Abraham Lincoln and Grant, who ultimately forced Lee and his troops out of their trenches around the Confederate capital of Richmond and chased them down until they surrendered.

Present-ism is often an unfair measurement of a historical figure’s contribution to his or her times. But even by the standards of 150 years ago, there is good reason not to honor Lee in a public square. As Grant later wrote about the Confederate cause for which Lee fought so long and hard, it was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

President Trump would do well to learn that history lesson.  

Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador including as U.S. ambassador to South Korea in 2004-05. He also served as State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs 2005-09 and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-08. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.