Was Lee a Traitor?


Were Robert E. Lee and the Confederates “traitors” who violated their oaths to the Constitution and attempted to destroy the American nation? Or, were they defenders of that Constitution and of Western Christian civilization?

Over the past 158 years those questions have been posed and answers offered countless times. For over a century since Appomattox the majority opinion among writers and historians was that Lee and the Confederate leadership were noble figures of a “lost cause,” but sincerely mistaken about what they were fighting for. They were admirable and valorous, even to be emulated, if in the end the “righteous cause” of “national unity” was destined to triumph.

In the “the road to re-union” that followed the conclusion of the War for Southern Independence, Southerners were permitted their heroes and, up to a point, their history. Southern historians wrote and published accounts of “the repressible conflict” (Avery Craven), of a war that might have been avoided if reason and a spirit of compromise had triumphed (as opposed to belief in what William Seward had called “the irrepressible conflict”).

We were “all Americans now,” united around one flag. Former Confederate generals like “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, Fitzhugh Lee, Thomas L. Rosser, and Matthew Butler served as US Army generals during the Spanish-American War. Virginian Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912. Southerners in Congress exercised a significant role in the direction of the nation, even if the options open to them were always subsumed under the rubric of national unity and limited by the invisible parameters of that unity. Hollywood collaborated throughout the silent period, and up through the 1950s the South and the Confederacy were treated generally with cinematic respect, if not sympathy.

That post-war truce, that modus vivendi that recognized the nobility, sincerity, and admirability of those Confederates, even if their “cause” and secession were best interred with the past, began to break down by the sixth decade of the 20th century. Actually, a kind of Neo-Reconstructionist perspective had never completely been absent from the scene.  Historians like Black Communist, W. E. B. de Bois (Black Reconstruction in America, 1935), kept alive a narrative that insisted that the War was uniquely about slavery and racism…and the oppression of black folk by a dominant white political and economic power structure.

With the full-fledged emergence of a “New Left” school of historians in the 1960s and the incredible success of what became cultural Marxism, the tacit post-War settlement all but disappeared.

I remember my grad school time at the University of Virginia in the 1970s: the old liberal narrative of reunion and unity, an appreciation for the Confederacy and its leaders, was already under attack. Slavery—and the increasing significance of racism, almost to the exclusion of all other considerations—was becoming the prism by which to judge all history, not just the Confederate odyssey and the brutal war of 1861-1865 and subsequent Reconstruction. The texts in my “Civil War and Reconstruction” seminar included works by Kenneth Stampp, Stanley Elkins, as well as C. Vann Woodward (The Strange History of Jim Crow), all pointing to the direction in which we were headed. Even signs of contradiction—historical demurrers like Time on the Cross (1974) by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman—were eventually either dismissed, or, more generally, ignored.

The “race and slavery” template has become enshrined in our contemporary historiography about “the tragic years” (to use Claude Bowers’ words). Marxist historian Eric Foner with his multiple works on the epoch (e.g., Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 [1988], A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln [1990], and The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery [2010]) is now counted the major chronicler and interpreter of the period. His works are standard in nearly every college history classroom. And his minions and ideological allies now dominant academia and the historical profession, to the practical exclusion of opposing views.

But in fascinating ways, even Foner’s perspective is too mild for many current writers and pundits. (Foner even argued, after the August 2017 incident in Charlottesville, that Confederate monuments should not be removed, but instead more statues should be installed to offer a “corrective” viewpoint.)  Strikingly, the most hysterical and unbridled attacks on the Confederacy and, in particular, on Robert E. Lee and Confederate monuments, seem to come from those who consciously proclaim themselves to be “conservatives,” that is, those who are known as “neoconservatives.”

Basically, these “conservative” critics of the Confederacy and Lee declare:  “Robert E. Lee and other Confederate military leaders who were in the US Army committed treason by violating their oaths to defend the Constitution, and Confederate leaders led a rebellion against the legitimately elected government of the United States.”  

This accusation has become an ultimate weapon of choice—the “ultima ratio”—for many of today’s fierce opponents of the various monuments that honor Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, P. G. T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, and other Confederate military and political leaders, and for the belief that those monuments should be taken down. And most especially, it is spewed forth as unassailable gospel by many neoconservative writers, publicists, pundits, and their less distinguished camp followers in the elites of the Republican Party.

Somehow these critics forget to mention that Lee and the other Confederate leaders resigned their commissions in the United States Army and from Congress prior to enlisting in the defense of their home states and in the ranks of the Confederate Army, or assuming political positions in the new Confederate government. They did not violate their oaths; their states had formally left the union, and, thus, the claims of the Federal government in Washington had ceased to have authority over them.

Recently, we have witnessed the spectacle of Rich Lowry, editor of the neoconservative National Review, apparently “channeling” Robert E. Lee and declaring that if Marse Robert were alive today he would happily join in the chorus to bring down those monuments honoring Confederate soldiers and leaders. Thus, according to Lowry, the great general would be there demonstrating right beside the “Antifa” Marxists and Black Lives Matter vandals.

Even more obtuse views come from Mona Charen, a long time Neocon publicist and Never Trumper, who fears that the GOP is “being taken over by Trumpists and Neo-Confederates”!

But it is from the mouths of such “conservatives” as Andrew Bacevitch, Max Boot, and Victor Davis Hanson that the worst venom emits.  And, fascinatingly, it could just as well have come from a member of the communist Workers’ World Party as from Bacevitch (who writes for The American Conservative, but voted for Obama twice), or from Boot (who was John McCain’s foreign policy advisor during McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign), or from Hanson (who is considered a respected conservative icon).

Just a few quotes from Bacevitch:

“My complaint about Lee—I admit this to my everlasting shame—was not that he was a slaveholder who in joining the Confederacy fought to preserve slavery. It was that he had thereby engineered the killing of many thousands of American patriots who (whatever their views on slavery and race) wished simply to preserve the Union. At the beginning of the Civil War, Lee famously remarked that he could not bring himself to take up arms against his home state of Virginia. This obliged him to take up arms against the very nation that as a serving officer he had sworn to defend? No less than Benedict Arnold, Robert E. Lee was a traitor. This became, and remains, my firm conviction.”

And then this from Boot:

“…what is it that we are supposed to be grateful to the Confederates for? For seceding from the Union? For, in the case of former U.S. Army officers such as Lee and Jackson, violating their oaths to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic’? For triggering the most bloody conflict in American history? For fighting to keep their fellow citizens in bondage?”

But it is from the rabidly anti-Confederate, Victor Davis Hanson, in his fanatical defense of William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea,” that these passions are summarized:

“…the attack on [Southern] property and infrastructure [by the North] was permissible, [as] the war was an ideological one against treason and slavery…. Terror, as a weapon to be employed in war by a democratic army, must be proportional, ideological, and rational: proportional–Southerners, who fought to preserve men as mere property, would have their property destroyed; ideological–-those who would destroy property would do so as part of a larger effort of abolition that was not merely strategic but ethical as well; and rational–-burning and looting would not be random, nor killing gratuitous, but rather ruin was to have a certain logic, as railways, public buildings, big plantations, all the visible and often official infrastructure of a slave society, would be torched….”

Now, these individuals are well-educated, with valuable university degrees, writers of some repute. But their hatred-laced and furious animus for Lee and the Confederacy is flagrantly ideological, an inheritance of their own undeniable genealogy and origins on the zealously Trotskyite Marxist Left…a legacy that continues to characterize and color their thinking and world view.

It was Lee, Jackson, Davis, and others like them and with them who stood foursquare for the original Constitution, for the vision of the Framers, and, in effect, for the continuance of the inheritance of Western and Christian civilization. Their defeat was an incalculable blow to that inheritance.

The latter-day neoconservative historical narrative implicitly, if not explicitly, furthers the goals of an historical Marxism that threatens to overwhelm and displace the culture and traditions of the West with a vision that owes far more to Leon Trotsky than to George Washington. In essence, the neocons collaborate in that dissolution.

They may protest not, but, in reality and through their views, they effectively do so. And, as such, they are the enemies of those who do defend that European inheritance from those who went before us, the legacy of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. They must be called out and their vision denounced for what it is: the neoconservative “Fifth Column” of the progressivist Revolution that seeks to radically remake the world and man…and that remade image is not one that comes from God.

About Boyd Cathey

Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations. More from Boyd Cathey

You might also enjoy these articles...