On this day in 1863, General Robert E Lee sent a letter of resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It was in response to criticism about Lee’s judgement in the Battle of Gettysburg. Davis refused to accept the resignation, and it is hard to see Lee’s offer as anything but petulance, “You wanna fire me? Let’s see how you do without me!” As regular readers know, I’m no fan of Lee. He had the option to lead the Union army, but he refused. That doubtless cost a few hundred thousand lives there. And then he went on to run a good campaign the first couple of years of the war, giving the Confederacy the mistaken impression that it had a chance in hell of winning. He is a tragic hero in the strict sense of the term: he had a tragic flaw. Sadly, it did a lot more than just damage him.
But I’ve always thought that Gettysburg was an interesting battle because it destroys the image not just of Lee’s military brilliance, but of all men’s. The best you can say of a brilliant military leader is that he makes good use of random opportunities. That’s what William Wallace did at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. He never had similar success because he never had similar opportunities. And at Gettysburg, Lee did what all military leaders do: funnel their men into the meat grinder and hope something good comes of it. Nothing did.
A good example of of the hero worship of Lee can be found on the History Channel’s website. (I know: they talk about history on their website?!) It says with regard to the resignation letter, “The modest Lee took the failure at Gettysburg very personally.” That’s a contradiction. Either the entire battle was all about him (taking it personally) or he was modest. But there really is no apologia for Lee that doesn’t go too far. His Wikipedia page is filled with lots of stuff about how he was against seceding, and how he mocked the Confederacy. It even mentions the following information about Lee’s managing slaves, without irony, “He found the experience frustrating and difficult; some of the slaves were unhappy and demanded their freedom.” Uppity slaves!
It would be nice to think that if Lee had been allowed to resign, it might have made a difference. But all of Lee’s “magic” was spent in the first part of the war. What happened from then on would have been done by lesser generals. So he’s a tragic figure, sure. But he’s no hero. People need to get over that. But sadly, many Americans still look up to Jefferson Davis. And even I’ll admit Lee was a better man than he.