Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1865

Credit: Mathew B. Brady via Flickr

Robert E. Lee Is More Complicated Than You Think

June 6, 2017

As confederate monuments are removed from public spaces all over the nation, many Americans are forced to examine long-held beliefs about leaders from one of the country’s most complicated and painful moments: the Civil War.

Harvard historian Nancy Koehn joined Boston Public Radio today to talk about the legacy of one confederate general, Robert E. Lee.

According to Koehn, Lee was some combination of the well-loved general and vicious slave owner that history has remembered him as.

“The truth about Robert E. Lee, like most historical truth, lies in the middle and is complicated,” said Koehn.

She talked about how Lee’s image has become “a kind of symbol of the gallant and honorable part of the Civil War.”

Most of this perception comes from stories of Lee and Northern Gen. Ulysses S. Grant shaking hands after the war and agreeing to rebuild the nation together, as American citizens.

“In the very immediate weeks after the war, and then in the months after the war, he speaks for a part of the South ... that said we need to reconcile with our northern brethren,” she said. “That was in contrast to a lot of Southerners who thought that there still should be a way of rekindling the defiant revolutionary spirit and basically pushing back against the federal troops.”

Despite Lee’s willingness to work toward unity for the nation, Koehn cautioned against viewing the general with rose-colored glasses.

“The primary reason that the Southern states that seceded did so was because of slavery,” she said “There is just absolutely no question ... that Lee, like the vast majority of men and women that supported the confederacy, did so because of slavery.”

Koehn noted that in addition to owning slaves, Lee had them beaten and in one case, may have actually beaten slaves himself.

“He supported this,” she said. “Let’s not whitewash that away.”

She talked generally about the reframing of the reasons for secession in the South, saying it’s part of an effort to “make unacceptable parts of the past acceptable.”

For Koehn, the evidence is irrefutable that slavery was the reason for secession, a fact that’s only further supported by the South’s economic dependence on slaves.

“On the eve of the Civil War, half of all Southern wealth was accounted for by slaves,” said Koehn.

And, resistance to the removal of confederate monuments isn’t a new phenomenon. After the Civil War, there was resistance to the end result, a victory by the Union.

“There was an incendiary spirit that lived and in some senses still lives well past the victory of ... the major army of the union, of the federal government,” she said.

Nancy Koehn holds the James E. Robison Chair of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. Her forthcoming book is "Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times." To hear her interview in its entirety, click on the audio player above.


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