Robert E. Lee: American hero, icon... and traitor.
After the Civil War, the renown of Robert E. Lee spread far beyond the borders of the former Confederacy. He was respected and praised in the North for his virtues, his fighting prowess, and his conciliation in defeat. Historians such as Alan T. Nolan have noted that the North, whose people “had to acknowledge the honor of the South,” fully embraced the Lee tradition. “Revisionism,” especially in terms of Lost Cause interpretations of the war where Lee figured centrally, argues Nolan, “could not become part of the Civil War legend without northern acceptance, and the North did accept the South’s rewriting of the record.”
While some in the North may have been retrospectively kind to the former Rebel general, Nolan has made far too great a generalization. Union veterans, for example, were hardly generous in their assessment of Lee. To them, Lee was a traitor. In 1891, the Grand Army Record passionately objected to the “saintly slopping over Robert E. Lee,” and others agreed. In fact, GAR protests against Lee helped create a lasting thread in northern commemorative literature. In 1910, one Union veteran wrote, essentially expressing in the same breath how some might find Lee both virtuous and reprehensible: “Though in his Confederate uniform [Lee] may possess all the culture and personal worthiness he had before he thus clothed himself, this badge of disloyalty – of rebellion – so characterizes him that by it he must be judged.” As late as 1922, a variety of groups continued to honor the veterans’ legacy by protesting in “unmeasured terms” the organizations that celebrated the Rebel chief, arguing that treason should never be forgotten, much less rewarded. “No Grand Army man,” offered one Union veteran, “can honorably lend his name to any movement which shall dignify to posterity the name of the traitor Robert E. Lee, or shall make him the equal of the loyal, victorious Grant.”
Union veterans remained determined to praise only the Union heroes who saved the country, rather than a Rebel who had tried to destroy it. The praise allotted to the rebel chieftain wore Grand Army veterans particularly thin. One Collier’s Weekly article citing Lee as America’s most “noble citizen” especially drew fire from the GAR’s patriotic instructor, Robert Kissick of Iowa. “If Lee was all you claim, then the men I represent were wrong in fighting to preserve the nation he fought to destroy.” Further arguing that “Lee did not follow his state out of the Union,” but rather, “his state followed him,” Kissick lambasted the Confederate hero and heaped much of the blame for upper South secession on Lee’s shoulders. As decades passed, few Union veterans could stomach the praise of Robert E. Lee. In 1922, when the American Legion attempted to honor Lee’s birthday, veterans of the Pennsylvania GAR shuddered at the idea that anyone would “place a premium on Disloyalty to the Flag and our Country.”
Although adulation of the Rebel general found a place among northern civilians who perhaps sentimentalized or romanticized the gentile south and all that the Lee family embodied, Lee’s standing among Union veterans never reached the heights the general obtained in the South.