Poetry Helped Feed Robert E. Lee Myth

New Orleans removes a statue of Robert E. Lee


As white supremacist groups rally around Robert E. Lee statues, people are taking a close look at the mythology surrounding the Confederate general. Unfortunately, some respectable poets contributed to that mythology.

The elevation of Lee to virtual sainthood was an established fact in southern Tennessee when I was growing up in the 1950s. I only recently learned that his early canonization owes a debt to various poets, some with good anti-slavery credentials. I’m also learning that Lee was not the benevolent patriarch that they depict but a harsh slave master, a war criminal when it came to African American prisoners, and, after the war, an outspoken opponent of African American rights who hinted that renewed white violence might be necessary. The poems, unfortunately, help whitewash this reality.

A recent Adam Serwer article in Atlantic Monthly lays out the case against Lee. After describing his record as a slave master, Serwer looks at his wartime record:

During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. [Historian Elizabeth Brown] Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander A.P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As the historian Richard Slotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”

The intolerance continued after the war when Lee was president of Washington College. Serwer notes,

Publicly, Lee argued against the enfranchisement of blacks, and raged against Republican efforts to enforce racial equality on the South. Lee told Congress that blacks lacked the intellectual capacity of whites and “could not vote intelligently,” and that granting them suffrage would “excite unfriendly feelings between the two races.” Lee explained that “the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.” To the extent that Lee believed in reconciliation, it was between white people, and only on the precondition that black people would be denied political power and therefore the ability to shape their own fate.

Serwer also reports that Lee turned a blind eye to Washington students when they formed a chapter of the K.K.K. and when they attempted two lynchings and were involved in attempts to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from nearby black schools. As Serwer puts it, “Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence toward blacks carried out by his students as he was when they were carried out by his soldiers.”

Julia Ward Howe didn’t focus on Lee’s racial attitudes, however. After the war, the poet whose “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” had bolstered Union soldiers was just grateful that Lee wanted an end to the hostilities. For that she honored him:

A gallant foeman in the fight,
A brother when the fight was o’er,
The hand that led the host with might
The blessed torch of learning bore.

No shriek of shells nor roll of drums,
No challenge fierce, resounding far,
When reconciling Wisdom comes
To heal the cruel wounds of war.

Thought may the minds of men divide,
Love makes the heart of nations one,
And so, the soldier grave beside,
We honor thee, Virginia’s son.

Herman Melville seems to have had the same feelings, depicting Lee as a gracious loser in “Lee in the Capitol.” The poem is based on an actual incident where Lee testified before a Congressional committee. Although Lee didn’t say much, Melville entered his mind and imagined what he might have said had he felt able to speak freely.

Melville’s Lee is an uncomplaining man who faces the triumphalist northern senators with quiet dignity. “Who looks at Lee must think of Washington,” the poet writes at one point. The stoic Lee wants no more, Melville indicates, than to contribute to the south’s healing as an educator:

The captain who fierce armies led
Becomes a quiet seminary’s head–
Poor as his privates, earns his bread.
In studious cares and aims engrossed,
  Strives to forget Stuart and Stonewall dead–
Comrades and cause, station and riches lost,
  And all the ills that flock when fortune’s fled.
No word he breathes of vain lament,
  Mute to reproach, nor hears applause–
His doom accepts, perforce content,
  And acquiesces in asserted laws;
Secluded now would pass his life,
And leave to time the sequel of the strife.

Melville paints the north as bad winners who want to stick it to the South, which is certainly the image I was fed in my Tennessee history classes and elsewhere. Given how the South would go on to re-subjugate African Americans, the senators in the poem have good reason for the questions they ask Lee:

Their thoughts their questions well express:
“Does the sad South still cherish hate?
Freely will Southern men with Northern mate?
The blacks–should we our arm withdraw,
Would that betray them? some distrust your law.
And how if foreign fleets should come–
Would the South then drive her wedges home”
And more hereof. The Virginian sees–
Replies to such anxieties.
Discreet his answers run—appear
Briefly straightforward, coldly clear.

Melville doesn’t tell us how Lee answered these questions, just that he is short and discreet. Given Lee’s racism, one can understand why he would have been “coldly clear” in response to the interracial questions. Melville, however, is more interested in the second set of questions, and here Lee’s answers are more satisfactory.

As Melville sees it, if the North treats the South well, the South will graciously return to the fold. Meville’s imagined Lee, after promising to never strive in arms again, asks for magnanimity from the victors:

My word is given–it ties my sword;
Even were banners still abroad,
Never could I strive in arms again
While you, as fit, that pledge retain.
Our cause I followed, stood in field and gate–
All’s over now, and now I follow Fate.


How shall I speak? The South would fain
Feel peace, have quiet law again–
Replant the trees for homestead-shade.
  You ask if she recants: she yields.
Nay, and would more; would blend anew,
As the bones of the slain in her forests do,
Bewailed alike by us and you.
  A voice comes out from these charnel-fields,
A plaintive yet unheeded one:
‘Died all in vain? both sides undone’
Push not your triumph; do not urge
Submissiveness beyond the verge.
Intestine rancor would you bide,
Nursing eleven sliding daggers in your side?

Far from my thought to school or threat;
I speak the things which hard beset.
Where various hazards meet the eyes,
To elect in magnanimity is wise.
Reap victory’s fruit while sound the core;
What sounder fruit than re-established law?

Melville’s Lee then proceeds to tell a story about a Moorish woman, kidnapped by Christians, whose conversion was not enough—they wanted her as well to “hate your kin.” Don’t ask me go this far, the maid requests, as does Lee. Isn’t enough that he return to being a dutiful citizen?

In Moorish lands there lived a maid
  Brought to confess by vow the creed
  Of Christians. Fain would priests persuade
That now she must approve by deed
  The faith she kept. “What dead?” she asked.
“Your old sire leave, nor deem it sin,
  And come with us.” Still more they tasked
The sad one: “If heaven you’d win–
  Far from the burning pit withdraw,
Then must you learn to hate your kin,
  Yea, side against them–such the law,
For Moor and Christian are at war”
“Then will I never quit my sire,
But here with him through every trial go,
Nor leave him though in flames below–
God help me in his fire!”
So in the South; vain every plea
‘Gainst Nature’s strong fidelity;
  True to the home and to the heart,
Throngs cast their lot with kith and kin,
  Foreboding, cleaved to the natural part–
Was this the unforgivable sin?

In other words, Lee loyalty to the South is compared to love for family, not to the continuation of a brutal institution. It is up to the North to win the South over, Melville’s imagined Lee goes on to say. If it does, all will be well. If not, there will be perpetual enmity, and it will be the North’s fault:

These noble spirits are yet yours to win.
Shall the great North go Sylla’s way?
Proscribe? prolong the evil day?
Confirm the curse? infix the hate?
In Unions name forever alienate?

From reason who can urge the plea–
Freemen conquerors of the free?
When blood returns to the shrunken vein,
Shall the wound of the Nation bleed again?
Well may the wars wan thought supply,
And kill the kindling of the hopeful eye,
Unless you do what even kings have done
In leniency–unless you shun
To copy Europe in her worst estate–
Avoid the tyranny you reprobate.”

In other words, unless you are lenient, you will infix hate.

This is pretty much a view of the matter as I was taught it. It was also the view that appears in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, where a Lincoln who would have been a forgiving father is replaced by rapacious senators who want to crush the south. The film, of course, was instrumental is the resurgence of the K.K.K., who were reaffirmed in their sense of thmselves as victims whose violence was justified. White supremacists continue to see themselves this way.

Julia Howe and Melville do not acknowledge the depth of the animus against African Americans. Melville had disagreements with Frederick Douglass on this matter, with Douglass in a far better position to know. Unfortunately, this meant that Howe and Melville helped sow the seeds for a pernicious myth that helped absolve the South of treason and therefore made it less likely that the federal government would intervene to protect the rights of African Americans.

Melville is a great artist but, in this case, he allowed his wish fulfillment to win out over an accurate depiction of southern sentiments. Thinking all would be well if anti-slavery people like himself were gracious in victory, he sorely underestimated the intensity of southern resentment.

As a result, his poetry helped turn a racist into a hero. We are only now beginning to undo some of the damage.

Update: Wow, I can’t believe that Trump, in today’s press conference, just did what Melville did: compare Lee to Washington: “George Washington was a slave owner… Are we gonna take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson?”

Those who balk at the comparison might appreciate Alexandra Petri’s twitter comment: “george washington owned slaves. but he also freed them in his will, favored ending slavery & didn’t fight a war to preserve the institution.”

Not surprisingly, Melville’s comparison is more complex than Trump’s. He observes that Lee was actually related to Washington (through Martha’s side) and  that there is indeed a disturbing connection between the two, which must be that they were both slave owners. This is so painful that Melville wants to “hide the thought.” He doesn’t say this to absolve Lee but to show that the sin of slavery runs back through the founding fathers:

Awhile, with curious eyes they [the Senators] scan
The Chief who led invasion’s van–
Allied by family to one,

Founder of the Arch the Invader warred upon:
Who looks at Lee must think of Washington;
In pain must think, and hide the thought,
So deep with grievous meaning it is fraught. 

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