October 2017

From Traitor to Martyr: Robert E. Lee and the Myth of White Victimhood

White Americans have appropriated and closely guard what used to be a typically southern variant of U.S. history to protect their privilege. The current political climate in the United States seems to be congenial to these kinds of defense.

by Maarten Zwiers

Robert E. Lee was a traitor. He resigned from the United States Army in 1861 after the secession of his home state Virginia. He actively took up arms to destroy the Union in order to establish a republic dedicated to the maintenance of slavery and the hegemony of the southern planter aristocracy. In 1862, Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia and wreaked havoc in the eastern theater of the war until his surrender at Appomattox Courthouse three years later.

Lee, Lee, and Taylor
General Robert E. Lee in 1865. Lee’s son Custis stands on his right. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The Confederacy was dead, but a strange thing happened after Reconstruction; across the South, monuments began to appear that celebrated losers, the generals and politicians who had advocated secession and then mismanaged the southern rebellion. Stranger still, some of these men eventually became national heroes, with Lee as the most prominent example. Instead of emphasizing his treason and the flawed cause he fought for, Lee began to represent valor in battle and sectional reconciliation once the war was over. The heroic nationalization of southern rebels and their positive inclusion in the historical canon of the United States enabled a white supremacist interpretation of the nation’s past, which is based on white victimhood and a profound denial of systemic racism.

The eventual heroizing of Lee was far from certain right after the war.

The eventual heroizing of Lee was far from certain right after the war, however. When the rebel general asked the federal government in 1865 to be pardoned for his treason and his citizenship to be restored, the State Department decided to shelve the request. Secretary of State William Seward in fact gave Lee’s citizenship application to a friend as a souvenir. Seward’s actions demonstrate that shortly after the war, government officials understandably regarded former Confederates with contempt.

Radical Reconstruction held the promise of a true structural transformation of southern society. But by the mid-1870s, weariness in the North and white violence and intimidation in the South spelled doom for such a social revolution. Once federal troops had returned to their barracks, southern whites slowly began to regain political control. By the end of the nineteenth century, they had codified their dominance in new state constitutions. The regional public memory of the Civil War era, enshrined in the myth of the Lost Cause, legitimized this dominance and the disenfranchisement of former slaves.

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Equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, VA, 1905. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Lost Cause mythology portrayed the battle for southern secession as a noble struggle for states’ rights. The South did not lose the war because it was fighting for the preservation of a morally reprehensible system of labor, but because the North simply had more manpower. Reconstruction was depicted as a tragic period, typified by the chaos and corruption of black rule supported by the federal government. Historians led by William A. Dunning ensured that this negative view of Reconstruction became dominant in academia for years to come.[1] The Lost Cause myth portrayed southern whites as victims of an intrusive federal government and Reconstructionist vengeance. On the basis of this story, the white fight for home rule (through secession and redemption) came to be seen as a patriotic crusade for an American way of life.

As long as the Lost Cause narrative had remained a regional myth, its damage might have been contained. But to achieve sectional reconciliation, this interpretation of Civil War and Reconstruction history became nationalized, with serious repercussions for minority groups. In the end, national unity was more important than effectively dealing with the legacy of slavery. Such unity was necessary to successfully embark on an imperialist course; in the Spanish-American War of 1898, former Confederates like General Joseph Wheeler contributed to the development of the United States as a player on the world stage. It is no coincidence that the institutionalization of racial segregation in the South coincided with the advent of U.S. imperialism. The losers of the Civil War, recast as victims of oppressive regimes, returned as heroes to a country where white supremacy was restored. “The patriotic propaganda of the Spanish-American War rested on the foundation of the reunited, military patriotism of northerners and southerners, especially the white people of the two regions,” historian Nina Silber concluded. “The men of the North and the South… epitomized the spirit of masculine, virile patriotism, the ideology that could finally bridge the bloody chasm of the Civil War.”[2] 

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Staff of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. General Joseph Wheeler front row, left, 1898. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The Lost Cause myth served as a mechanism to incorporate southern loss into the triumphalist tale of American exceptionalism. This sanitized, whitewashed version of Civil War history subsequently entitled segregationist southerners to claim a sense of victimhood in the face of federal activism. Especially during the New Deal years and after World War II, the trope of the victimized South became a rhetorical weapon to defend the regional status quo in class and race relations. After all, on the basis of the Lost Cause myth, southern secession had become an all-American tale about fighting government intrusion and Lee had become an all-American hero—all of which obscured the true cause of the Civil War: the survival of a white supremacist labor system.

White supremacy was again central to the so-called Second Reconstruction, but southern politicians were smart enough to downplay the issue of race in favor of constitutional arguments and the defense of local control—just like Jefferson Davis had done when he served as president of the Confederate States.[3] Segregationists thus could claim that the gothic society of the Jim Crow South was actually the heartland of Americanism. The context of the Cold War added leverage to such logic; southern conservatives equated the increase of federal authority with a Soviet-style centralization of power. During the post-World War II era, white supremacists successfully conflated Confederate ideology with American political traditions, which subsequently enabled them to brand civil rights activists as communist sympathizers.

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USPS stamp commemorating Confederate generals Lee and Jackson, 1937. Courtesy Wikimedia.

The story of a southern David fighting against the Goliath of federal power gained national traction by the end of the 1960s. Disenchantment with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the end of legal segregation in the South transformed the region from a scapegoat into a promised land of sorts. White Americans longed for simpler times and Dixie provided such a narrative. With Jim Crow gone, southern political traditions all of a sudden became much more palatable, especially during a time when civil rights activists began to forcefully address structural racism in the entire United States.

Once civil rights activists headed north to fight for better housing, better education, and better jobs, the specter of Reconstruction reappeared, this time on a national scale. White suburbia now assumed the southern mantle of victimhood; its inhabitants considered themselves victims of an oppressive federal government that used their tax dollars for social engineering in favor of minority groups. The concept of the Silent Majority captured the essence of this idea of white victimization. Suburban Americans did not go out into the streets to protest. Neither did they receive benefits from Washington—at least that is what they believed. “During the civil rights showdowns of the late 1960s and early 1970s, white-collar families that claimed membership in the Silent Majority rallied around a ‘color-blind’ discourse of suburban innocence that depicted residential segregation as the class-based outcome of meritocratic individualism rather than the unconstitutional product of structural racism,” historian Matthew Lassiter wrote.[4]

Lee’s redemption signaled the final stage of his transition from white supremacist traitor to white victim.

In 1968 the Silent Majority voted for Richard Nixon, who promised an honorable peace in Vietnam and law and order in the United States. The restoration of honor, law, and order was also the main aim of white southerners who redeemed the South from the rule of Reconstruction during the late 1870s. The subsequent reintegration of the post-Jim Crow South into the American mainstream happened once again without much critical reflection in the public sphere. In 1975, Congress even restored Robert E. Lee’s citizenship. Lee’s redemption signaled the final stage of his transition from white supremacist traitor to white victim, an honorable gentleman who had simply stood up in defense of his way of life and was subsequently punished for doing so. At the signing ceremony, President Gerald Ford said “General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.” Ford reached out to the white South in yet another attempt at sectional reconciliation. But with his endorsement of Lee, the president also accepted the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War and gave it White House sanction.

It comes as no surprise then that the alt-right movement recently rallied around the statue of General Lee in Charlottesville. Since the end of Reconstruction, Confederate officers have been included in the pantheon of American heroes, together with figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They were symbols of a victimized white South fighting for its political traditions during the Civil War and the civil rights era. This combination, a sense of white victimhood and the status of Lee as an American hero instead of a Confederate traitor, has made the removal of statues glorifying the Confederacy a complicated matter. The “American national subject is produced as white,” cultural studies scholar Janice Radway explained, “the state and the political economy of the United States are themselves entirely dependent on the internal, imperial racialization of the population.”[5] The emphasis on white victimization is yet another mechanism to reinforce such white dominance.

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Statue of Robert E. Lee in Dallas, TX, 2014. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Whether the alt-right defense of Confederate monuments may actually speed up their dismissal from public spaces remains to be seen. “Collective remembering forges identity, justifies privilege, and sustains cultural norms,” historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage stated in his study of public memory in the South. “For individuals and groups alike, memory provides a genealogy of social identity.”[6] White Americans have appropriated and closely guard what used to be a typically southern variant of U.S. history to protect their privilege. The current political climate in the United States seems to be congenial to these kinds of defense. The alt-right adoption of Lee as its poster boy nonetheless makes abundantly clear what has been silenced for a very long time; that the cause he stood for was intimately tied up with the maintenance of white supremacy. As an enslaver, Lee’s wealth was based on the exploitation of black labor. As a general, he intended to fight for white privilege, even if it meant the disintegration of the United States. Like the Confederate rebels and Jim Crow politicians, the alt-righters claim the badge of patriotism in their fight for what they consider traditional American values. Those values, like their predecessors, just so happen to be for whites only.

MZ1Maarten Zwiers is assistant professor of American Studies and History at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. In 2015 his book Senator James Eastland: Mississippi’s Jim Crow Democrat came out with Louisiana State University Press. He has published in Southern Cultures and The Southern Quarterly and is currently working on a new project about authoritarian networks in the Cold War Caribbean.

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[1] Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), xi-xiii.

[2] Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 196.

[3] See for instance Keith M. Finley, Delaying the Dream: Southern Senators and the Fight against Civil Rights (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 9-10.

[4] Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 1.

[5] Janice Radway, “What’s in a Name? Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, 20 November 1998,” American Quarterly Vol. 51, no. 1 (1999), 11.

[6] W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), 4.

1 comment on “From Traitor to Martyr: Robert E. Lee and the Myth of White Victimhood

  1. Pingback: Mapping White Supremacy – The Activist History Review

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