Feeding Frenzy
Honor and Compromise, and Getting History Right

How the media’s attacks on John F. Kelly’s Civil War comments missed the mark by a mile.

Published on: November 6, 2017
Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he serves as Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program.
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  • Suzy Dixon

    Oh for gods sake. His first bit was just a statement of fact and basically quoting the late historian Shelby Foote. And since when can’t you call your enemy honorable? West Point proudly boasts of Lee’s attendance there. Why? Do they think they created an evil monster and they love it? Erm no. He was a superb tactician that made due with a lot less than his rivals AND because he was (at least up until a few years ago) regarded as a thoughtful man who couldn’t kill fellow Virginians.

    • KremlinKryptonite

      To add to that, Suzy, one of the reasons why the ACW actually ended after just a few short years was due to the respect paid to the loser by the victor. The confederate leadership and generals weren’t executed. The flags and songs weren’t banned. In fact, Dixie, which was written by a northerner anyway if I’m not mistaken, was played for Lee at Appomattox by a union band.

      • Jim__L

        “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though
        passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The
        mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they
        will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

        Abraham Lincoln

        What of this sentiment, if anything, is honored by today’s Left / Democrats / Progressives?

      • Tom

        You’re confusing the stories.
        That was Lincoln, when he heard of the surrender at Appomattox, who told the leader of the band on the steamer he was traveling on that he had a song request. The leader asked what it was.
        “Dixie. I would dearly love to hear ‘Dixie’ once more.”

        • KremlinKryptonite

          Of course I know that Lincoln asked them to. Can you imagine what sort of reaction such a gesture would get him today? Lincoln would see bottles excrement flying his way.

    • William Fankboner

      Lee’s military genius is exaggerated and due largely to the fact that he was fighting a defensive war. When Lee and his other general tried to invade the North, they were repulsed with great losses. What’s more, Lee as a man had obvious character flaws. You could not call him ‘honorable’ on the personal level, nor could you call anyone who fought for the cause of slavery, however valiantly, ‘honorable.’

      • SeaAyeA

        How do you side with slavery in 1860 or 1861? Nobody was threatening to take any slaves away. I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. And the north was fighting the war with one hand tied behind his back. Lee was on the losing side, and quite likely there was no chance of victory. that doesn’t change the fact that he was a brilliant tactician and widely regarded by friend and foe alike. Not so dissimilar from a guy like Rommel.

        • William Fankboner

          Be careful, sir, you don’t rouse a sleeping tiger.

          • Suzy Dixon

            Can I call Lincoln honorable? Just to set you straight, Mr. Sleeping Tiger, the man didn’t even make the war about ending slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation, and that threat [of ending all slavery in the Confederacy] was used as a gambit to end the war. It didn’t work. I suppose that was fortuitous for the slaves, right?

            The man did throw thousands critical of the war into jail. Can you imagine or GWB, BHO, or DJT doing that for being opposed to their drone programs or regime changes? Or was it a different time, and therefore presidents in the last 30 years are held to a different standard? Why not hold Lee to a little different standard? Hmm. I can call both Abe Lincoln and Robert Lee honorable for different reasons, and in their own time. Not a problem for me.

          • William Fankboner

            The Emancipation Proclamation did actually shorten the war. By war’s end 20% of Union troops were black. Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and jailing of dissidents is not comparable in any way to the scenario you describe (opposition to drones). America was in the midst of a civil war upon which its very existence depended.

            With regard to General Lee’s character, slavery of Washington and Jefferson was a far more humane than that of Lee’s South (I believe Washington and Jefferson both freed their slaves). On a personal level, Lee had a stern, tyrannical streak, especially evident in his attitude toward his slaves.

          • TNI Censors Comments Now

            Suzy seems to want to give them both a pass. You are just cherry picking one over the other. You’re both wrong to do that. What’s the point of habeas corpus if it can be suspended? HINT there isn’t one. All you can do is try to spin it and practice apologetics for a tyrant. Lincoln was a tyrant. Tyrants lock up dissidents. Period. Full stop. Lee was a slave owner. That’s one thing given the time. Worse, precisely because he was a great commander, he knowingly prolonged the war and the bloodbath!

            I don’t like SeaAyeA drone example either. Use Vietnam. Lee knew that he could not win and he straight up shoot out face to face. What do you do when you can’t win man to man? You play defense! You’re a camper. Do some surprise attacks. You hope that you’ve done enough physical AND psychological damage to your enemy to break their political will to fight.

            That’s with the Chinese-backed North Vietnamese were doing. It did work. So you’re telling me habeas corpus could’ve and probably should’ve been suspended and thousands and thousands should’ve been jailed for protesting the support of South Vietnam? That is what you’re saying. Don’t try to spin it.

          • William Fankboner

            The issue is complicated. Jefferson believed in gradual amelioration of slavery, which is comparatively benign compared to the General Lee’s attitude toward slavery. The following is from Wikipedia:

            In 1779, as a practical solution to end slavery, Jefferson supported
            gradual emancipation, training, and colonization of African-American
            slaves rather than unconditional manumission, believing that releasing unprepared slaves with no place to go and no means to support themselves would only bring them misfortune. In 1784,
            Jefferson proposed federal legislation banning slavery in the New
            Territories of the North and South after 1800, which failed to pass
            Congress by one vote. In his Notes on the State of Virginia,
            published in 1785, Jefferson expressed the beliefs that slavery
            corrupted both masters and slaves alike, supported colonization of freed slaves, suspected that African-Americans were inferior in intelligence, and that emancipating large numbers of slaves made slave uprisings more likely. In 1794 and 1796, Jefferson manumitted by deed two of his male slaves; they had been trained and were qualified to hold employment.

          • TNI Censors Comments Now

            Huh? You clearly meant that for Tom. Tommy boy! You’re up.

          • William Fankboner

            Correct. Senility is a terrible thing.

          • Paul Lies


          • Tom

            Jefferson never freed his slaves, by the bye.

          • hecate9

            ” I believe Washington and Jefferson both freed their slaves.”
            Actually neither one freed their slaves during their lifetime. Washington owned hundreds of slaves and, as slave owners went, was certainly not among the cruelest. While he reportedly refused to sell slaves to other planters against their will, in order to keep families together, he also insisted that the British return his “property” after the war as several of his slaves had ran away and sought refuge with the Redcoats. He is on record as approving the whipping with the lash by his overseer of a house slave girl who had been “indolent.” However, he did arrange for ALL of his slaves to be freed after his wife’s death- the only Founding Father from Virginia to do so.
            Jefferson owned many slaves at his death. He was a bankrupt and might have disposed of his estate differently had he not been in so much debt. Five were freed (the Hemings children) and the rest- about 130-were sold at auction. The mother of his children, Sally Hemings, was never manumitted, although after his death she was allowed to live out her days in a house in Charlottesville.
            Both Washington and Jefferson publicly stated that slavery as an institution was morally indefensible and bad for America. Privately, though, they depended on it, and the “capital” tied up in ownership of human beings constituted the bulk of both of their personal wealth.

        • KremlinKryptonite

          It goes well beyond the manpower, resource, and wealth advantages of the north. Lee was disadvantaged by the fewer miles (thousand of fewer miles) of rail and telegraph lines in the south. Worse yet for Lee, the CSA government refused to put their comparatively measly rail network under centralized, military control. Supposedly Lee complained about this up until the last day. It meant, for example, that his men were about 35 miles from their capital in 1864/1865, yet they had scant supplies and some were starving.

          Lincoln, by contrast, placed the norths railroad depots and telegraph offices under military control, and he had telegraph lines installed for his own personal use. He leveraged every bit of advantage these things could give his generals. He was the first world leader in all of history to, throughout a multi-year conflict, be able to stay on top of hour by hour and even minute by minute developments and issue direct orders to impact those battles from afar. These included battles in which D.C. was in real danger.

          Gettysburg is a fine example of Lee’s bad luck going on offense. His army was at its peak strength in summer 1863, had several victories, and Lee had every right to be confident. Lee and 75,000 men marched into the US, but having the battle at Gettysburg was not what he wanted at all. Gettysburg looked like the center of a wagon wheel. The roads. The battle of Gettysburg started by accident, it started because of the roads, and as more men kept arriving on these roads it escalated into the largest battle ever fought on the continent. Even so, the battle was not lost until the last day, the third day.

          • Unelected Leader

            Thank you, Professor. Can you imagine being George Meade? By morning on July 1st the Confederates had already cut most of the telegraph wires. Getting sketchy reports about huge columns of Confederates within a few miles. Meade had no connection with Washington, and he knew he was it. He was the only force standing between Lee and Washington. He literally could not lose. If he lost, then the war was lost.

          • KremlinKryptonite

            Oh I can certainly try to imagine it, but I have never been under a mountain of pressure as large as he was for those three fateful days. Few ever have or will be. Meade did lose connection with Washington, although, this was not always a bad thing [from a generals standpoint]. Lincolns generals did not always appreciate their commander in chief having direct access to them, and being able to tell them how to fight. Also, Meade did make use of the US Army’s, then fairly new, invention called Wig Wag Signaling. Using teams with telescopes or binoculars and a man with a large flag, he could wave the flag in a sequence mimicking Morse code and get messages instantly across distances. It worked. Meade used this pretty well to track the Confederates and update his officers.

          • Paul Lies

            Even on the third day it was not hopeless for Lee. I don’t know how it has happened, but there has become this precept in popular mythology the pickets charge, for example, was a ridiculous idea. In reality, it was a well-thought-out plan, and it did have a reasonable chance of success.

          • KremlinKryptonite

            The story of picketts charge is certainly steeped in myth and misunderstanding by almost certainly a majority. The story of the charge actually begins on the second day when the Confederates almost destroyed Meades army. William Barksdale’s brigades and subsequent confederate brigades outflanked Meades fishhook and very nearly broke it, and nearly rolled it up. All day long, confederate brigades, sent in pairs, hit the union flank over, and over, and over. Two at a time, 20 or 30 minutes apart, all day.

            The situation was so dire, in fact, that Meade had to pull more than 8,000 men off Little Round Top and that only barely worked. At the end of the day, the newly formed Bureau of Military Intelligence or BMI started interrogating captured men. Throughout the night, BMI agents realized that they had at least one or two prisoners from every known confederate brigade and unit except one. They did not have any men under the command of Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett.

            That meant Pickett had Lee’s only fresh troops. Any novice strategist could then surmise that tomorrow would likely bring a frontal assault let by Pickett after an artillery barrage. That’s precisely what happened. Even so, it was not doomed to fail. Indeed, some Confederates did break union lines. It’s really just one component of the much broader story of the ACW. The story of seeing these much older, Napoleonic tactics meeting much newer and more deadly technology. Things like rifled muskets and the conical shaped minié ball for them, the longer range artillery with fuze-timed shells, and some of the first repeating rifles and primitive land mines.

          • William Fankboner

            Picket’s charge might have succeeded had Porter Alexander’s artillery barrage succeeded. Most of the shells went over the heads of Union troops, exploding harmlessly behind the lines.

  • Anthony

    “Simplification is the bane of good history” (Allen Guelzo) and, also, remarkably the bane of good contemporary web commentary. “The past is a foreign country…they do things differently there.” In particular, the United States, in some of her several parts, 152 years later still obviates both the Civil War (its tremendous loss of life and more) and its ostensible National reckoning (reckoning with social/political construct of race and America’s failure thereto [compromise(s) not withstanding] thus fomenting a rendering Civil War).

  • hecate9

    In 1865 context, Lee may -or may not- have been an honorable man, a good man, a general, an evil slaveowner, or some combination etc.. That judgement, surely, is to historians. Jefferson was in many ways the intellectual of the Revolution yet he did things at Monticello that we moderns find quite immoral (though they may have been normative among slave owners of his time).
    Monuments, however, are not objective historical assessments. Statues are not historical monographs. They are the equivalent of celebrations, political banners, identitarian arguments that are raised by particular interest groups at particular moments. There were a lot of those moments in the South at about the time that the Lost Cause Myth was ascendant, and thousands of such monuments were erected.
    We, of a later age, have no incumbent or inherent duty to respect these monuments. They have a certain quaint appeal but we should recognize them for what they were and are. We should absolutely respect historicity and the search for historical truth (as Quixotic as that may sometimes be)- but those states can and should come down as easily as they went up IF that is the peoples’ will.

  • William

    “McCurry said. “Well, what was the cause? […] The reason there was no
    compromise possible was that people in the country could not agree over
    the wisdom of the continued and expanding enslavement of millions of
    African Americans.””
    McCurry comments are a hateful indifference to the death of 650,000 Americans and the ruined lives of the wounded, spoken 150 year after the event. No different than condemning America for the “murder” of German and Japanese civilians in WWII, especially the dropping of the atom bomb.
    McCurry shows a convenient lack of imagination in considering such a compromise, such as the compromise proposed by Lincoln, and sadly not accepted by the crazed antebellum Southern political leadership. McCurry et al commentary is not about slavery, instead the comment is to continue the denigration of the current American culture; hateful.
    What was the compromise Lincoln offered the South to prevent the Civil War? Can you guess?
    Lincoln offered to the South the purchase of slaves, to compensate the South of their capital, economic investment such property represented, in conjunction with the end of slavery. Such a solution would have prevented the death of 650,000 Americans preserving their lives and their contributions to America including their prodigy.
    McCurry salivates at the thought of the Civil War dead as some kind of “moral” retribution (which must continue today) for slavery; a retribution which will only be fully paid when America is subject to Progressive totalitarianism.

  • Trajan Fanzine

    : “To suppose that the Union could not have been continued or slavery
    outmoded without the war and without the corrupt concomitants of the
    war, is hardly an enlightened assumption.” Instead, the American mind of
    the 1860s became “a sorry mélange of party bile, crisis melodrama,
    inflated eloquence, unreason, religious fury, self-righteous, unctuous
    self-deception and hate””

    In other words, …little has changed.

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