Robert E. Lee: A Tragic Figure in the American Experience

I have once again sat down to watch The American Experience: Robert E. Lee. Being the avid fan of well-done documentaries, I must say that I was not disappointed – at least not for the most part. We are treated to a mighty fine cast of historians providing the analytical commentary including Joseph Glathaar, Gary W. Gallagher, Emory M. Thomas and a number of other first-rate scholars. PBS provides the narration and additional analysis – and as it turns out, a link to a streaming version! So watch and enjoy right here on Keith Harris History! Oh, and by the way – you might want to watch to video (if you haven’t already) before you continue reading. I wouldn’t want to blow the ending.

The emphasis of Robert E. Lee is a move away from the deity in bronze or marble man image that the mighty general has ascended to since his death in 1870. The program paints the Virginia aristocrat as an altogether human figure. A human with an almost obsessive devotion to duty above all else, even family. The film walks us through the life of Lee as a young cadet at West Point, as Winfield Scott’s trusted staffer in the War With Mexico, through a religious conversion experience, and as an ardent Confederate nationalist. He is irritable during the 1862-63 winter, at one point humiliating a subordinate in front of others. He experiences a bout of melancholy when he learns of family tragedy, and he suffers from an incapacitating heart condition. In other words – a man with emotions, faults, flaws, idiosyncrasies, and illness…just what we might expect of any other man.

Except that this is Robert E. Lee – and the film is very conscious of letting us know that many – both in the North and South – saw Lee as infallible…a virtuous, honorable soldier in a noble cause.

But Lee is a man who failed. He failed on an epic scale and saw everything that he stood for crumble. No one knew this better than Lee himself. So ultimately, Lee is a tragic figure. A man who on one hand was as virtuous as one can be, but who on the other saw no real problem with slavery and led an army to preserve it. In 1865, his country is defeated, his fortune is gone, his beloved Virginia is in ruins, and his family is only a shadow of what it once was. He spends the few remaining of his life in bitter private reflection.

And thus my critique of Robert E. Lee. The general narration of the film has a somewhat apologetic, even sorrowful tone – it seems to empathize with a man who has lost everything because of a devotion to duty. Do we then walk away from this film feeling as though Lee deserved better than what he got? Even Lee himself once stated that he wished he had not chosen the life of a soldier. Should we wish the same?

Lee is among the most compelling figures in American history. His brilliance and military acumen deserve accolades. But many have a difficult time reconciling this with the fact that a man of such great virtues committed treason against the nation he swore to protect – as does Robert E. Lee.

Screen shot 2013-12-27 at 9.35.15 AMThe film seems to poke a little at this nagging problem. The opening segments – “Lee” reading his pledge of allegiance to the United States as a young army officer bookended by a closing segment of a much older “Lee” reading his oath of loyalty to those same United States suggest that we should think more about his commitment to the national state.

In the end this is the real tragedy – that Lee, with all the promise of a brilliant career, cast his lot with what U. S. Grant would call “the worst cause for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” One could argue that he stood up to be counted in utter disregard of his devotion to duty – and thus turned his back on his nation and indeed – himself. In this the film only makes slight inroads – ones that perhaps are left for a future documentary.

With compliments,


Free City

Screen shot 2013-12-23 at 9.28.55 AMWhenever I hear the expression “Free City” I think of two things (in no particular order).

1) I think of the Free City retail store on Highland Blvd in Hollywood that features tee-shirts, sweatpants, and hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with any number of catchy phrases and range in price from $100 to upwards of several hundred dollars. These items are great for uber-stylish hill-dwelling moms and dads with more money than sense who like to slum it with their strollers around Griffith Park in performative style- garbed in the bissonata of the apathetic chic. As silly as that is, I have to hand it to the designer – anyone who can get someone to spend $300 on what most people would wear to do their laundry is a genius.

2) I think of Fernando Wood. Screen shot 2013-12-23 at 9.29.30 AM

Fernando Wood was a powerful Democratic Party politician and the mayor of New York City during the secession crisis. He was extremely troubled by the thought of the southern states seceding form the Union. Wood was opposed to the Republican Party platform and most particularly their stance against slavery – he believed, or at least argued, like many of his southern countrymen, that although Lincoln promised not to go after slavery where it already existed, it would only be a matter of time before abolition was the order of the day. But in the immediate sense, Wood was concerned with economic factors. New York City businesses did a great deal of trade with destinations south of the Mason-Dixon. Secession and war would mean an end to that trade…and of course, an end to many of Gotham’s business interests. Wood proposed something of a secession movement himself – not to join the Confederacy per se, but to establish Manhattan as a free city, allied with neither side and open, as it were, for business with both. Wood had a number of supporters from the extreme faction of the Democratic Party but in the end New York Democrats thought he was pushing the issue too far. Wood’s proposal was associated with treason and he was not reelected. Although he publicly hated Lincoln, Wood eventually (if grudgingly) supported the war effort once shot were fired – encouraging the formation of regiments, the raising of funds, and other war related activities.

So the next time I give a talk on New York City or Fernando Wood, I’ll be sure to wear one of my Free City tee-shirts and see if anyone notices. And you can rest assured, I have enough sense not to pay hundreds of dollars for a tee-shirt. I got mine gratis. It pays to have connections, I suppose.

With compliments,


Tweeting from the Hallowed Halls

Screen shot 2013-12-09 at 6.26.36 AMTwitter. The good news is that scholars and educators world wide have embraced the social media giant with gusto. The bad news is they aren’t doing a particularly good job at it. Well, many aren’t anyway. There are a few out there who seem to really understand the platform and have used Twitter ways that will have some sort of lasting significance.

You may be asking of what I speak. You may also be thinking that I should mind my own business. You may just want me to go to hell. Well, I have been threatening to write a short piece on how Twitter and those in education (not just historians) can make a meaningful splash on Twitter now that so many have waded in neck deep. And yes…people have asked me to do so. So here you go.

The trouble as I see it is that academics and others in education have misunderstood the platform. They have overlooked the “social” part of social media. Academics have largely used Twitter as a broadcasting platform; they have created an environment of endless links to other sites, news stories, announcements, and personal updates with little interaction. In a sense, though not entirely analogous, this is what happens on celebrities’ promotional Twitter feeds. Or even worse…it’s what clumsy salespeople do to awkwardly promote their products and services. In short: it’s advertising. And one other thing…(and this applies to Tweeters across the board) what’s with all the inspirational quotes? Stop it.

Is broadcasting beneficial? Is it useful? Yes and yes. On both counts – of course it is. My own Twitter regularly broadcasts information about my latest blog posts (it’s all automated) and any scholarly activities that I am working on. In addition, I regularly Tweet interesting information that pertains to well, just about anything, but usually relates somehow to history specifically or education in general. But that is only a small fraction of what you will find on my Twitter feed. And ultimately, none of the broadcasting is at the heart of what I am trying to do.

Twitter is about conversations. And this simple notion is unfortunately lost on most users. In academia, these conversations could easily be meaningful and function to serve the greater good – or if you like, build on the (sort of) altruistic activity of adding to the wealth of human knowledge. But let’s be honest here, altruism aside, these conversations can serve to build one’s personal reputation. While some may want to keep their Tweets private, as it were, most of us don’t. And thus, here we have the opportunity (yet unrealized in most cases) to let the world know that we have something to say. And what’s even better…we have the platform to listen and engage with others who, not incidentally, might also have something important to say. See how this works? And if Tweeting can somehow be personally beneficial – then all the better. Reality check – there is an element of self-promotion (or brand awareness) infused in every Tweet. Don’t try to deny it.

No matter how you slice it, Twitter should be a great virtual gathering spot. It should be the Internet cocktail party, the online post-conference hang out session. It’s where we should go to exchange ideas or create new ones. But unfortunately – it’s not. The dull broadcasting of information (and little else) offered by academics and educators may be the greatest missed opportunity in modern education.

Case in point: the other day my  University of Virginia Alunmi Association Magazine arrived in the mail. I flipped through and found an interesting article about Allen Groves, the UVA Dean of Students. By all accounts, Dean Groves is a genuinely caring man and an asset to the University. I look forward to meeting him one day.

To illustrate the Dean’s popularity, an insert – Ruling the School – proclaims that Groves is popular on social media and has over 6,000 followers on Twitter compared to Duke’s dean of students, who has a meager 22. Well, the magazine failed to provide Dean Groves’s Twitter handle (well, played, editorial staff) but I did a little digging and sure enough, there is Dean Groves and his 6403 (as of December 2013) followers.

But nothing is really going on. Here is a golden opportunity for Dean Groves to speak directly with a clearly engaged student body and thousands of alumni. And it is just not happening. Instead are a number of Tweets linking away from Twitter, showing campus pictures, congratulating athletes, and forwarding UVA announcements. Let me go on record as saying that this information is perfectly welcome. I would be surprised if someone in his position did not Tweet along these lines. But the crucial element is missing. There is no conversation to speak of. Groves only follows a handful of people (less than 150), which indicates to me that he is not really interested in conversing with his audience at all. I can see no response, no dialogue, no questions, and no answers.

I ask Dean Groves, in the most respectful manner that I can muster, to reconsider how he uses this revolutionary platform. Imagine, if you will, what could be done on this public forum in terms of enhancing the student experience. In the article, the author (Michelle Koidin Jaffee) mentions that you are outspoken in support for students of various backgrounds. Great! Now wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all be involved in a meaningful conversation about this profoundly important topic on Twitter?  Think of what might be accomplished. And let’s look beyond that. Consider how such a conversation could bring prestige to the University. Think of what a mutual exchange of ideas could do for our Academical Village in terms of….academics. The potential here is really quite unprecedented.

But most importantly, I extend these thoughts and considerations to everyone involved in education and scholarship (historical or otherwise). What can we do to make Twitter less of a virtual bulletin board and more of a community for interaction, debate, and the simple exchange of ideas?

Your comments are welcome.

With compliments,





Grand Army of the Republic – Busy in Santa Barbara

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Scholars do not generally say that much about the activities of the Grand Army of the Republic on the West Coast (I’m working on fixing that…). But I assure you, they were up to many of the same things as their GAR comrades around the rest of the country…but with a western style all their own. I recently stumbled across this shot of a GAR memorial service at a cemetery in Santa Barbara around 1880. More on these guys later. For now, just enjoy the shot.

With compliments,