Robert E. Lee and the problem of judging a life

Who am I describing?

1)He was one of the most efficient killers in history.  His military tactics were ground-breaking in their horror and involved the deaths of literally tens of thousands.  His actions caused millions of slaves to remain in chains for many additional years.  He forced an army to keep on fighting until they were a starving, ragged, barefoot mob, and then they suffered a humiliating surrender.

2)He was a gentle, honorable, God-fearing man who prayed regularly.  In all of his actions, he thought he was being guided by the Almighty.  In terms of his personal behavior, he might have reminded us of our modern-day prophets. He is considered a genius, and his tactics are studied worldwide.  He defended his country against a foreign invasion and fought with honor.  He was such a natural leader that his men would cheer whenever he came into view.  He was a loyal husband and father, and was revered until his death.

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, both descriptions apply to Robert E. Lee, the leading general of the South through most of the Civil War.

We all are a mass of contradictions.  We are capable of breathless evil and breath-taking good, sometimes in the same day.  We scream at our kids until we are blue in the face and then two hours later go to help somebody move, do home-teaching and preach the Gospel.

I am really glad that God is doing the judging, because I would have no way of looking at a life like Robert E. Lee’s and making any kind of sweeping decision.  When reading the scriptures to my kids, they always ask “was he a good guy or a bad guy?”  And we of course say that people like Nephi and Abinadi and Capt. Moroni are “good guys.”  When Nephi cuts off Laban’s head, he is a “good guy” killing a “bad guy.”  My personal feeling is that Nephi was haunted by that decision his entire life, and that he probably second-guessed himself all the time.

I think we need to constantly remind ourselves that only one person is human history was really a good guy.   And He was the best ever.  He healed and cured and saved.  He was completely selfless in a world dominated by self.

The rest of us just muddle through, trying to learn from our errors so we don’t do the same stupid, pathetic things over and over again.  And hopefully by the time we die we can look back at our lives and remember the acts of kindness, the time we spent with our families, the times we gave of ourselves to help others.

Robert E. Lee was also one of the most humble people in U.S. history.  After Gettysburg and Vicksburg, as the South began to realize it was going to lose the war, there were calls for him to become a dictator, to gather all power to himself.  He would have none of it.  Just like George Washington before him, he just went on every day trying to do what he thought was right.  In that sense, he was just like Nephi and many other Book of Mormon heroes, who resisted worldly power because they knew it could corrupt them.

So, I don’t know what to make of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, good, humble, God-fearing men who fought for an evil cause.  Just as I’m not exactly sure what to make of many of the heroes of the scriptures.  How did Joshua feel, killing thousands of people whose only crime was living in the wrong place?  Can you imagine the anguish and guilt of Noah, watching millions die while he and his family lived?

Perhaps, just like Robert E. Lee, most of us are often forced into situations where there is not always an easy solution.  Lee could not fight for the North, despite the appeal from President Lincoln, because he would be fighting against his own family and friends in Virginia.  Yet, fighting for the South caused him to do atrocious things, to be an efficient and brutal killer, and to defend that great evil, slavery.

So, was Robert E. Lee a “good guy” or a “bad guy?”  He was both, just like all of us.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

32 thoughts on “Robert E. Lee and the problem of judging a life

  1. As you say there is only one good guy. I look at Captain Moroni and his tactics and especially his might call to repentance by the Kingmen even to death and I wonder.

    But then as you say, we cannot judge another’s heart. How can we? Deep down I do not even understand my own kids let alone some man who lived nearly 200 years ago.

  2. Thanks for this, Geoff. I think you are right about Nephi. Lately I’ve been deeply wrestling with all the issues you raise.

    I like this quote, but it is a scary one–it keeps me on my toes:

    If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. -Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn

  3. The authors of “Massacre at Mountain Meadows” explicitly address this issue (and also reference the Solzhenitsyn quotation) in an approach that I believe leads to a better understanding of events and people close to home for some members of the church.

  4. Cynthia, thanks for reminding me of that Solzhenitsyn quotation. I have read that before, and it’s definitely appropriate.

  5. Does defending your homeland and family against invading Federal troops really constitute “an evil cause”?

    I ask the question merely to underscore the fact that the Civil War is a deeply complicated issue and many of the participants didn’t fight to preserve slavery as much as they fought to defend hearth and home from encroaching violence.

  6. Michael, noted. Please consider that I wrote way up there: “He defended his country against a foreign invasion and fought with honor.” I believe Robert E. Lee did not own slaves and certainly was not fighting to keep slaves for himself. I also agree that it is a deeply complicated issue. Nevertheless, the primary issue the South was fighting to defend was slavery. Yes, state’s rights were important. But, if they were not fighting to defend slavery, why did they cheer the Dred Scott decision, why did they continually fight for new states such as Texas, Kansas and California, to be slave states?

  7. I agree with Geoff. As Confederate raider John Mosby (aka The Gray Ghost) said, in an effort to undo the great “Lost Cause” myth: the war was always about slavery. I love Lee as much as anyone, but I still find it difficult to reconcile Lee’s personal attributes with the knowledge he must have had that at the end of the day it was slavery that was at the heart of the confederacy.

  8. This issue of General Lee is very complicated. He was fighting for his state and it’s right to property (blacks were considered property verses being free citizens). The rule of law (constitutional) states that right of one state must be recognized by all others states, thus the issue of slaves (property) being moved from state to state. It wasn’t a total war about freeing blacks since only the blacks or slaves were emancipated in the south but not in the north. I feel that Lee was honorable to his state and cause, tough choices. Grant on the other hand was fighting as you all say on the right side but was much worse than anyone else. His nick-name was ‘Bloody Grant’. His course of action was to throw more troops at the south because he could afford the loses. Very poor management of his men and supplies. I believe he was the more evil regrading the human toll of the war (soldiers, property, etc). This issue is akin to Morman German or Japanese soldiers fighting during WWII. Maybe if we didn’t war all the time, good people wouldn’t have to deal with this issue.

  9. Yes, Robert E Lee owned slaves, and felt that they were needed for Arlington to be profitable. So he was fighting to maintain the status quo regarding slavery.

  10. You make some great points Geoff. I did my Master’s Thesis on historians changing interpretations of Stonewall Jackson and you accuarately summarized the challenges of biographical history.

    On a relatecd matter, I love Lee and Jackson. My study of them actually got me started on studying military history. But after my in depth study of the their lives I have to agree with the historians that oppose the lost cause. The Civil War was dominantly fought over slavery. And Jackson’s sister stayed Unionist, and many generals from VA fought for the Union as well. Lee and Jackson were good men, but they were also traitors who had their images rehabilitated (concerning treason) and magnified by the post war south for a variety of self serving reasons; such as assuaging the charges of treason, providing models of behavior to rebuild their country, and as saints of a civic religion aimed at greater societal control. A good place to start is a book edited by Gary Gallagher called “The Myth of the Lost Cause”.

    Thanks again for the post. Its exciting to discuss a subject I actually know something about. :)

  11. We seem to forget that Lee (and others) was a man of his time. What was status quo was not his fault nor could he be anything else. It wrong to judge him by todays thinking or standards. He was what he was and maybe we need to judge him by what was in his heart. He loved his state, his men, family, God and etc. He was very bothered by the war and all the death, hurt, etc near the end and felt that maybe it was time to end the war and begin the healing. what issues are we defending today that history will judge us good or bad. Maybe your future generations will say ‘What were they thinking’.

  12. @Mex Davis
    I have to disagree with your implication that Grant was wicked in his choice of strategy. Specifically, Grant would rather have led a finessed campaign of manuever as he did in Vicksburg. But Lee was too good to fall for it, and Grant was under incredible political pressure in the Eastern Theatre to directly engage Lee. In that case you could lay the sin on the political leaders for starting a war and then demanding its quick conclusion.

    On a more general note, you could argue that ending the war as quickly as possible would save more lives in the long run, and thus be the best moral choice. This was an argument used by Truman in favor of dropping the Atomic Bomb, and it was also the reason given by Roosevelt for bombing strategic targets instead of the rail lines to concentration camps. Roosevelt said the best way to save the most jews was to win the war as quickly as possible.

    I do agree with your overall point, that warfare can create the trickiest of moral dilemnas. Where good can easily become bad and vice versa. Thats why I am so I appreciate your post, and Geoff’s O.P.

  13. I have to disagree with the notion that Grant’s tactics were somehow evil. Grant did allow Sherman to pillage his way through Georgia, it is true, but Sherman was before his time in seeing that the quickest way to end the war was to starve out the South. One of the primary reasons that Lee kept on fighting (and winning) was because his troops were receiving supplies from other states and the Shenandoah. In the end, Lee surrendered at least partly because his troops were starving. So, would it have been more moral for Sherman and Grant to allow the troops to be fed so they could kill 20,000 more of them — and suffer 20,000 more deaths on the Union side — and the war could continue another year or two?

    As Morgan Deane notes, Grant was very subtle and indeed masterful in his western campaigns. He admitted that Lee was the best he had ever faced, and he was forced into using a different strategy, especially after the disaster at Cold Harbor, and his strategy was specifically aimed at winning the war as quickly as possible. I think it’s a terribly difficult thing to judge people like Grant and Sherman and their tactics. Other tactics may have caused even more deaths.

    It is also worth pointing out that Grant was amazingly forgiving at Appomatox (sp?) and granted Lee terms that were honorable and allowed the process of reconciliation to start. Kind of like some of the Nephite heroes in the BoM. Men were allowed to keep their swords and horses and head home peacefully, instead of being tried for treason. Grant specifically fought NOT to prosecute Lee and other generals for treason, although of course Jeff Davis ended up spending a few years in jail.

  14. I agree that, at bottom, the Civil War was about slavery, in that it was the dispute over spreading slavery that led to it. I also believe that, if Northerners (and Lincoln) had been asked whether they were willing to fight a war in order to free slaves in the South, the answer would have been a resounding “no”. If there is a myth of a great lost cause in the south, there remains a myth that the cause of the North was to liberate those slaves. A result, perhaps, of the war, but not the motivation.

    I, like many others, have ancestors and family who fought on both sides in the Civil War. I fully agree with Geoff. And I agree with Solzhenitsyn. All of us are a mix of good and evil.

    The family members I know of who fought for the Confederate states did not have slaves. According to family lore, their motivation (conscious motivation anyway) was to fight off invaders; it was not particularly their motivation to preserve the slave holdings of the richer folks in town. I suppose one can argue that their subconcious motive was to preserve slavery, but I think it is simplistic to maintain that slavery was the great cause for everyone who fought for what they thought was their government and country.

  15. Regardless of causes of the war for Southern Independence, the South had every right to separate itself from the North. The North also had no moral right to invade the South.
    Anyone that disagrees would have to also say that the colonies (you know…those mean old slave-holding colonies) had no right to separate themselves from the crown.
    “Civil War” is a misnomer. That term refers to a war within a country. The Confederate States of America was a soveriegn nation by every description that defines a soveriegn nation.

  16. Bruce, that must be why everybody, I mean everybody, considers Lincoln such a bad president, because he was fighting for such an immoral cause.

  17. It’s true that the victors write history, and therefore form public and private opinion for those unwilling to research both sides, Geoff.

  18. If a state or region wants to leave the United States, it has two choices: 1)the people in that state or region can leave and move to another country or 2)the people can peacefully petition Congress to leave the country and form their own country. The South did neither — they took over Union property and declared it their own (Fort Sumter being the most famous case). Their actions were criminal and illegal, and Lincoln’s only choice was to carry out the war to its conclusion until the rebel area agreed to re-join the nation. If the South’s cause had been just, they would have taken the second course and continued to lobby until it was approved by the majority of Americans.

    I have repeatedly argued this issue with “secession sympathizers,” and I have no doubt that my position is the correct one.

  19. So, using your logic Geoff… the Revolutionary War was “criminal and illegal”.
    The Declaration of Independence was hardly a peacefull petition…it was a known act of treason and, therefore, an act of war.
    Thank goodness our founding fathers did not lobby to King George until it was approved by the majority of the English.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one Geoff.

  20. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

    It likewise seems strange to speak of seeking independence in order that you may continue to hold another race in bondage.

    But, perhaps the magnanimous thing to do would be to follow Lincoln’s recommendation and judge not.

  21. Bruce, I’m not as interested in re-fighting the Civil War as I am in setting down conditions for secession, should it happen in the U.S. again. I might agree with you that 80 years or so after the founding of the Republic the young nation’s situation was not as clear and set in stone as it is now. But my concern is, what if Texas or Hawaii or Vermont or Alaska decide they want to secede? My answer is that there are no provisions for secession, except the ones I lay out, ie, people can either move out of the country or they can petition Congress to secede peacefully. It’s not impossible that Congress may decide to let a state or region go in some future theoretical situation. But I’m not prepared to allow states to secede based on popular whim.

  22. Interesting. Coincidentally, this reminds me of John D. Lee. I think the sentiment is nearly identical. I love that Solzhenitsyn quote. It reminds me of another by Primo Levi:

    “Occurrences like this astonish us because they conflict with the image we have of man in harmony with himself, coherent, monolithic; and they should not astonish us because that is not how man is. Compassion and brutality can coexist in the same individual and in the same moment, despite all logic; and for all that, compassion itself eludes logic.”

  23. thanks Geoff for the interesting post. We live in the land of the Civil War. Our home sits on the campground area of a CIvil War battlefield. I am reminded every day the sacrifice that was made in that terrible war, as I drive around town encountering historical markers. War is a weird thing, it seems to bring out the best and worst of humanity even in the same person.

    My ancestor is Ira Allen one of the principal characters in the Mountains Meadows Massacre. When I look at his picture I marvel that such a sweet looking demeanor could have done the atrocities he was reported to have done. Grandpa Ira had such a strong faith and was willing to do what was asked. He arrived with his family from Michigan, he brought with him the proceeds from selling both his Michigan farm and his New England farm as well. Brigham Young asked him to consecrate all of his money to the church to help pay for outfitting the wagons of the poor saints in Nauvoo. He did just that becoming a poor saint himself, as his children walked barefooted to Utah.

    I wonder if his strength in obedience was ultimately his downfall in the Mountains Meadows tragedy. Grandpa Ira is an example to me that you must not blindly follow and beware of “wolves in sheep’s clothing”
    even amongst the saints.

  24. Wow, I not sure if this is still open for comment but… I’m not sure what history books are teaching in school today. We were taught that the vast majority of the North didn’t really care about the plight of the slaves. The real issue was that the South had an advantage with cheap labor using slaves and were doing very well in world trade (cotton, sugar, etc). Using the moral issue of slavery was a tipping point to get some advantage over the South and stop the inequality on the trade side. Northern slaves were not freed during the war as were the Southern slaves. Grant under pressure is no excuse to the wholesale slaughter of his men. He was called ‘Bloody’ for a reason. I think it is easy to re-write history from our own think and guessing. Most were heros in thier time and cads in yours. I imagine that in heaven the Blue and Gray are in different areas as they may try to contiunue the war.

  25. Mex I think that you are right to a certain extent. I do think Abolitionists got the emotional tide a rolling and pushed the conflict over the edge. The ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ is an emotionally moving song even today.

    Then consider the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, authored by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and the second best-selling book after the Bible. UTC was thought to have been the fuel of the abolitionist fire in the 1850s. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States alone. The book’s impact was so great when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln is often quoted as having declared, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.

    I have wondered for the non-Abolitionist yankee solider what the reasoning was for fighting and dying for the North. I know the southerners were big on “states rights” and notion that home needed protection, and for “glory”. Southerners are big on glory btw. “Glory of the South and the honor of our Confederate Dead” is still mentioned with tears in the corner of some people’s eyes.

  26. ” How did Joshua feel, killing thousands of people whose only crime was living in the wrong place? ”

    Geoff, you need to brush up on your BOM reading.

    1 Nephi 17

    32 And after they had crossed the river Jordan he did make them mighty unto the adriving out of the children of the land, yea, unto the scattering them to destruction.
    33 And now, do ye suppose that the children of this land, who were in the land of promise, who were driven out by our fathers, do ye suppose that they were righteous? Behold, I say unto you, Nay.
    34 Do ye suppose that our fathers would have been more choice than they if they had been righteous? I say unto you, Nay.
    35 Behold, the Lord esteemeth all aflesh in one; he that is brighteous is cfavored of God. But behold, this dpeople had rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity; and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them; and the Lord did curse the land against them, and bless it unto our fathers; yea, he did curse it against them unto their destruction, and he did bless it unto our fathers unto their obtaining power over it.

    As an aside, my personal belief is that once Nephi knew that killing Laban was right, he never regreted doing it.

    I recommend 2 articles from BOM studies:

    “Killing Laban- The Birth of Sovereignty in the Nephite Constitutional Order”

    and John W. Welch’s “Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban

  27. Carlos, so you think it was easy for Joshua to kill young children and Canaanite babies? Why point was not that they were righteous – my point was that it was not an easy thing to do.

  28. Regarding Nephi, we can only speculate about how he felt later in life. I said he was probably haunted by it and second-guessed himself. This would be a normal reaction to killing somebody. But we surely know that Nephi second-guessed himself about a lot of things:

    2 Nephi 4
    17 Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
    18 I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
    19 And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.

    This does not mean Nephi was not a good man — good men are more aware of their many failings. It is truly bad men who don’t ever question themselves. So, Nephi, being a good man, may, and I emphasize the word may because we don’t really know, have been haunted by his decision.

    Carlos, you really need to brush up on your BoM reading.

  29. So, Geoff, do you still say that “their only crime” was to live in the wrong place? That’s where I was disagreeing with you. The truth is you overlooked clearly stated facts in the scriptures, and I called you on it, and you didn’t like it.

    As to Nephi’s psalm, my reading of the text is that he laments getting angry at his enemies/brothers. Nothing indicates (to me, at least) that he regret killing Laban or the many others he killed in defense of his people. I do keep up on my BOM reading, I’m well familiar with what you reference, specially since I just taught a lesson on it.

    I’m assuming you have not read the suggested articles, as you make no mention of them, but they point out excellent justifications for Laban’s slaying. I do recommend you read them.

    Were I Nephi I don’t think I would regret it. I’m a combat veteran, and although I didn’t directly kill anyone, I did indirectly (long story). I also have a (female!) LDS friend who killed in self-defense while we were in Iraq. Neither one of us has any regrets about taking those lives.

    I will agree with you, however, that it is pure speculation as to how Nephi felt about it. Perhaps we both project our own psychological make-up on Nephi.

  30. Carlos U, if you re-read Joshua you will see that Joshua was ordered to kill all living beings, old and young (“all that breathe”). As you are I’m sure aware, people under the age of eight are not accountable in the eyes of the Lord. Joshua may or may not have been aware of this (I’d guess he had the M. Priesthood and may have been aware of it, but again that’s speculation). So, killing the adults may have been difficult but understandable — they were not righteous. But killing babies and young children — that had to be tough no matter how unrighteous their parents had been. Again, if you re-read my post I am not saying Joshua acted badly or that he did anything wrong. I am simply saying it would have been difficult for him to kill young children and babies whose only crime was living in Canaan and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    As for the articles, I have read many articles discussing the killing of Laban, and I have no problem with Nephi’s actions. You are correct that I am probably projecting my own feelings, but the BoM clearly says it was very difficult for Nephi to kill another person, and we see evidence that Nephi was a good person, prone to question his own actions, so it is not completely unreasonable to think he may have had doubts during his life. This does not mean the doubts overcame the assurance he received from the Spirit — it just means he, as a good person, had doubts. We all have doubts about a lot of things — that’s a normal, human response.

    If you want to have a calm, reasoned discussion with somebody on this blog or another blog, you may want to consider not starting out your comment with a claim that the person you are dealing with needs to “brush up” on their reading. You did not like it when I made the comment to you — and the point of doing so was to show how it feels when somebody else questions your reading of the scriptures. Doesn’t feel too great, does it?

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