Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Robert E. Lee's Oedipal complex

Behold the putrefaction that lies beneath the impeccable surface!

The following excerpt is from Richard Brookhiser's review of Jonathan Horn's The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, which appeared in the Feb. 5, 2015 edition of National Review.
"Rebellion crept up on Lee slowly but inexorably. He was on duty in Texas as the country began falling apart, and was irked by the swaggering of secessionist Texas Rangers. His wife sent him a biography of George Washington. "How his spirit would be grieved could he see the wreck of his mighty labours," Lee wrote back. The Lincoln administration wanted Lee to take command of the Union Army after the fall of Fort Sumter (Winfield Scott was still the nation's top general, but at 75 years old and over 300 pounds he was no longer fit for field command). "How can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?" Lee answered. Scott told him, "You have made the greatest mistake of your life."
So why did Lee do it? Horn sees it as the culmination of a life of dutiful self-denial. "At this crucial juncture," Horn writes, "Lee surrendered to events. He could not have his own way. So he would have Virginia's way." Horn's textured portrait suggests another possible motive, though Horn himself does not say so: After all Lee's services, personal and professional, to the Army, to crazy and feckless relatives, to a crushing moral and familial inheritance, maybe he welcomed some destruction. He was certainly good at it. "It is well this is so terrible!" he remarked at the Battle of Fredericksburg, as his men repulsed six suicidal Union charges. "We should grow too fond of it."

I agree whole-heartedly that Lee seemed to welcome some destruction.

It is ironic that Robert E. Lee did not follow the Federalist example set by his fellow Virginian, George Washington. We can be pretty sure that George Washington would not have approved of the Confederacy. He would have squashed it like he squashed the Whiskey Rebellion. And who commanded the U.S. forces who squashed the Whiskey Rebellion? Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee III, the father of Robert E. Lee.

It is even more ironic that Lee's supposed reluctance to raise his sword against his native state led directly to Virginia's utter and complete destruction (think Poland or the Philippines in World War II). Lee killed more Virginians by donning a Confederate uniform that he would have had he taken command of the Union forces. With Lee at the helm, the Union's victory would have been even surer and swifter than it proved to be. (It took the Allies six years to defeat Hitler; the Confederacy lasted only four years.) At some level, Lee must have known that the war was unwinnable from the outset. The Union simply had too great an advantage in men and material. But he chose to fight, and brought devastation to the South.

It is interesting to consider that Lee's motives for treason rebellion against the United States may have been, in part, patricidal. And not just in the form of symbolically slaying "the Father of his country," George Washington, by destroying his creation, the United States, and thereby becoming greater than even him. Lee had plenty to complain about with regard to his own father, which could be why Lee hardly ever spoke about his boyhood. Lee's father was in debtor's prison for a year when Lee was 2-3 years old. When he got out, the family had to move into a much smaller house and lived under "straitened circumstances." When Lee was 5 years old, his father was injured in a political riot. Lee's father then abandoned his family and took off to the West Indies "to recover from his injuries." Well, he spent the next six years in the Caribbean, "recovering," and mentioned his son Robert only once in his infrequent letters home. Meanwhile, his wife and five surviving children had to manage as best they could without him. Light-Horse Harry died in 1818, when Lee was 11 years old. He had never returned home.

Robert E. Lee spent his life trying to be the man his father wasn't -- a man of honor and duty. Legend has it that he made it through four years of West Point without ever earning a single demerit. He earned the nickname of "the marble model," for the perfection with which he executed his duty and for his impeccable demeanor. His was an example of repression that put all others to shame. He was the perfectly civilized, i.e., the perfectly repressed, man. Until, of course, the lid came off and the volcano erupted. He grabbed the chance to destroy the Union because if he couldn't kill his long-dead father, he would kill what his father, as a loyal officer of George Washington's army, had helped to create. Lee's unrepressed id sent Pickett's men marching up that long hill at Gettysburg to their slaughter, and it delighted in the bloodshed. Much like Adolf Hitler, Lee's true motives were destruction, not victory. In 1945, Hitler, with every German city reduced to rubble, finally accomplished what he had set out to achieve. In 1865, with his father's native state of Virginia starving, burned, and bled white, so did Lee.


  1. Yeah, go on a wee tour of Arlington House, might as well be spray painted on the wall.

  2. "Behold the putrefaction that lies beneath the impeccable surface!"

    He kinda looks like he was strapped to a board for some two days in a clinical facility, perhaps.

  3. http://www.amazon.com/Lee-Shadow-Washington-Conflicting-Worlds/dp/0807129593/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1430296601&sr=1-1&keywords=lee+in+the+shadow+of+washington

    Nice guy, McCaslin, now in Texas after earlier career at High Point.

    Also, one mustn't forget the Freudian aspect: Lee married Washington's de facto granddaughter, and lived in and treasured a house built by Washington's adopted son (really step-grandson) and maintained as a virtual museum to the Great Man.

  4. I wanna see a piece on Wellington, who'd those sort of concerns buggered out of him at Eton. Or was it Stowe?

    1. It was Eton. He was lonely there. No indication that he was buggered. No sure that he would have been a target, given his hawk-like beak.


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