The Chivalry of the Rebel General Lee

August 15, 2013, 4:10 am

Having returned from my vacation (the Jersey shore; very restful. To keep up my military history credentials, I went and took a look at Bunker 223:


It’s not actually terribly interesting as it looks mostly like a giant hunk of concrete from the outside and it’s not possible to get inside), I was drawn into a conversation (on Facebook) about Robert E. Lee and treason (sparked by this article). During the course of it, I found an article in the Times from 1864 called “The Chivalry of the Rebel General Lee” that had a quite remarkable statement about Lee and treason:

The simple truth is that the very fact of a soldier’s abandoning his flag involves an abandonment of character. LEE received his military education from the Government, had been constantly honored and trusted by the Government, and it was the extreme of perfidy in him to turn traitor against the Government. The soul that could once work itself up to a crime like that is capable of any violation of professional honor or moral duty. Amazement is often expressed at the displays of turpitude by rebels who were formerly reputed high-minded men. But we do not sufficiently appreciate the terribly demoralizing effect of the very act of committing treason. It is not morally possible to perpetrate this supreme crime without wrenching and in fact breaking down the whole moral nature. Treason cannot be committed on any scale without its malignity extending to every part of the moral constitution. Fidelity lies at the very core of sound character, and when that rots, all rots.

There’s an argument often made that the United States was a looser coalition at the time, and that loyalty to state was seen as preeminent over loyalty to country. But if people felt their states more acutely, there can be little doubt that they felt the betrayal of country most painfully. That crime is defined in the Constitution as faithlessness to the United States of America:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court

Note that the United States here is plural. It is a collection of states making up a country. But that collection is what is betrayed, not the individual state, and it was that collection to which, in 1861, R.E. Lee turned his back.

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