- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Robert E. Lee at West Point

(Note to readers: Colleges and universities have presidents. Military units have commanders. At the nation’s service academies, the Superintendent—known colloquially as the Supe (rhymes with “soup”)—combines both functions. At my alma mater West Point, the current Superintendent, the 59th since the academy’s founding in 1802, is Lieutenant General Robert L. Caslen, USMA Class of 1975.)

Dear General Caslen:

No doubt you get plenty of unsolicited advice from crotchety Old Grads and I apologize if this missive should prove annoying. It is not my intention to add to your burdens.

I write concerning our fellow West Pointer, Robert E. Lee, Class of 1829. From 1852 to 1855, Lee preceded you, serving as the 9th Superintendent. He subsequently achieved renown while commanding the Army of Northern Virginia from June 1862 until its dissolution in April 1865.


Back in my own cadet days during the now-distant 1960s, I readily imbibed the line that assigned Lee a place of prominence among West Point’s most illustrious and revered graduates. He had, after all, graduated near the top of his class, served with distinction in the Mexican War, and during the Civil War won a series of spectacular victories against the larger and better equipped (but ineptly led) Army of the Potomac.

As a compliant young Catholic, I had learned to recite a Litany of the Saints, soliciting the favor of Joseph and John, Peter and Paul, Andrew and James, and so on, all the way to Cosmas and Damian. As a compliant young cadet, I had embraced a secular equivalent, a litany that included Grant and Lee, Pershing and MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton, Omar Bradley and Matthew Ridgway. No one in that hierarchy of honor and accomplishment outshone Robert E. Lee.

That the West Point campus (in our lingo, the “post”) should, therefore, feature a Lee Gate, Lee Road, Lee Hall, and Lee Barracks seemed not only unobjectionable but entirely appropriate. So too with various Lee portraits on prominent display in the Cadet Mess, the Supe’s quarters, and elsewhere. As for the Robert E. Lee Memorial Award for excellence in mathematics, my only complaint was that I never came within a mile of winning it.

Lee embodied the values that West Point seeks to inculcate in its graduates: Duty, Honor, and Country. So I was taught and so I believed.

It is my fate to be a quick study and a slow learner. Not until I was in my thirties, therefore, did I begin to wonder how it was that West Point should elevate to the status of role model a serving officer who had abandoned his country in its time of maximum need.

My complaint about Lee—I admit this to my everlasting shame—was not that he was a slaveholder who in joining the Confederacy fought to preserve slavery. It was that he had thereby engineered the killing of many thousands of American patriots who (whatever their views on slavery and race) wished simply to preserve the Union. At the beginning of the Civil War, Lee famously remarked that he could not bring himself to take up arms against his home state of Virginia. This obliged him to take up arms against the very nation that as a serving officer he had sworn to defend?

No less than Benedict Arnold, Robert E. Lee was a traitor. This became, and remains, my firm conviction.

As a result of recent events in Charlottesville, our fellow graduate has now returned to the limelight. General Lee has suddenly become a controversial figure. Proponents of white supremacy venerate his memory and the cause for which he fought. Others are keen to banish Lee (or at least his image in granite or marble) from public view. In this dispute, little space for compromise exists.

I’m guessing that you are already reflecting on what all of this might mean for West Point, where Lee remains an inescapable presence. If not, you ought to. Indeed, for the academy’s sake, you need to get in front of this controversy. That requires preemptive action. Don’t wait for the proponents of changing political fashion to come after you, especially given the fact that their case is unimpeachable.

Here’s my suggestion: Keep the portraits. Nobody looks at them anyway. Truth to tell, the standards for having your image hanging on a wall at West Point are not terribly high. The Supe who presided over my graduation in 1969 was Samuel Koster, soon thereafter reduced in rank and forced into retirement for his role in covering up the My Lai massacre Yet Koster’s portrait remains in Washington Hall alongside the rest of your predecessors.

Elsewhere, however, quietly expunge Lee’s name from gates, roads, halls, barracks, and awards handed out to cadets. To put the matter kindly, he doesn’t deserve the recognition. As with General Koster, there’s no way to excise Lee from the Academy’s history. That he should occupy a place of honor in the Long Gray Line is something of an obscenity, however.

Far better, it seems to me, to remember West Pointers who do exemplify Duty, Honor, and Country. That said, please suppress any inclination to replace Lee Gate with David Petraeus Gate or Lee Road with Raymond Odierno Road. You get the picture: Enough with memorializing generals.

It’s time to honor lieutenants and captains. Consider, for example, the graduates who have given their lives in the preposterous and utterly thankless wars that our nation has waged since 9/11. Far better than Robert E. Lee—far better than the various generals who have presided over those wars without achieving success—they model the values to which West Pointers should adhere. Don’t you agree?


Andrew J. Bacevich
Class of 1969

P.S.: Just one more thing. According to press reports, you were on the short list of candidates interviewed to serve as President Trump’s national security adviser. Congratulations on having dodged that bullet!

159 Comments (Open | Close)

159 Comments To "Robert E. Lee at West Point"

#1 Comment By Michael Merola On August 29, 2017 @ 3:08 pm

Today if you ask someone what they are their answer will tell you what they value most, “I am a Christian and father, I am a Doctor and humanitarian. In the world of 1860 the answers most likely would include “I am a Virginian, I am a New Yorker” etc. The self identification of being an American has largely formed in the post WWI and WWII era. In Lee’s day he was first and foremost a Virginian. To take up arms against his fellow Virginians in his mind would have been an act of treason. While the Academy may want to honor others who have served with honor and distinction that should not be by the eradication of Robert E. Lee, a white washing of history. The author showed his true colors with his PS. Yet another whiner. What next will the left wing demand in the year 2215 the denunciation of Mother Theresa because she participated in that selfish and environmentally destructive practice of driving a car!

#2 Comment By Sir On August 30, 2017 @ 3:22 pm

There is some serious simplistic thinking going on in this piece. For one thing, unlike Arnold, Lee resigned his commission from the U.S. Army before joining his state’s militia/army. Further, the oath is not some life-long obligation, In fact, at the time, it had to be re-taken any time one was promoted – it was binding only so long as one was serving in the military and one could, lawfully, resign one’s commission. If Lee was a traitor so, was George Washington to his country.

#3 Comment By Paul Rhoda On September 1, 2017 @ 1:47 am

Robert E. Lee – Last American Hero

After learning of the disturbing news in Charlottesville and the abysmal commentary that followed. I turned for respite to the American Conservative, seeking some words of sanity. I quickly spotted an article on Robert E. Lee by Andrew J. Bacevich. To my shock and dismay, I read the following statement: No less than Benedict Arnold, Robert E. Lee was a traitor. This became, and remains, my firm conviction.

Say what? And this came from a graduate of General Lee’s alma mater, West Point. If this quote is any indication of the historical aptitude of our military academies, it might explain America’s penchant for launching unwinnable wars. Here are a few facts about the Civil War that Mr. Bacevich may wish to consider before reevaluating his position on General Robert E. Lee.

Saving the Union
Abraham Lincoln “saved the Union” just like Josef Stalin saved the Soviet Union by trapping his unwilling subjects behind the Iron Curtain. America’s founding documents refer to the states as “free and independent.” What part of “free and independent” did the Yankees fail to comprehend?

Abraham Lincoln was the founders worst nightmare personified. They spent every waking hour desperately attempting to prevent a tyrant like him from taking power. If anyone had bothered to mention at the Constitutional Convention that, oh by the way, once a state joined the Union, they could never leave, Independence Hall would have emptied in a New York minute. That thought was utterly inconceivable to them.

Not surprisingly, hundreds of northern newspapers supported the right of the secession. Komrade Lincoln shut them down (300) and threw political opponents in jail (14,000). The Bangor Daily Union spoke for many northerners when it declared on November 13, 1860, that the Union “depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the sovereign people of each state, and when consent and will is withdrawn on either part, their Union is gone.”

Winston Churchill noted, “History is written by the victors.” How true. When the smoke had settled, and the war was over, the Yankees needed to justify the awful carnage they had wrought upon the land. Somehow, “Saving the Union” did not sound quite right while half of the country smoldered in ruins surrounded by burgeoning cemeteries with freshly dug graves. Lincoln’s invasion killed 600,000 people – nearly 2% of the entire population and disfigured many more. The Union army intentionally destroyed farms and cities throughout the South.

So, the North came up with a doozy of a rationalization. They did it to free the slaves. Father Abraham courageously led the Union troops to “trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Yeah! That’s it! That’s their story, and they’re sticking with it.

However, as John Adams declared, “Facts are stubborn things.” Massachusetts – not South Carolina – was the first state to legalize slavery. Boston and New York City were once filled with slaves. The North made a killing (pun intended) from the slave trade. The Yankees even used slave labor to build the slave ships. Slavery died out in the North because it was no longer economical. Factories require skilled labor; educating slaves is not an option. Nonetheless, slaves were held as far north as New Hampshire and New Jersey at the onset of the Civil War.

The treatment of “freed” blacks in the North was little better than slavery. When they had no more use for their slaves, Yankees sold their slaves to Southern plantations. They wanted Negroes evicted from their land. A northern version of the Ku Klux Klan was established in the North well before the Civil War. New England wrote the book on Jim Crow laws. Alexis de Toqueville observed that race relations were actually worse in the North than in the Antebellum South.

Renowned abolitionist Ralph Waldo Emerson summarized the attitude of many Yankees: “[T]he abolitionist wishes to abolish slavery, but because he wishes to abolish the black man.” Emerson’s goal was to , “restore New England to an idealized original state as an orderly, homogenous, white society. A free New England would be a white New England.” Glory, glory, hallelujah? Thus began the grand tradition of Social Justice Warriors, who see expertly through the rotting hulk in their own eyes to expose the fleck of dust in that of their neighbor.

Likewise, the skirmishes in the western territories were fueled by white abolitionists refusing to share their land with Negroes. Abraham Lincoln’s home state of Illinois amended its constitution in 1948 to prevent blacks from moving to the state. Lincoln supported the Illinois Black Code of 1953 making life intolerable for the few Negroes to settle there.

It is estimated that a mere 2-5% of Confederate soldiers owned slaves. Yet, they courageously fought and died by the hundreds of thousands. Can anyone seriously claim that these men willingly and courageously died defending the right for wealthier men, to own slaves? Absurd.

Every civilized country emancipated their slaves without violence during the 19th century. Then again, civilized countries were not run by Abraham Lincoln.

The conquering North ultimately abolished slavery in a desperate attempt to justify their tyranny and to spite the South to make them pay for going to war.

Here are Father Abraham’s views of black slaves, straight from the horse’s mouth:
You and I are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races… This physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both… It is better for us both, therefore, to be separate.

There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races.

Mr. Lincoln was a manager of the Illinois Colonization Society, which determined to deport all Negroes to Liberia. The result of these efforts were essentially genocide.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a crassly cynical political scam, the sole purpose of which was to keep Britain and France out of the war. This directive from the President only freed the slaves in the Confederate states, over which Lincoln had no jurisdiction. His own Secretary of State, William Seward noted the irony: ” We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”

Meanwhile, slavery remained alive and well in the North, where General Grant and General Sherman owned slaves throughout the war. For the record, General Robert E. Lee freed all of his slaves – which he had inherited. He publicly denounced slavery as a “moral and political evil.”

Lincoln was no country bumpkin rail splitter. In fact, he was one of the wealthiest and most prominent lawyers in the country. He was very well connected, and e represented the wealthiest Americans. Today, we would call him a member of the 1%.

Abraham Lincoln and the Whig-Republican Party were founders of American crony capitalism. According to Thomas J. DiLorenzo, author of Lincoln Unmasked: “It is not an exaggeration to say that one of the primary reasons – if not the primary reason – for the creation of the Republican Party was to establish the largest political patronage program in the history of government.” The Republican regime lasted for 70 years, until Franklin Roosevelt taught the Democrats how to play the game the system even better.

Along with the concentration of power and wealth in Washington D. C. came hordes of greasy-palmed leaches seeking a piece of the action. President Ulysses S. Grant coined the term “lobbyists” to describe the phenomenon.

Lincoln was father of the Deep State. Here are just a few of his “accomplishments”:
· Suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus
· Censored the press (Shut down more than 300 papers)
· Imprisoned political opponents (over 14,000)
· Monitored telegraph communication
· Created a National Bank
· Levied the first national income tax
· Initiated the American secret police
· Imposed the first draft in American history
· Jailed dozens of Maryland state legislators
· Deported Democratic Ohio Congressman, Clement L. Vallandigham
· Issued an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice Roger B. Taney
· Illegally created a new state, West Virginia, by helping it secede from Virginia

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward boasted, ““My Lord, I can touch a bell on my right hand, and order the arrest of a citizen in Ohio. I can touch the bell again, and order the arrest of a citizen in New York. Can the Queen of England, in her dominions, do as much?”

And that was just on his home turf! President Lincoln personally ordered the destruction of civilian homes and farms throughout the South. That would make Abraham Lincoln a war criminal. Thomas J. DiLorenzo states his charge:
Such was the case with General Sherman’s bombardment of Atlanta; a naval blockade; a blocking off of virtually all trade; the eviction of thousands of residents from their homes (as occurred in Atlanta in 1864); the destruction of most industries and farms; massive looting of private property by a marauding army; and the killing of one out of four males of military age while maiming for life more than double that number.

Tariffs: Economic warfare
In his inaugural address President Lincoln declared, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” The Republican Party defended the institution of slavery in its 1860 platform, and even proposed a Constitutional amendment to protect slavery. Does this sound like a pretext for war over slavery?

In reality, the battle had been raging for decades before the first live shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Wealth was heavily concentrated in the northeast. They wanted more. Their weapon of choice in economic warfare was the tariff, which was a bonanza for wealthy manufacturers (North) at the expense of consumers and producers of raw materials (South). Henry Clay (Abraham Lincoln’s mentor and hero) sponsored a bill to double the tariff rate in 1924. Clay helped raise the tariff to nearly 50% in 1928. The South rebelled at the “Tariff of Abominations.” They correctly recognized it as a “system of robbery and plunder.”

John C. Calhoun led the fight to nullify the tariff in South Carolina, and they refused to collect it. His state funded an effort to the tune or $200,000 to fund a state militia to enforce the nullification. Finally, cooler heads prevailed, and the tariff was slashed to 15% – temporarily.

The northern protectionists never gave up, they merely waited for the right opportunity to resurrect their “Tariff of Abominations.” Republican nominee Lincoln’s campaign slogan was “Protection for American Industry!” Their long awaited dream was finally realized in 1861, when Morrill Tariff was passed, raising tariffs 70%. The North was nearly unanimous in their support while the South solidly opposed it. The nation was split in two.

President Lincoln’s inaugural address was gracious regarding slavery. However, his position on tariffs was bellicose: “[T]here needs to be no bloodshed or violence and there shall be none unless it is forced upon the national authority.” His message to the South: Collect the tariff – or else.

So, the South seceded. Lincoln had been waiting for this moment for decades, and nothing – absolutely nothing – would stand in his way now. However, the South held a trump card in this battle. Do the math. If Northern ports charged a 37% tariff, while Charleston, Mobile and New Orleans were tax free, then Boston, New York and Philadelphia would become ghost towns. That meant war.

I solidly support the Benedict Option. If the comatose American church will ever be revived, it must first distinguish itself from the culture around us before reclaiming its prophetic voice. If the church is to be a light to the world, it must be holy – set apart. We can begin by getting those damned American flags off from our church property. And stop sending our young sons – and now daughters besides – to foreign lands to fight undeclared wars to accomplish dubious missions with engagement rules that provide target practice for terrorists.

And let us teach our children well about the awesome nation that was founded on the principle of limited government because “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” That America died four score and seven years after its founding on a wheat field in Gettysburg. And finally, let us honor the memory of General Robert E. Lee, one of the most honorable human beings to ever set foot on American soil. Remember Lee and his army, who gave their last full measure of devotion in the valiant attempt to save “the last great hope of earth”.

Disclaimer: Much of this piece is a shameless plagiarization of Thomas J. DiLorenzo’s masterful book, Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe. Read it – before it is banned and burned.

#4 Comment By mrscracker On September 1, 2017 @ 4:56 pm

Paul Rhoda says:

Robert E. Lee – Last American Hero

After learning of the disturbing news in Charlottesville and the abysmal commentary that followed. I turned for respite to the American Conservative, seeking some words of sanity.”
Me too & outside of Pat Buchanan, I didn’t find much of that.
I guess I’m old school but I have increasing difficulty finding conservative content.
Just to mention, some slave owners up North would free slaves when they grew too old & feeble to work. That amounted to turning them out to fend for themselves.

#5 Comment By Patrick On September 17, 2017 @ 6:34 pm

Just to destroy another alt-fact, Robert E. Lee never “owned slaves,” neither he nor his mother. When his slave owner father-in-law George Washington Parke custis died, Lee was the executor of Custis will and Arlington estate which owned the slaves and the will instructed that the slaves (Custis slaves) were to be freed within five years. Lee nor his wife ever owned any of these slaves. They were freed by Lee as instructed in five years.

#6 Comment By Gary Scarborough On October 4, 2017 @ 8:51 pm

If General Lee and his soliers are considered to be traitors then so are the minute men who who stood on the green at Lexington and Concord. Traitor is a twisted word that applies only to those who stand against you and your ideals. Winners or losers do not set the standard for those who rode the harpoon. Southerns, in gray, were patriots to the people of the South whose homeland they were defending against an invading army bent on their destruction.

#7 Comment By Robert Conner On November 1, 2017 @ 1:18 pm

The responses to Mr. Bacevich’s letter certainly explain why conservatism is so effed up. Lincoln originated the “Deep State” so I guess that would make John Wilkes Booth a hero?

#8 Comment By Miguel Hernandez On November 1, 2017 @ 3:26 pm

1. Yes, Lee resigned his Commission as Colonel of the 1st Cavalry Artillery Regiment but does that mean that he resigned his commission as an officer of the United States Army?
2. Regardless was this resignation accepted by the Army or was there ever a formal response from someone in the chain of command?
3.Understand that he took the oath of allegiance to the US upon graduation from the USMA and serve for 33 years and I assume that this was repeated at each point of reenlistment. If this is so, he violated his oath when he took up arms against the US. Is this not treason?

#9 Comment By Jim Young On January 12, 2018 @ 4:33 pm

I thought I was a Conservative for 50 years, then I found “Conservatives” that seemed to support John Wilkes Booth more than Abraham Lincoln.

Now I have to think that those who want think Robert E. Lee was a better “Conservative” should consider his concession that the war was lost and he immediately did what ever was asked of him to seek parole, pardon, and amnesty to establish his loyalty to the (indivisible) United States, as did other officers like Longstreet (best man at Ulysses S. Grant’s wedding). Lee never wore a uniform again, discouraged any glorification of Confederacy, and discouraged any re-ignition of old divisions that had resulted in a lost war (by the side he fought on).

It is interesting to me that Grant’s widow, Julia Dent Grant, and Jefferson Davis’ widow Varina Howell Davis met and became friends for the rest of their lives in NYC. Varina, told others she believed “the right side won” (I believe after her husband died.

P.S. For what it’s worth, what I’ve read today indicates that Lee was second in his class of 1829, and that Charles Mason (1st in the same class), is the only other to get through West Point with no demerits. They were both there during the Egg Nog Riot of 1826 in which 70 or so cadets were involved in making or drinking alcoholic egg nog then damaging the facilities when they were caught (apparently also having shots fired attempting to scare off enforcers). 21 were arrested, including Jefferson Davis, though he was the only one arrested but not charged. 20 were found guilty and 17 expelled. I have to wonder if the large percentage of rioters and looser apparent standards helped Mason and Lee avoid any demerits (MacArthur, 1st in the 1903 class, 3rd highest ever in academics, received 61 demerits).

As far as academics, Mason was the highest scoring, Lee second, and Douglas MacArthur 3rd (1st in class of 1903), scores and wars performance varied, Mason resigned after 3 years so had no war record. Lee and MacArthur did well, Lee in the Mexican War (as recognized more by the academy), Marshall went to VMI(I wonder how he would have done at West Point). Eisenhower was 61st out of 164 in 1915 (with 307 demerits). Custer, on the other hand was rock bottom academically, often near the maximum 100 demerits per 6 months (97 in the last 6 months) and only seems to have made it since he graduated after the start of the Civil War when they hung onto as many as they dared due to so many former grads going south like his room mate Tom Rosser, that opposed him in so many future battles.

My great grandmother, born while Grant and Davis were alive, used to tell me, “Before you compliment the marksman, ask him what he was aiming at.” She would judge them more by what they aimed at than how good they were at hitting it.