In light of Jamie Malanowski’s piece arguing for a moral-hygienic renaming of Army bases named after Confederate generals, I thought it’d be worth sharing Garry Wills’s measured assessment of the most famous of those generals, Robert E. Lee:

Colonel Robert E. Lee was no secessionist in 1860—he said that if he owned all the slaves in the South, he would give them up to save the Union he had fought for. Yet, as a professional soldier, he had only three choices— (a) to remain in the federal army and help destroy his own state, in the process killing his friends, his relatives, the countymen closest to him; or (b) to resign his commission and stand by idle, watching others ravage his homeland and kill his friends; or (c) though convinced of the futility of secession, to stand, once it came, between his people and those who would harm them. …

It might be objected that Lee was not choosing his country—the United States, the Union—but something opposed to his country. Yet Lee did not think of the nation as a legal unit indivisible, a judicial entity with one National Will (that Will ordering him to fight). Nor did he justify his choice on the grounds that he had a new country, the Confederacy, established by the right of self-determination. This whole cast of thought was foreign to him—as would have been E.M. Forster’s famous dictum: “I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Forster equates, in the modern manner, country with Cause. Lee did not. He was not fighting for any Cause, for slavery or the Confederacy. For him, country meant one’s friends—the bond of affection that exists among countrymen; and when a rift opened in this union of persons, he had to choose those to whom he was bound by primary rather than secondary ties.

The Wilsonian turns his country’s citizens into a Cause, and then—having performed that depersonalizing operation—he personifies the Cause, gives it a “self” to be determined from within or repressed from without, to act selflessly or selfishly. But Lee’s people were actual persons, not a personified idea. He did not ask whether they were acting selflessly or selfishly; they had no unitary self to surrender or impose on others. They were a social complexus, of erring, noble, idiotic men. He knew it was in their interest to remain part of the Union, part of a larger band of countrymen. Choosing between these levels of his own people was an insane thing—but he was put by war (an insane thing) in a position where he had to choose. …

Lee did not help his fellow Virginians because they were right, or because he approved of anything they wanted to do as a body. He joined them only when it became a choice of killing one’s own, or watching them be killed, or protecting as many of them as he could at the risk of dying with them. Only at that last extremity was he edged over to their side.

Readers familiar at all with me know that I’m glad I’m living in Lincoln’s America, as opposed to Jefferson Davis’s. But it won’t do simply to call Lee a “traitor” and end it there. As this long passage of Wills’s (I hope) demonstrates, the matter is far more complicated. The Confederacy was not a monolithic evil, like Nazism, and in my opinion our military bases do not need to be “de-Confederacized.”