Monday, October 26, 2015

Waitin' on the Robert E. Lee

I mentioned a few posts back my beginning Douglas Southall Freeman's R.E. Lee.  In some ways I find it hard to justify reading a four volume biography.  In my own library Boswell's Johnson only takes up three volumes, and Gibbon was able to cover fourteen centuries of decline and fall in seven.

But at the same time I'm the first to admit that there are advantages to what might be called The Long Biography.  Any contemporary interest in Lee comes from his having been a Confederate general.  But he wasn't tapped by the Confederacy until his fifties, when he was feeling himself something as a failure.  So a lengthy biography of someone who made his mark only late in life leaves us with a detailed account of an earlier life that, but for the happenstance of later events, might never have been noted.

Lee was from a prominent Virginia family (more on that in a moment), but he was never a wealthy man, and he went into the army because he needed to earn a living.  He chose to enter the corps of engineers, and one of the chapters in this book, which I would guess would be curtailed, if not cut, in any abridgment, concerns his work on trying to build a pier in the Mississippi to direct the rivers current so as to prevent the formation of a bar opposite St. Louis.

I won't go into this in any detail, other than noting, as generally as possible, that I have recently had occasion to look into the history of nineteenth century river projects and the federal government's role in them.  That made these chapters particularly interesting to me, though not, I imagine, to you.  So I'll note it, drop it.'s the gist of the problem:

But moving on to a topic of more general interest, and one considerably more important....

In law school, in my third year, when most of us were admittedly getting a little tired of being in law school, I took a course, to vary the routine a little, in Roman law.  And one of the distinctive aspects of Roman law, an aspect not entirely absent from American law, but one not directly relevant to the business of a lawyer since the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, was the law of slavery.  It was in that class alone that I learned in rather precise and heartless detail the legal status of the Roman slave, his uses, his limited right to use his master's authority (the arguable root of our law of agency), and the usual practical distinction between the lives of domestic slaves and the considerably more brutal life of those assigned to the fields and the quarries.

I mention that by way of introduction to a minor but rather intriguing aspect of this biography of Lee.  As a young man  Lee came to own an elderly slave identified by Freeman only as "Nat." Nat had been his mother's coachman, and the children had grown up with him.  On her death Ann Lee bequeathed Nat to her daughter Mildred, but the old gentleman was too sick to work, so Lee took charge of him, taking him with him to one of his first assignments after graduation at West Point, rehabilitation of fortifications at Cockspur Island, in the Savannah River in Georgia.

That's the last time Freeman mentions him, and other sources hastily googled suggest that Nat lived with Lee a few more years until his respiratory condition worsened and killed him.  The simple fact raises all sorts of questions about what was legally or socially expected, whether there was something particularly kind in Lee supporting his mother's old slave, or whether that was an understood duty.  There a whole apologetic history in the South claiming that the master/slave relationship was often more paternal that exploitive, and my understanding is that that narrative, on the whole, has not withstood historic scrutiny.  Still, it's surprising, to me, that in such an extensive biography, this particular relationship, which I would certainly want to know more about, is largely glossed over.

The American success of Downton Abbey, along with its predecessor, Upstairs/Downstairs, suggests a certain local fascination with the master/servant relationship overseas.  We accept that the Duke is kindly, and cares about his servants.  They are, of course, not slaves, but I suspect that their real freedom of action would have been more seriously limited than the television program suggests.  In any event I can't help but wonder how an antebellum version of those dramas would be received, especially if the master were presented as being as caring as the British "upstairs" protagonists.  

There is one other aspect to Southall's original narrative that I imagine would be excised in a contemporary abridgment, his references to eugenics.  Any example:

No misalliance marred the strain of Robert E. Lee's blood or lowered his inherited station as a gentleman.  Eugenically, his career is perhaps, above all, a lesson in the cumulative effect of wise marriages.

It would be convenient to blame this sort of thing on malignant traces of Southern racism, except, of course, that these sorts of reflections were considered, in the early twentieth century, as strictly scientific judgments.  The embrace of eugentics by the Third Reich, and its enthusiastic application to its logical end, not only brought that awful "science" to an end, but also gave rise to a perhaps understandable effort to scrub its ugly effects from our historical memory.  It's therefore instructive, I think, to occasionally look at unvarnished writing, like this, from the early twentieth century, to be reminded how these attitudes were once fairly ubiquitous.

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