Donald Trump is cooing his love for Gen. Robert E. Lee again. Two years ago, while still president, Trump extolled the slave-owning Confederate Army commander as a “great general.” This week, in a statement condemning the takedown of a gigantic statue of Lee in Richmond, Virginia, Trump went over the top, hailing him as “the greatest strategist” of all American generals, a commander who, were he alive today, would have won the war in Afghanistan. He also touted Lee as a “unifying force” in the years after the Civil War. Finally, he denounced the removal of the statue as a “desecration” committed by a “Radical Left” hellbent on extinguishing “our history and heritage.”
All of these claims are utterly false and politically dangerous—the words of a disgraced ex-president determined to regain his power and prestige by intensifying the divisiveness that he helped create, or at least sharpen, in the first place.
Let’s examine his statement point by point.
1. “Just watched as a massive crane took down the magnificent and very famous statue … long recognized as a beautiful piece of bronze sculpture.”
This was a 21-foot-tall bronze statue on top of a 40-foot-high granite pedestal—in all, a six-story high recreation of Lee astride his horse in full Confederate regalia—erected on Richmond’s main street, along with six other statues of Confederate generals, in 1890, after the crushing of Reconstruction. In other words, the statue was explicitly designed to make white residents cheer (more than 100,000 attended the celebratory unveiling) and Black residents tremble. It marked—as the historians David Blight and Gaines Foster wrote in an amicus brief to the Virginia Supreme Court, supporting the motion to tear it down—the “reassertion of white racial supremacy in the South.”
So yes, it was, as Trump wrote, “a very famous statue,” but to call it “beautiful” is bizarre and shameful.
2. “Robert E. Lee is considered by many Generals to be the greatest strategist of them all.”
Not quite. Lee was certainly a talented tactician, especially when he first took command of the Confederate Army in 1862 and won a series of battles that pushed Gen. George McClellan’s Union Army—which had been on the verge of conquering Richmond—back across the Potomac. He did this through aggressive, fast-moving tactics that McClellan was incapable of resisting. However, as he moved his army farther north, and after President Abraham Lincoln replaced McClellan with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Lee suffered calamitous losses. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee ordered his troops to mount a frontal assault, in open terrain, only to see them mowed down by much better-led Union troops armed with rifles that fired bullets with longer range and greater accuracy. Trump wrote that “except for Gettysburg,” Lee “would have won the war”—which is almost comical, since it was Lee’s tactics that lost Gettysburg, and his few victories in 1862, against McClellan, were the only battles that he won. Against stereotype, Trump is doting on one of military history’s biggest losers.
3. ”If only we had Robert E. Lee to command our troops in Afghanistan, that disaster would have ended in a complete and total victory many years ago.”
This may rank as the most preposterous claim in Trump’s statement. Lee’s specialty—the fast-moving frontal assault—would have been a recipe for sure disaster against insurgent militiamen on mountainous terrain.
4. “Robert E. Lee … chose [to fight for the Confederate Army] because of his great love of Virginia. … He should be remembered as perhaps the greatest unifying force after the war was over, ardent in his resolve to bring the North and South together through many means of reconciliation.”
Here is where we get to the main problem with Lee—and the most pernicious danger in Trump’s touting of Lee: Quite apart from his talents and limitations as a strategist, Lee was deeply immoral, savagely cruel toward his slaves (even by the standards of the time), and a Confederate partisan to the end.
To say that Lee fought because he loved his home state of Virginia is to deny, tacitly, that he fought to preserve slavery. For many decades, this was the essence of the “Lost Cause” myth—the notion that the South seceded to protect states’ rights and a noble heritage. Broadly speaking, this is almost universally discredited whitewash; in Lee’s case, it is particularly mendacious. Ty Seidule, military historian at Hamilton College and former chair of the military history department at West Point, told me in a phone interview Thursday that at the start of the Civil War, there were eight Union Army generals from Virginia. Seven of them stayed with the Union; Lee was the only one who deserted to the secessionists. And just before the war, Lee ran a plantation with 200 enslaved workers and split up all but one of their families, compounding his crimes.
Seidule, who is also the author of Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, further noted that, during the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee ordered his soldiers to kidnap free Black men and take them back to the South, where they were re-enslaved. He also ordered his troops to kill Black Union soldiers that they’d captured rather than keep them alive as prisoners. This was not only savage, but self-destructive, as it made it harder to negotiate trades for the return of Southern troops held prisoner by the Union.
The notion that Lee advocated unity after the war is highly misleading. David Blight, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Frederick Douglass, wrote in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory that, during the election of 1868, Lee hosted a gathering of about 30 former Confederate officers. It was promoted as an event to bring the country together. However, in a public statement, Lee said that, if it hadn’t been for certain radical policies and the North’s “oppressive” occupation (references to Black suffrage and the early years of Reconstruction), the irritants dividing the nation would have passed long ago. In other words, as Blight put it in a phone conversation Thursday, “Lee was for reconciliation, but only on the South’s terms. His view was ‘If you just didn’t give any rights to those Black people, we’d get along fine.’ ” Blight added, “Lee was a ferocious Confederate nationalist, there is no question,” and he “remained to his death a Southern partisan.”
5. “Our culture is being destroyed and our history and heritage, both good and bad, are being extinguished by the Radical Left, and we can’t let that happen!”
This has become a familiar trope among many who complain, Trump most vocally of all, about the toppling of Confederate statues. The movement to remove them was instigated by the rise of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd—but the most prominent figures who took up the call were not at all leftist.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who pushed for the removal of Lee’s statue in Richmond, holds a degree from the Virginia Military Institute, the most conservative U.S. military academy, served as an Army medical doctor, then became a pediatric neurologist. He voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 elections (though he later said he was apolitical and uninformed at the time). Northam’s bill to remove the statue was challenged in two lawsuits, but the Richmond Circuit Court and the Virginia Supreme Court—hardly bastions of radicalism—upheld his action. Many military officers, including retired Gen. David Petraeus, have endorsed the de-lionization of Lee, among other measures, to break from the Army’s racist past.
It is unclear why Trump is so passionate about Lee. Part of it might simply be a ploy to attract voters of a certain inclination. But it seems more personal than that. One clue might be his attendance, from age 13 to 18, at the New York Military Academy, where his father sent him for disciplinary reasons. Those years, 1959-64, coincided with a peak in Lee-worship within the U.S. Army and its academic affiliates.
The Army’s history of veneration for Lee forms a pattern that embarrasses and disturbs many officers today. As an institution, the Army has embraced the Lost Cause mythology—which is personified in the Lee mythology—for nearly a century. The embrace has been deliberate, and very political. “Every time there’s been a movement in the Army toward racial integration, there’s also been a counter-movement toward Confederate memorialization,” Seidule told me.
It began in the 1930s, when Black cadets first enrolled in West Point. In the early 1950s, when President Harry Truman formally integrated the armed forces, the Secretary of the Army ordered that a huge painting of Lee, an image that included one of his slaves in the background, be hung in one of West Point’s main halls. In the 1970s, the Army tried to install a Confederate monument on West Point’s grounds—an effort that failed. And more than a dozen things at West Point have been named (and still are named) after the treasonous general. There’s Lee Gate, Lee Barracks, Lee Road; at one point, there was a Robert E. Lee Prize for the mathematics department’s top student. Not until 1997 was the military history department’s textbook revised to mention, beyond one short paragraph, the cause of the Civil War or anything at all about the treatment of Black soldiers.
“Now the history department doesn’t indulge in Lee worship at all,” Seidule said. Then again, only in 2019, largely at Petraeus’ instigation, did West Point unveil its very first statue to Grant—the victor of the Civil War, the military savior of the Union.
Seidule doesn’t know whether Cadet Donald Trump imbibed this mythology in his years at the junior academy. “It’s a real possibility,” he said. “Most Americans his age would have gotten a heaping helping of Lee the Great American.” But West Point and its prep-school affiliate were not alone in this hagiography. President Dwight Eisenhower, the Army’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe during World War II, displayed a portrait of Lee in the Oval Office. Most history books, in high schools and colleges across the country, bought into the legend of Lee and the Lost Cause. As late as the 1970s, Seidule recalled, “nobody was writing about Black soldiers in the Civil War, anywhere.”
Trump’s worship of Lee may be rooted in the era of his youth. Many Americans are just now casting off the remnants of our “original sin,” but Trump—like many of his followers—hasn’t, nor does he exhibit any desire to do so. He’d rather pile up the detritus, light a match, and watch it—and the country—burn.