Henry Adams on Robert E. Lee


Henry Adams


Gen. Lee

This year is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, so there has been a lot of interest in that transformative event in our nation’s history. Robert Redford has made a film about Lincoln’s assasination, The Conspirator, which has been getting mixed reviews. I will have to see it.

I recently saw a rebroadcast of Ken Burns’s documentary series about the Civil War. Although it has flaws (there is no discussion of Reconstruction) it is nonetheless powerful to watch. One thing that struck me in the series was a quote from Henry Adams:

    I think that Lee should have been hanged. It was all the worse that he was a good man and a fine character and acted conscientiously. It’s always the good men who do the most harm in the world.

This is a remarkable dissent from the generally respectful way that Lee has been treated by historians. Yet I think I can see what Adams was trying to get at. The fact that Lee was generous and courageous only served to give the Confederate cause an appearance of respectability that it didn’t deserve. It would have been better for the whole country if Lee had been a coward and a buffoon.

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3 Responses to “Henry Adams on Robert E. Lee”

  1. cicero106 Says:

    I suggest reading: Lee in the Shadow of Washington. It tends to expose Adam’s comment (although clever and paradoxical) as too simple.

  2. cicero106 Says:

    Perhaps Mr. Adams and others have missed an aspect or nature of the Confederacy which Lee found honorable and noble.

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