Monday, February 4, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt twelve)

from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:

June 1 proved to be a portent, however, of harder times ahead. That morning, the Confederate army, newly christened the Army of Northern Virginia, awoke to find itself under the command of a quiet Virginian named Robert E. Lee. In the waning hours of the previous day, Johnston had been badly wounded during the attack on McClellan’s right wing. With his top general incapacitated, Jefferson Davis handed the reins to Lee.

In time, Lee’s command of the Confederate army would come to seem as inevitable and necessary as the sunrise. He was among the South’s most experienced soldiers, and no man better represented the South’s ideal image of itself. Lee was the scion of one of America’s most distinguished founding families; his father was a Revolutionary War hero, his mother a descendant of a planter so wealthy and powerful in colonial Virginia that he was dubbed Robert “King” Carter. His wife was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, and even though he grew up in straitened circumstances after his father squandered a fortune, Lee was as much a part of the plantation aristocracy as anyone could be. He represented virtues esteemed by a culture based on hereditary privilege: good manners, a sense of duty and honor, commitment to land and family. (He also represented a bit of the quirkiness idealized by aristocrats—he kept a pet hen at his army headquarters.)

A majority of Confederate soldiers had never owned a slave, and men in the ranks often grumbled that theirs was “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.” Lee was an answer to that complaint, because he embodied a version of the rebellion that wasn’t about money or slaves. His war was the expression of a proud refusal to have other people—whose forebears had not necessarily settled the continent of fought the British or signed the Declaration of Independence, as his had done—come into Virginia and tell her people what their future would hold. He had a name for his enemies, which spoke volumes about his attitude: “those people.” Though he had saluted their flag for most of his life, “those people” were now alien to him. They were trying to dictate to his own people on matters of morals and culture. But the South would not be dictated to.

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