The Apotheosis of Robert E. Lee


The Lost Cause: Lee Waiting for Grant (n.d.) by Thomas Nast
Chicago Historical Society


Murmurs of Reconciliation

As the 1870's progressed, invective in the Northern press regarding the South and the War gradually subsided. Meanwhile, Southern men of letters began honing their arguments in retroactive defense of their region. The uncoordinated public relations campaign these writers took part in got a great boost in 1882, as Scribner's, a magazine with a national reputation, changed its editor and its name. When Richard Watson Gilder took over the magazine, renamed The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, one of his avowed goals was to focus on the Civil War in what he considered a Lincolnesque spirit of reconciliation (Osterweis, 42). One of the first to take advantage of this fair-handed policy was Henry Watterson, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, who published "Oddities of Southern Life" in the April, 1882 issue. Though largely a light-hearted collection of anecdotes, the article closes with a paean to the Old South in general, and Southern womanhood in particular. Watterson was followed by Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, George Washington Cable, and William P. Carter, among others, each of whom romanticized the Old South in his own way in the pages of The Century. Readers' letters from both North and South expressed a great deal of interest in -- and little objection to -- this "new" subject-matter. Southern subjects became so popular that even some Northern authors began to write poems and stories in praise of the Southern belle.

In November of 1884, Gilder (with his finger on the national pulse) commissioned a series of articles entitled "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War," many of which were written by former officers, North and South. These reminiscences and battlefield sketches were wildly popular -- in fact, over the course of the series, circulation neraly doubled. Though they clearly sought to justify their own actions, the writer-veterans on each side displayed a remarkable willingness to praise the valor of the other side. Even more remarkable, however, was the emerging consensus that the Confederacy had possessed the better military leaders. Former Union Army volunteer Charles A. Patch wrote in one article that Lee had led his army from victory to victory "beating back with terrific losses the wonderfully organized, perfectly equipped, lavishly supplied, abundantly officered Army of the Potomac" (quoted in Osterweis, 58) . Judging from their letters, readers North and South generally concurred with this assessment. Perhaps emboldened by this new-found acceptance, George Washington Cable wrote an article for the December 1893 issue of The Century entitled "The Gentler Side of Two Great Southerners." In it, he called Generals Lee and Jackson "properly the proud possession of the entire nation" (quoted in Osterweis, 62) .

Events outside the literary world, meanwhile, also reflected the incipient movement toward reconciliation. The death of Ulysses S. Grant in 1885 provided an opportunity for a conspicuous display of sectional harmony that was not squandered -- his pallbearers included former Confederate generals. More and more freqently, veteran's groups invited former foes to their ceremonies and jamborees, and gravesites of "the enemy" in both regions were tended repectfully. The same respects were not extended, however, to former Conferate president Jefferson Davis. While Lee's national reputation graudally improved, Davis was still vilified in the North as a traitor at the time of his death in 1889.

Perhaps the event that best characterized Lee's standing as the country entered the last decade of the nineteenth centruy occurred in Richmond in 1890. 100,000 people turned out for the dedication of a towering equestrian statue of Lee on Monument Avenue. The Cult of the Lost Cause, with Robert Lee as its demigod, was flourishing. The event was reported with some hostility in a few Northern newspapers, but the eminently mainstream Harper's Magazine opined that Lee "personified what was best of a bad cause" (quoted in Connelly, 99). The North was slowly but steadily moving to embrace its former enemy. Just 20 years later, Harper's would call Lee "the pride of the whole country" (Ibid.).

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