I'm struck by the poignancy of the scene at the end of the Civil War, just after Appomattox, where General Robert E. Lee has just surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant. For five years Lee has lead the Army of Northern Virginia through some of the most terrible trials men have ever known. You would think they'd be glad to have it over. But Lee's men hang upon the reins of his horse and beg him not to go, plead for one more chance to "whip those Yankees." Lee had become their father, had given those men what most of them had never had before -- an identity and a place in a larger story. --John Eldredge, Wild at Heart (102)Leave aside for the moment that the Civil War lasted four years and a month. Leave aside the fact that Lee was commanding a desk in Richmond for most of that first year. This scene never happened. It does not appear in James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. It does not appear in Bruce Catton's This Hallowed Ground. Most damning, it does not appear in The Passing of the Armies, the personal memoir of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Union Major General put in charge of accepting the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. In fact, I'll let Chamberlain speak for himself about that day, watching the battle standards of an army he had fought for three years.
Ah, is this Pickett's Division?--this little group left of those who on the lurid last day of Gettysburg breasted level cross-fire and thunderbolts of storm, to be strewn back drifting wrecks, where after that awful, futile, pitiful charge we buried them in graves a furlong wide, with names unknown! Met again in the terrible cyclone-sweep over the breastworks at Five Forks; met again now, so thin, so pale, purged of the mortal,--as if knowing pain or joy no more. How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all! --Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Passing of the ArmiesIt surprises me that this never occurred to me until now, but the only place I've heard that anecdote is in Wild at Heart. Chamberlain, far from an angry, defiant, unbroken force, paints a portrait of an army that is no longer capable of putting up a fight. Gordon, the general at its head, marched with his head down until the Union troops paid the respect due an honored, fallen foe. One soldier, according to Bruce Catton, turned in his rifle and said he'd been trying to get rid of it for two years. If Robert E. Lee at Appomattox is Eldredge's example of what a good father should be, we should all be afraid of the generation of men he wants to raise. Lee gave the Army of Northern Virginia a story, all right. Sadly, most of the men in the story didn't get to hear the end. Now, in the interests of providing what charity is available, I suppose it's possible that he's channeling the scene before Pickett's Charge from the movie Gettysburg. In that scene, which may or may not be a flight of cinematic fancy (I find the movie Gettysburg fascinating. On one level it is highly historically accurate but on another it ties itself to the worst of film making conventions. For instance, after Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain led the 20th Maine in to history with its charge down Little Round Top his regiment spent the final day of the battle atop Big Round Top. In the movie he's given orders to move to the center of the Union line and arrives just in time for us to see a series of shots of Jeff Daniels hiding from the Confederate bombardment behind a wagon. Given that we've already been presented with a movie of epic scale and the emotional onus of the moment has shifted from the tiny 20th Maine's heroic and successful charge to Longstreet's massed infantry preparing for a futile assault and that we've been presented with Lewis Armistead's tragic charge against a wall held by men under the command of his dear friend Winfield Scott Hancock as the personal touch point to the whole affair, we don't need Jeff Daniels' face anywhere in that scene. But I digress), the Confederate soldiers who are about to die convince Lee to let them charge up the hill and take Cemetery Ridge. Given that no one knew what Pickett's Charge would become in the annals of history, that Lee ordered the assault as part of a larger move, and that it was not Lee but Longstreet who was reluctant to issue the orders, that scene is not completely believable. Still, it's more believable than Eldredge's scene at Appomattox. There's something disturbing about the irresponsibility Eldredge consistently displays in his attempts to portray an authentic manhood. He constantly goes to movies like Braveheart and Gladiator to make his point without acknowledging the simple fact that the events in Gladiator never happened and that Mel Gibson's depiction of William Wallace wasn't completely historical in nature. John Eldrege peddles the image of true manhood through a Hollywood filter without any apparent self-awareness of the consequences of his actions. In the movies the "good guys" wear white hats, the "bad guys" wear black hats, the hero triumphs and gets the girl in the end, and the day is always saved. When that doesn't happen the hero is depicted as nobly sacrificing himself for the higher good. Really, one of the places where Gettysburg gets it well and truly right is with the death of Lewis Armistead. He was ably portrayed by Richard Jordan (who died shortly thereafter of an inoperable brain tumor, making his final appearance on screen a portrayal of the tragic death of his character, and we can be assured that Jordan knew it) as a man conflicted, called by duty and horrified by the fact that his friends were dying and that the next one who fell might be at his own hand. In the end, Armistead marches to his death at the head of his men in to the guns commanded by his dear friend. There's a nobility in it, but there's a futility, too. Armistead is no William Wallace, whose death ultimately lead to something greater for his cause. He's no (fabricated) Maximus, getting his revenge in the arena against the vile and cowardly Commodus (who, was nothing in real life like he was in Gladiator). Armistead was a man who did what he felt he had to in spite of his misgivings and doubts and died at the center of what has passed in to history as one of the greatest examples of military futility. Meanwhile, for those three years under Robert E. Lee's leadership the gentlemen and scoundrels who made up the Army of Northern Virginia were apparently becoming Real Men, raised by a Real Father, those gallant men of his army were away from home. In Eldredge's own system they were providing irreparable wounds to their sons. The ones that did return home were probably broken and haunted. Some of them would undoubtedly go on to fill the early ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, or spend the post Reconstruction years running for public office in their Confederate gray uniforms. So what, really, can be said of the legacy of Robert E. Lee if we allow Eldredge to speak for him? I cannot blame Robert E. Lee for the behavior of his men after the Civil War. However, we cannot credit him for being a great father-figure either. And we should worry about anyone who paints carnage and death as a somehow heroic and fitting result of men being what men are supposed to be. We should be worried about anyone who claims that a great father is one who is willing to send his sons to their death. It only works if we take a Hollywood depiction of the world, divorced from context and consequence and modified so the actors with the most star power are put center-stage so the camera can focus on them instead of the thousands of milling extras. And we have to remember: in Eldredge's world, every man is the star actor whose face the camera loves.