Monday, May 21, 2007

CWL --- Too Fond of War: What Was R. E. Lee Thinking?

"We Should Grow Too Fond of It": Why We Love the Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust, Civil War History, Volume 50, Number 4, 2004, pp. 368-383.

His exact words were not written down at the time they were uttered and to whom they were addressed never reported them. Douglas Southall Freeman, a Lee biographer, wrote the famous version of the remark, "It is well that war is so terrible--we should grow too fond of it." He may have found it in John Esten Cooke's 1871 biography of Lee or in Edward Porter Alexander's Military Memoirs of a Confederate. This path of attribution was described in Gary Gallagher's 1995 book, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock.

If we, like Robert E. Lee, recognize that war is "both terrible and alluring" and full of both honor and horror then we may understand why we love the American Civil War. Many readers have been motivated to look critically at the attraction of war after they have read Dispatches, Michael Herr's 'unflinching ... portrait of the horror" of the Vietnam War. This author returns from the war changed "like everyone else who has been through a war: changed, englared and ...incomplete...coming to miss the life so acutely.... A few extreme cases felt that the experience there had been a glorious one, while most of us felt that it had been merely wonderful. I think the Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods." (382-383)

Writers and storytellers(here I am thinking of Ron Maxwell's films)have made war possible from ancient days(thank you Homer for the Illiad and the Odessy) to the present. War can be idealized and romanticized. For Faust, 'war by its very definition is a story.' War imposes an 'orderly narrative on what without its definition of purpose and structure would be simply violence.'
Robert E. Lee loved war because of its stories, ones in which he had been a character in the Mexican-American War and ones that he, and the Army of Northern Virginia, were creating in December 1862. The terribleness of war became very real to Robert E. Lee in the late afternoon of July 3, 1863 and, I suspect, his fondness for the war's story drained away, even to his very last day on earth.

Help Note: This chapter can be obtained by using your local library's inter-library loan services or by contacting me.

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