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The Use of Heroes: Lee's Birthday, 2012

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Let's hear it for The Usable Past. That phrase was much in vogue among historians not long ago, and may still be. Historians, too wanted to be part of the practical arts. History, we were told, isn't something to be studied for its own sake, but as a guide to current politics. A useful collection of talking points. A great warehouse of stick figures we can choose from to make our case.

The uses to which Robert E. Lee's name has been put vary. To the old folks at home, he is still an icon to be venerated, the centerpiece of a thousand Confederate Memorial Day observances, the storybook knight beyond reproach, the marble man of Sothern mythology -- less man than monument.

The revisionists in their turn cannot resist using Lee, too. As a foil. As the symbol and personification of all Southern sins and hypocrisies. An icon always invites inconoclasts. The hero becomes the anti-hero, and history one of the plastic arts. For once the past becomes usable, anybody can use it for any purpose. It's the modern, flexible, pragmatic way.

Call it instrumental history; we go to the past not as students but scavengers, on the lookout for what we can find there and, sure enough, finding just what we expected. Even if we have to plant it there ourselves. It's a campaign year, and the demand for such salvage increases accordingly. "History shows ..." just what we want it to show.

The idea of the past as something complete of itself, whole and almost holy, not to be profaned for our own partisan purposes ... how quaint all that seems now. Like the laws of war in an age of terror.

The American Civil War is often hailed as the first modern war. It saw the introduction not only of new technologies -- automatic weapons, ironclad ships, submarines -- but new strategies that did away with old qualms.

William Tecumseh Sherman's total war, an innovation in 1864, became the standard of the next century. His march to the sea, destroying whatever stood in his way, also destroyed the distinction between military and civilian targets. "War is cruelty," he warned the people of Atlanta, "and you cannot refine it...." To paraphrase, war is hell. Sherman certainly made it so.

What began with the burning of Atlanta would culminate a century later with the incineration of Hiroshima. The future of war had unfolded like a mushroom cloud. A most modern man, General Sherman. A prophet and precursor, practicing what he preached.

But if the American Civil War was the first modern war, it was also the last of the old, formal wars fought by a certain code of honor. Robert E. Lee's campaigns of mobility and surprise against forces superior to his own in every material respect may have been the last in a way of war going back to Hannibal at Cannae, the chivalrous code he followed as old as Saladin's.

Far from a modern nationalist. Robert E. Lee wasn't even a sectionalist. He thought of his country as Virginia, and its people as his people, much as Southerners even today speak of family as "my people." Offered the leadership of the greatest force yet assembled on the North American continent, he would decline, and accept command of the Army of Northern Virginia instead. He could not abandon his people, and The War came.

The most celebrated and dissected battle of that war remains Gettysburg, where not just two armies met but the past and future of war -- like Pickett's charge meeting massed artillery. There could be no doubting the outcome.

The name Chambersburg is not as well known. It does not exert the same fascination for the modern mind. Chambersburg, Pa., was just a spot where Lee paused on his way to Gettysburg. He was moving to the offensive, and the smell of a decisive encounter was in the air that summer of 1863. Already reports had reached Lee's troops of the tactics Yankee marauders were beginning to use against the homes and families the men had left behind. A modern commander would have known how to play on their fears, how to raise their anger to a fever pitch, how to incite them to vengeance and victory.

But not Robert E. Lee, already a man of the past. Instead, he issued General Orders No. 73. On entering enemy territory with his troops poised to strike and avenge, the countryside open before him, ripe for the ravaging, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia told his troops this:

"The commanding general considers that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it our whole people, than the perpetration of the barbarous outrages upon the unarmed, and defenceless and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country. ... It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain."

Like all the works of man, what Lee did -- his victories and defeats -- will fade with time. Each generation is further and further removed from them. But what he was, the code he followed and embodied, that will last as long as conscience does. As long as the ever fecund past shapes us. As long as we can remember that it is not we who use the past, but it that nurtures and sustains us. Like the memory of Lee himself.

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