Streetwise Professor

October 15, 2018

The Media on Trump on Lee: Don’t Trust, But Verify

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 11:08 am

The latest media Trump freakout derives from his statement during a campaign rally in Ohio last week that Robert E. Lee was “a great general.”  Since every Confederate is beyond the pale 153 years after the end of the Civil War, any praise of any Confederate is deemed evidence of racism.

As we’ll see, that spare characterization of Trump’s remarks was grotesquely misleading.  But hit pause on that for a moment, and just consider the objective truth of the part of the statement that was reported.  (Does truth even matter any more?)  There is little doubt that Lee displayed excellent generalship and leadership at the operational level.  Some of his campaigns–Second Manassas and Chancellorsville in particular–are justifiably renowned as examples of a smaller force defeating a larger one through maneuver.  His defense during the Overland Campaign was also laudable. Other campaigns–notably Gettysburg–were less creditable: but no modern general (not even Napoleon pre-Waterloo) was uniformly successful in campaign or battle.  The main objections to his generalship were that his operational success was not achieved pursuant to a broader strategic vision, and relatedly, that his tactical methods produced casualties that the Confederacy could not afford.  (Indeed, the casualties at his greatest victory–Chancellorsville–cast some shade on the achievement.)

Further note that acknowledging that someone was a great general does not imply an endorsement of the cause for which he fought.  Were Manstein and Rommel great generals?  Yes–much to the world’s cost.  Similarly, Zhukov.  The greatest generals in world history–Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon–drowned their worlds in blood in their pursuit of grandeur.  Alas, one of the tragedies of history is that generalship exhibits some correlation with the depravity of the cause in which it is employed.  (This raises interesting questions regarding causation.)

So even if Trump said only what was widely reported, the facts were on his side.  But what was reported was not all he said.  Here are his remarks in full:

But maybe someday he will. It also gave you a general, who was incredible. He drank a little bit too much. You know who I’m talking about, right? So Robert E. Lee was a great general. And Abraham Lincoln developed a phobia. He couldn’t beat Robert E. Lee. He was going crazy. I don’t know if you know this story. But Robert E. Lee was winning battle after battle after battle. And Abraham Lincoln came home, he said, “I can’t beat Robert E. Lee.”  And he had all of his generals, they looked great, they were the top of their class at West Point. They were the greatest people. There’s only one problem — they didn’t know how the hell to win. They didn’t know how to fight. They didn’t know how. And one day, it was looking really bad. And Lincoln just said, you — hardly knew his name — and they said, don’t take him. He’s got a drinking problem. And Lincoln said, I don’t care what problem he has, you guys aren’t winning. And his name was Grant. General Grant. And he went in and he knocked the hell out of everyone. And you know the story. They said to Lincoln, you can’t use him anymore. He’s an alcoholic. And Lincoln said, I don’t care if he’s an alcoholic. Frankly, give me six or seven more just like him. He started to win. Grant really did. He had a serious problem. Serious drinking problem. But, man, was he a good general. And he’s finally being recognized as a great general. But Lincoln had almost developed a phobia, because he was having a hard time with a true great fighter and a great general, Robert E. Lee. But Grant figured it out, and Grant is a great general, and Grant came from right here.

So in a campaign rally in Ohio, Trump was praising Ohioans–a staple of stump rhetoric.  One Ohioan he praised was Ulysses S. Grant.  In the process of praising Grant, he touted the generalship of Grant’s most famous foe–Robert E. Lee.  This wasn’t about Lee, except indirectly.

Trump employed a standard rhetorical technique: he enhanced the achievements of the person he was praising by emphasizing the personal obstacles he had overcome (in Grant’s case, alcohol) and the brilliance and strength of the enemies that he vanquished (here, Lee).  Would David have become a legendary figure had he felled Irving, the Philistine Dwarf, instead of Goliath, the Philistine Giant?  Er, obviously not.  Nor would Grant have been as famous if he had vanquished Benjamin Huger or Leonidas Polk or any of the many non-entities that achieved general rank in the Confederacy.  (Indeed, one reason to question Lee’s brilliance is that his victories were won against a parade of incompetents.)  But beating Lee is a true accomplishment.

But the media ignored this in its haste to find another charge to add to the Trump indictment, and to further the narrative that he makes racist appeals to the Confederacy.   Indeed, some media couldn’t satisfy its frenzy by stopping merely at ripping a sentence fragment out of context: NBC falsely enhanced the narrative by claiming that Trump had said that Lee was “incredible.”   Actually, that is a classic case of projection: It is NBC, and the rest of the media that ran with the “Lee is great” meme that lacks credibility.

Yet they whine when he blasts them for spreading “fake news.”  Here’s a thought: if you don’t want Trump to accuse you of spreading false news, don’t spread false news!

If there’s anything objectionable in Trump’s remark, it is the first part of that rhetorical technique: Trump arguably exaggerated seriously Grant’s alcohol problem, at least as of the time of the Civil War.  There is still much debate over whether and when and how much Grant consumed alcohol.  Many of the reports of his abuse of liquor were insinuations by nasty backbiters (e.g., Henry Hallack) that exploited the reputation Grant developed in the 1850s while marooned at Fort Humboldt in California.  There is no credible report that he was impaired at any time in the conduct of his duties 1861-1865.

And as Lincoln said when those backbiters criticized Grant: “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”  For Grant carried out one, and arguably two, of the greatest campaigns of maneuver in the Civil War.  The Vicksburg campaign, in fact, is one of the most brilliant campaigns in modern military history anywhere.  The crossing of the James in June, 1864 was also operationally brilliant, though barren of results due to the blundering of the generals in charge of carrying the attacks at Petersburg home–and arguably due as well to the exhaustion and casualties and loss of aggressiveness brought on by the relentless grinding of the Overland Campaign of the prior 5 weeks.

Further, Grant excelled Lee in that his operational successes all advanced broader strategic goals.  By March, 1864 Grant had responsibility for Northern grand strategy, and seized the opportunity with a relish, whereas Lee invariably avoided this responsibility.  Although the frictions of war–notably the incompetence of Franz Sigel, Benjamin Butler, and Nathaniel Banks–prevented the immediate consummation of Grant’s strategic vision, its breadth and flexibility eventually led to its success.  (There is some similarity between the fate of Grant’s strategic plan and his grand tactical scheme at Chattanooga in November, 1863.  Neither scheme worked according to plan, but since neither was dependent on the success of any single element, the failure of one or two aspects of the plans did not preclude their ultimate success.)

This sorry episode illustrates yet again what should by now be obvious.  If the media reports anything about Trump, modify Reagan’s famous remark about the USSR: don’t trust, but verify.

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6 Comments »

  1. As Anon once said: ‘Anything is confirmatory of a prejudice.’

    What does surprise me is that these people never get tired of distorting the news. It’s as if it comes naturally to them: conduct that would quickly sicken the hearts of rest of us just turns out to be business as usual for them.

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — October 16, 2018 @ 2:04 am

  2. SP, Last week visited my first Civil War Battlefield at Balls Bluff in Leesburg, VA.

    Had to cut through a neighborhood to get there, glad they preserved it.

    Thanks for writing about the Civil War.

    Comment by Tom Henderson — October 16, 2018 @ 6:06 pm

  3. @Tom–Glad you visited. I was there in early-June. They’ve done a good job. It’s a good place to visit first. It’s on an easier scale to comprehend than the bigger ones.

    I spent the weekend at Shiloh. I hope to write about that shortly. Glad you enjoy the CW posts!

    Comment by cpirrong — October 16, 2018 @ 7:40 pm

  4. @Tom–Did you take one of the (free) guided tours. My guide was an ex-Naval Academy guy and sub commander. It was raining like hell when I went, and we spent most of the time sitting in his truck talking about the battle and sea stories.

    Comment by cpirrong — October 16, 2018 @ 7:44 pm

  5. No and that is what I really missed. I was there before 11AM on a Saturday, had wedding responsibilities, I heard the tour guides are outstanding. A guide was just arriving when I was leaving. I am going to make a donation to Nova Parks or look into how I can help the guides, they are all volunteers.

    Oliver Wendell Holmes fought there! A great place to visit.

    Comment by Tom — October 17, 2018 @ 8:14 am

  6. @Tom–Today (21 October) is the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Balls Bluff.

    Comment by cpirrong — October 21, 2018 @ 6:38 pm

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