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My Turn: Bill Ward — The news anchor & Robert E. Lee

The days of professional TV news broadcasters have all but disappeared. It’s impossible today to find a Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Walter Cronkite? Peter Jennings? Harry Reasoner? Forget it. Then there was the gold standard, Edward R. Murrow, known for taking his last sip of Scotch whiskey and a final drag from his cigarette just before his opening camera-cue.

I did not realize how unnerved some of these modern-day talking heads can become until having recently watched Lawrence O’Donnell, a self-avowed European socialist, on part of his show from MSNBC. Having other sources of information, I seldom watch that channel or CNN, due to the persistent Trump bashing and distortions of U.S. history.

During this particular show, O’Donnell engaged in Robert E. Lee bashing. Except he wasn’t just bashing, he was spewing verbal venom, all brought on by a man who has been dead almost 150 years. One thing was clear: O’Donnell wasn’t speaking from solid academic experience concerning the Civil War or Robert E. Lee. He had written his own script using his own “facts” as he went, which, unfortunately, is the way much of our history has been written.

O’Donnell’s diatribe centered around the white supremacists’ protest-turned-violent at Charlottesville, Va., and the comments made by President Trump, in which Trump defended efforts to preserve Confederate statues, like the one of Lee in Charlottesville.

Lee was, according to O’Donnell, the only slave owner among the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who was willing to go to war and kill hundreds of thousands of Americans to preserve his right to own slaves and to sell slaves on a whim, selling mothers to one buyer and their children to another. Only, he failed to remember that “Lee’s slaves” were actually the “Custis slaves,” which Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, had inherited.

Lee was too busy pursuing his chosen career of an army officer to have been involved in the slave trade. However, he was the administrator of all property, including that of his wife, which was the custom in his day. He chose to keep his wife’s slaves to provide them with a home. Most had been in the family for two or three generations and were getting old. Many were infirm.

Under the guise of news commentary, O’Donnell was bashing the South and everyone who revered the memory of Lee. O’Donnell jumped from slavery, and set himself up as an expert in Constitutional law, to say, “There is absolutely no shadow of a legal doubt that Robert E. Lee was guilty of treason.” But begging Mr. O’Donnell’s pardon, nothing in the Constitution at that time covered secession or the various ramifications of such an event. And West Point taught the principles of secession.

Lee, as a matter of historic fact, was indicted for treason after an editorial appeared in the New York Times calling for same. The indictment was a political move by President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, who favored punishing Lee. Gen. U.S. Grant interceded with Johnson, threatening to resign his commission and as commander of the U.S. Army. Grant demanded that the terms of the surrender agreement at Appomattox be honored. Johnson had the indictment withdrawn.

O’Donnell went on to say that Robert E. Lee had a choice: “He could have been the commander of the U.S. Army in the Civil War or the commander of the Confederate Army.” In O’Donnell’s view, Lee made the wrong choice. He said 40 percent of the career soldiers in the Federal Army from Virginia stayed with the Union. He attributed Lee’s switching sides to a desire to fight for slavery. But that was a paradox, and the Civil War was a period filled with contrasts and contradictions.

State ties in that period were much stronger than today. Each state viewed itself as a totally separate entity. John Adams frequently referred to “My country of Massachusetts.” Another Civil War statistic that O’Donnell is probably unaware of, is that more men from New York State fought for the Confederacy than from all of the northern states combined. A large amount of Southern sympathy could be found in places such as Philadelphia and Illinois. Should all of those people have been tried for treason?

According to O’Donnell, Lee’s troops killed 360,000 Union soldiers. Lee led about 260,000 Confederate soldiers to their deaths. Again, he failed to mention that about 60 percent of the military deaths in the Civil War were caused by disease and sickness. But then who is responsible for the deaths of 250,000 Southern civilians? That carnage falls squarely into the laps of Generals Sherman, Sheridan and Meade, just to name a few, with the blessings of Abraham Lincoln.

Bill Ward is a writer and historian living in Salisbury. Contact him at wardwriters@carolina.rr.com.

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