Robert E. Lee as tragic figure?

Not too long ago I started following more conservatives on Twitter and reading—or trying to read—articles that might help me understand them better.

This article caught my attention today, in no small part because of my recent renewal of interest in the song that it features:

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

I’ve always liked the song but had never before reflected very deeply on its meaning. It is moving and tragic and, as that article in The American Conservative said, it is sad. I re-read the quote from a Wikipedia page that the writer cited just a couple of days ago.

The AC article was interesting but ultimately a disappointment as it tries to get the reader to sympathize with Southerners and their “shame-honor” culture. I was buying it all until this part of the article:

Robert E. Lee embodies the tragedy of the American South: he was the best military man in America — remember that Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army — and wanted to keep the Union together.

Never mind that others say Lee’s flaws and bad decisions were key to the defeat of the Confederacy. Never mind that he so wanted to keep the Union together than he went to war to destroy it. He “wept tears of blood” over the decision, the article says. How many shed real blood in those years and how many died in that war?

To position Lee as the embodiment of that tragedy is a grievous insult to the memory of the millions of enslaved human beings that he and his army fought to keep enslaved.

While touching and sad, the AC article’s portrayal of white Southerners as helplessly and hopelessly loyal to family and place by virtue of their Scots-Irish cultural heritage reads like a lame excuse for owning slaves and going to war to keep them. My own Irish roots are rather deep, but I have never heard anyone in my extended family, or anyone else for that matter, lionize Irishmen who killed innocents with car bombs the way Lee has been idolized in the land of cotton.

Lee made his choice, and calling it honorable is to pervert the very meaning of the word.

But, the song…

Again and again in recent weeks I’ve watched and listened to the video that turned up in the AC article, the one of The Band performing the song about “the night.” I don’t see it as glorifying the rebels or Lee or even the war, although I understand why some might. It is about terrible loss in more than one sense and, if anything, a reflection of the tragedy that is war.

I always wonder about the seven words one of the musicians says just before the music starts:

“It’s not like it used to be.”

In some ways it is, in some ways it isn’t.