The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee
By Thomas Fleming
Forge, $24.95, 335 pages
Cliches about the shortness of Americans' attention span are certainly belied by the raw emotions that still can erupt nearly 150 years after the Civil War, particularly in arguments over the nature of the Confederacy. Ironically, to some degree, this is due to a failure of the educational system; studious ignorance make people, when faced with a touchy topic, feel obligated to have a visceral and emotional reaction that flies in the face of the facts.
Time generally adds perspective, so shouting over issues with a complete lack of facts is reserved for such current events as the Dubai Ports World controversy.
But recent symbolic (and often deliberately misleading) campaigns against the public presence of the Confederate battle flag or the insistence of race-baiters like USA Today’s DeWayne Wickham that a stamp in a Civil War set that depicts "the traitor" Robert E. Lee is some kind of outrage fan the flames and keep the wounds fresh.
Outside of liberal demagogues and PC academics, however, most Americans feel more sorrow about the Civil War than anger. The popularity of the writings of Michael Shaara (The Killer Angels, which was filmed as Gettysburg) and his son, Jeff, illustrates this even-handed attitude toward the conflict among modern Americans. It is considered a tragedy, not an outrage. And if anything, the South has more recognized heroes than the North.
Ulysses Grant, for instance, is unjustly lampooned to this day as a drunken butcher, and William Tecumseh Sherman is remembered as the original scorched-earth terrorist. Meanwhile, Lee remains on his pedestal, and Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart capture more of the public imagination than Meade, Sheridan or Chamberlain.
Among the Shaaras’ most laudable accomplishments is restoring the reputations of Grant and other Union heroes and noting that not only was this a war between former colleagues, but it also was a war between former best friends at times.
Jay Winik’s indispensable April 1865: The Month That Saved America posits that Grant and Lee together were principally responsible for establishing a climate where the country could heal even in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. This is a remarkable achievement in a nation where virtually every family had suffered a loss and the radical victors were eager to punish the losers.
It was, indeed, unique in world history that the aftermath of such a savage and massive civil war did not lead to vicious reprisals against the vanquished. Winik shows how the radicals’ fury was quickly replaced by a sense among the weary people in the middle that those of the North and South were Americans again and needed to work together.
But what if it hadn’t happened that way, especially since Lincoln’s assassination put his plans for reconciliation with the South in serious jeopardy?
If people today are wondering whether freeing 25 million Iraqis and establishing an ally in an unfriendly part of the world is worth 2,000 lives, you can bet that people were making the calculation as to whether freeing 4 million slaves — who were as foreign to most Northerners as any Iraqi — was worth 600,000 lives. No one was untouched by the carnage, which left the nation smoldering and nearly ruined. At the very least, an overreach by the victors might have ignited a low-level guerilla war.
Historian Thomas Fleming turns his own bellows on the coals of this historic argument in "The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee," and the result is a white-hot courtroom drama that channels the rage and the fanaticism of a powerful and vocal minority that put the uneasy surrender agreement at real risk.
In Fleming’s alternative history scenario, at the center of the effort to court-martial Lee is Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who had been a vocal proponent of war even before Fort Sumter. As managing editor of the New York Daily Tribune, the nation’s most influential newspaper, Dana added "On to Richmond" to the masthead. He was fired by Horace Greeley after the Battle of Bull Run but landed on his feet in the War Department, where he lobbied for punitive measures against the South on behalf of the most radical of the Radical Republicans.
Fleming's tale has Dana maneuver new President Andrew Johnson into allowing a court-martial of Lee even though it breaks the amnesty agreement Grant negotiated at Appomattox. (In real life, this was one of the political missteps Johnson did not make, which so angered the radicals that he was slandered as a drunk in the newspapers and eventually impeached.)
The best a politically isolated Grant can do is appoint half the court-martial board and hope for the best. Sen. Reverdy Johnson of Maryland, a commanding orator who opposed both the Radical Republicans and the secessionists, is counsel for the defense, and the prosecutor is Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, who once hanged a man in front of his pleading family in New Orleans for carrying a protest sign. Whatever the excesses of the Reconstruction period, they were nothing compared to the Carthigian plans Dana, Butler and their ilk had in mind.
The story is narrated in the first person by Jeremiah O’Brien, a fictional young New York Tribune reporter and increasingly disillusioned protégé of Dana. Seeing the story through Jeremiah’s eyes is an exceedingly effective device, as his notions of the South and Lee have been heavily influenced by the Dana's fanaticism.
O’Brien’s gradual recognition that the legal issues of the war and the personal dilemmas of officers from Southern states are far more complicated than he realized give the book its heart. Fleming makes no excuses for the evil of slavery, but he places it in historical context and frankly discusses the difficulties and legal challenges posed by abolition.
Lee dominates the novel, as he would in any accurate portrayal. His opposition to secession and slavery are generally accepted facts by all but the most extreme of today’s commentators and historians. What is surprising that while Fleming is sympathetic to Lee, he raises the question whether the general, despite all his efforts to act honorably and legally, technically is guilty of treason.
I don’t want to present all the arguments, as the give and take of the trial is what gives the novel its fire and high entertainment value. However, I can’t forgo mentioning how the trial reveals the roles that pro-war newspapers and Northern supporters of proto-terrorist John Brown played in starting the war.
The point that media caricatures of leaders and issues can shape both events and the historical record is a worthwhile caution for today.
Not since The Day of the Jackal have I been in so much suspense over a story in which the ultimate outcome is certain. Anyone who is interested enough to pick up this book surely knows Lee was not hanged for treason. Still, the characters and scenario are so persuasive that the reader almost comes to believe a secret trial — or something like it — really took place.
Fleming is one of our most interesting and prolific historians, who is known equally for his novels and his nonfiction. His two most famous books are The Officer’s Wives, a West Point novel, and Liberty, an illustrated Revolutionary War history that was the basis for the fine PBS series.
In the last 5 years, he has written an amazing array of books. In The New Dealers’ War: FDR and the War Within World War Two he showed that the socialist domestic policies of New Deal extremists almost derailed the American war machine, and their utopian vision for post-war Europe led to FDR’s public instance on a policy of unconditional surrender which crippled the German resistance to Hitler.
In The Illusion of Victory, Fleming showed that WWI was really the American war of choice, insisted upon by a president who believed faulty intelligence (false British claims about German war atrocities, and the notion that the war was about to be won and American casualties would be very light) and who sacrificed a hundred thousand American lives for his grand vision of an international body that could bring about world peace. Instead, Woodrow Wilson helped set the stage for Hitler and WWII.
Since 2001, he has released a couple of Civil War novels, a tale about the wild and wooly early aviation business, a memoir about his father’s involvement in Frank Hague’s Jersey City political machine and, most recently, Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, in which he uncovered new evidence that Washington’s greatest accomplishments at Valley Forge were the result of great political skill.
A revisionist historian in the proper sense -- not a purveyor of political correctness whose mission to impose modern liberal values on people from another time -- Thomas Fleming is a seeker of truth, and if the truths are hard, so be it. He is bracingly honest, unabashedly American and always worth reading.
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