Does Robert E. Lee Get Enough Blame for America’s “Most Evil War”?

One peculiar point that I’ve heard proponents of Robert E. Lee repeatedly raise on forums is from a dusty old rumor about his role in the deeply troubled Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

President Polk intentionally worked to aggravate Mexico and provoke a war. On January 13, 1846, Polk ordered American forces into deeply disputed territory. In April, an army of approximately 4,000 men lead by General Zachary Taylor entered the Nueces Strip, a contested territory that Mexico and many Americans regarded as never having been a part of Texas. Polk knew this action would antagonize Mexican military forces stationed within sight of Taylor’s army at Matamoros. Colonel Hitchcock, who served with Zachary Taylor’s army, could see the real intention of his deployment from his vantage point on the front lines: “We have not one particle of right to be here. It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” […] Historian Amy Greenberg has also shown how racist attitudes that saw Mexicans as racial inferiors and anti-Catholic bigotry enabled American soldiers and leaders to justify extreme violence and what we would now regard as war crimes against Mexican forces and civilians.

Allegedly the highly decorated U.S. General Winfield “Trail of Tears” Scott was some years later overheard assessing it all with this phrase:

Success in the Mexican War was largely due to Robert E. Lee’s skill, valor and undaunted energy.

Such a statement makes little sense in terms of military history. More interesting is that the closest that the above oft-quoted phrase gets to being from Scott himself is that it was only ever overheard and paraphrased.

We don’t actually find any records from General Scott saying these specific words. There’s far more readily available evidence of the reverse, as historians suggest that Scott himself was responsible for a strategy of tragedy.

Here’s a good example, and probably the real source of confusion. It’s a publication out of the hasty second rise of the KKK, attributed to Lee’s personal assistant (who was blind at the time, not kidding) that inadvertently exposes the story’s disconnect.

Source: Wright, Marcus Joseph., Long, Armistead Lindsay. Memoirs of Robert E. Lee: His Military and Personal History. United Kingdom: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1886, page 61.

Or, more precisely, we are meant to believe words written by a blind man who was Lee’s close companion… without much evidence of any of them being true. The attribution to Reverdy Johnson also lowers credibility since he’s a crazy character known for arguing Blacks couldn’t be American citizens (1856 Dred Scott case) before falsely trying to convince people in 1872 “there’s no KKK in the South“.

Yeah, that’s Reverdy, just a plain old wrong side of history guy. He also was blind in one eye after 1842 because he shot himself in the face while “practicing” for a duel with Henry Wise.

Armistead and Reverdy turning up as sources of the phrase attributed to Scott is problematic; it’s some seriously shaky scaffolding upon which two revisionists tried to prop up an awful Lee. People today strut about the Internet saying General Scott said something about Lee, yet ignoring the rather important source (and timing) details here that undermine it.

Reverdy was truly awful. He literally positioned himself as a lawyer intent on protecting and preserving the KKK when it faced being destroyed by President Grant’s newly formed Department of Justice (notably also after Grant had recalled Reverdy). Who wants to believe Reverdy honestly overheard anything from Scott? I mean do you think Reverdy didn’t just make up bogus stories, or that Lee’s personal assistant didn’t just make up bogus stories? Did I mention both of these men couldn’t see?

But let’s say for the sake of argument Scott did in fact think the whole war’s “success” should be dropped on Lee’s shoulders, not just because a sightless Armistead and a scurrilous Reverdy arguably went about stuffing unwanted words into Scott’s mouth.

The greatest military and political leader in American history, President Grant, gave us this related insight about that war:

“He called the Mexican-American War our ‘most evil war,'” [bestselling and award-winning presidential biographer Ronald C. White] said, describing how Grant opposed political ambitions that aimed to expand the U.S. border across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. “He said he should have resigned. For Grant, the very idea that a large country could attack a smaller country was the most immoral venture the United States had ever embarked upon. And that’s why after the Civil War, all the way to the end of his life, Grant would visit Mexico, had friends in Mexico, and admired Mexico’s struggle to become a liberal democracy.”

Anyone who wants to commemorate such evil ambitions, as Grant put it, would invite easy criticism.

If Lee is to be credited for the “most evil war” shouldn’t monuments to him mention the massive casualty rates, American soliders killed en masse, while invading a country on false pretense and lies?

Of the 90,000 U.S. soldiers who served in Mexico, nearly 14,000 died, a death rate of 15.5% – the highest rate of any foreign war in U.S. history.

The easy answer might be memorials depicting such brutality and failures in war (what Lee’s supporters today try to pretend shows “his success“) further bury Lee under his mountains of failure — yet another reason to tear down his image.

“If you go to the mall in Washington, D.C. there’s no monument to this war there, one of the very few to which there’s no monument,” says Peter Guardino, author of ” The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War,” and a historian at Indiana University. “This was a war of conquest for us. We fought this war to take territory from another country. We were successful. But it’s still not the kind of thing that people want to talk about.”

Lee was an aloof, aristocratic suicidal maniac who unnecessarily discarded his own soldiers with abandon (as I’ve written before).

…an unhappy military career, which took 30 years to earn Lee the rank of colonel. By the decade before the [Civil War], Lee had become subject to spells of deep depression, fits of morose behavior, occasional outbursts of violent temper and an obsession with death that amounted to “an almost suicidal tendency.”

That’s a far more accurate telling of Lee’s sentiment after his performance in the Mexican American War, versus the seemingly bogus words attributed to Scott that make Lee sound like some kind of bouncy happy Klan. Oops, I meant clam.

America won the war for a number of reasons, not least of all because Mexico was economically weak, politically distracted and militarily lacked supplies to fight off the invasion.

To put it bluntly, if someone highlights Lee as a “success” they likely are trying to falsely represent the evil and immoral political stunts in Mexico. Lee’s proponents aren’t doing his horrible traitorous reputation any favors by spreading old Reverdy’s bogus propaganda again.

As much as I love recent books like Ty Seidule’s 2021 “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause“, they don’t cover this particular part of the myth enough.

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