Categories: War

Edward C. Smith: In Defense of Robert E. Lee Commentary-Authorship Confirmed!

Edward C. Smith: In Defense of Robert E. Lee Commentary-Authorship Confirmed!

Summary of eRumor:

A commentary by a black man named Edward C. Smith was published under the headline, “In Defense of Robert E. Lee,” in the Washington Post on August 21, 1999.

The Truth:

We can confirm that the Washington Post published an op-ed by Edward C. Smith under the headline, “In Defense of Robert E. Lee” in August 1999.

The commentary resurfaced in August 2017 after efforts to remove monuments to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, and other cities around the U.S. sparked protests and controversy.

Edward C. Smith  begins the commentary by identifying himself as “a 56-year-old, third- generation, African American Washingtonian who is a graduate of the D.C. public schools and who happens also to be a great admirer of Robert E. Lee’s.” Given Smiths biographical background, his viewpoint has been held up Lee boosters as proof that the Confederate general’s place in history has been misrepresented or misunderstood.

The commentary goes on to claim that Robert E. Lee was a graduate of West Point who “never owned a single slave” but refused Abraham Lincoln’s commission to serve in the Union Army because most Americans were more loyal to states and local communities than the federal government in pre-Civil War America — not because he supported slavery:

But it is important to remember that the 13 colonies that became 13 states reserved for themselves a tremendous amount of political autonomy. In pre-Civil War America, most citizens’ first loyalty went to their state and the local community in which they lived. Referring to the United States of America in the singular is a purely post-Civil War phenomenon.

All this should help explain why Lee declined command of the Union forces — by Abraham Lincoln — after the firing on Fort Sumter. After much agonizing, he resigned his commission in the Union army and became a Confederate commander, fighting in defense of Virginia, which at the outbreak of the war possessed the largest population of free blacks (more than 60,000) of any Southern state.

Edward C. Smith is a professor and director of American studies at American University in Washington, D.C., who has long advanced the “black Confederate narrative.” The idea is that untold numbers of black soldiers bared arms or aided Confederate forces but have been left out of historical accounts and textbooks because they would complicate the narrative that the Civil War was fought over slavery.

It should be noted that the black Confederate narrative is an ongoing subject of debate among historians. Author Kevin M. Levin, for example, wrote that he spent years researching black Confederate soldiers for a forthcoming book, and he found that the concept of black Confederate soldiers is a myth:

The origins of the black Confederate myth can be found in the war itself. African Americans played critical roles in the war effort between 1861 and 1865, but it was not on the battlefield as soldiers. The Confederate government used African Americans for a wide range of activities to help offset their significant disadvantages with manpower and war materiel. Tens of thousands of slaves were impressed by the government, often against the will of their owners, to help with the construction of earthworks around the cities of Richmond, Petersburg, and Atlanta. Slaves were also assigned to the construction and repair of rail lines and as workers in iron foundries and other factories producing war materiel. In the armies, they worked as teamsters, cooks, and musicians. The vast majority of these men functioned as slaves in the Confederacy’s war effort and not as soldiers.

People like Edward C. Smith and Kevin Levin will likely debate the black Confederate narrative for years to come. We’re not going to render an opinion on the historical merits of the black Confederate narrative, but we can confirm that Edward C. Smith wrote “In Defense of Robert E. Lee.’

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