Robert E. Lee (See And Read), by Ruby L. Radford
If you want to find out where history gets screwed up, one of the most obvious places to look is books written for children. Generally speaking, books written for more academic audiences assume that audiences are critical and perhaps even hostile to what is said, and so these books seek to disguise their agendas more skillfully (although, as I have seen in some of my reviews, not always well). Books written to children, though, do not assume a critical attitude on the part of readers, and positively discourage that sort of attitude. Moreover, such books are going to be far too short and not remotely scholarly enough to require some sort of citation to evidence. This book is clear example of how books written to children go wrong, and it accounts for much of the focus that the lost cause myth has in writing books that appeal to children and that seek to indoctrinate into young readers a certain view of history–such as the claims that Robert E. Lee was a patriot and an anti-slavery man–that seek to provide the foundation that can be used later on to seek to justify the existence of the Confederacy on grounds other than pro-slavery ideology that had to be protected.
This book is a short one at just over 50 pages or so in length, and it spends a very large amount of its short space present Lee as a fatherless son to try to draw the reader’s sympathy as he struggles with poverty and tries to take care of his family from a young age. The author spends some time discussing the dangers of Lee’s service in Mexico after pointing to him as a perfect sort of cadet at West Point. The author makes all kinds of bold statements, like saying that the people of the North wanted all slaves freed, which is a massive overstatement of the antislavery sentiment of the North, while attempting to justify the claim of southerners that they needed slaves to work the cotton fields and that states should decide their own institutions, which was actually the Republican platform of 1860 (not that the reader of this book would be aware of it). The rest of the book then focuses on Lee as a brave and dashing general in the Confederacy and then his work to help Washington & Lee University while he spent time with his family before death and presumably apotheosis in the author’s perspective.
This book, properly speaking is not a good book, if by good book you imply some sort of fidelity to the historical record. Lee betrayed his oath to his nation that he had made as an officer and a gentleman. He certainly justified that betrayal by virtue of his loyalty to his state and his refusal to countenance the use of force against the treacherous regime he later aided with his sword. But the fact that Lee justified his own faithlessness and dishonorable conduct does not mean that we the reader, who have no stake in Lee’s actions nor any need to accept his justifications as valid, should do so as well. The question is, why does the author feel it necessary to present neo-Confederate myths as history for children. What stake does the author have in this mistaken view of history and this whitewashed view of an able traitor, but a traitor nonetheless. That is the sort of mystery that makes a book like this reading for someone who is not part of the book’s target demographic, for the mythmaking that is packaged for children likely does have an influence on at least how some people learn history and pick sides in debates about historical matters.