He’s become a true chief of gaffe.
In an interview Monday night on Fox News with Laura Ingraham, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly complimented Gen. Robert E. Lee, who led the South’s military in open rebellion against the U.S. government when angry landowners were told they couldn’t own human beings anymore.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Gen. Robert E. Lee
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/AP Photo)
“He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country,” Kelly said.
“It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today.”
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Although Kelly’s description conjures up an image of a captain simply going down with his ship, the truth is a lot more complex and sinister.
‘Robert E. Lee was an honorable man’
While Lee was opposed to war and spoke against erecting monuments to those who fought in the infamous conflict that pitted “brother against brother,” this “honorable man,” as Kelly calls him, still somehow felt white people got the worst part of the slavery bargain despite being on the handle-end of the whip.
“I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race,” Lee said in a letter to his wife in 1856 while discussing the topic, adding, “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically.”
People who might disagree with that assessment: The slaves that Lee purchased and put to work
Gen. Robert E. Lee on the back porch of his house in Richmond, Va., where he got to keep slaves before a bunch of Northerners went and ruined that for him.
(MATHEW B. BRADY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
As a slave owner, the “honorable man” was noted as having broken up every single slave family that he brought to his estate except for one, an uncommon and devastating practice that would prompt one of his slaves to call him “the worst man I ever see.”
The consequences of loyalty
On a larger scale, what did this general’s “loyalty to his state” mean?
When the Civil War started, approximately 4 million people were living in slavery. Though Kelly’s boss might say there was bigotry “on many sides” at that point in history, only one was singularly focused on keeping those chains in place and it was Lee’s South.
When Virginia declared it would secede in April 1861 and Lee followed, these are just a few of the conditions he was willing to die for to keep in place:
Kelly also said “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” This guy would probably disagree.
(JULIA WARD HOWE/AP)
Half of all babies born to slaves died within the first year — double the rate for white children.
There was nothing stopping slaves from being sexually assaulted. At most, a slave woman’s rape would be viewed as a type of trespassing.
Diseases such as malaria were plentiful while food was not, slaves generally eating barely enough to work all day but knowing they’d be brutalized if they underperformed.
Punishments included branding, being auctioned off and mutilation.
An illustration of pre-Civil War life depicting African men in slave pens in Washington, D.C., circa 1849
In one instance when two slaves belonging to the “honorable man” attempted to escape, he had them whipped, another popular method of discipline. As Wesley Norris, one of the men, recalled, “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”
In his interview, Kelly said, “Well, history’s history. And there are certain things in history that were not so good and other things that were very, very good.”
As a retired four-star general, it would be great if he considers mass casualties to be in the “not so good” category.
Just as a reminder to Kelly though, Lee’s devotion to his state meant leading thousands to fight and die in what is still the bloodiest war in United States history.
The Battle of Fort Sumter. Not seen here: Anyone suffering from bone spurs.
Lee’s forces alone would see nearly 300,000 lives lost, essentially sending the entire population of Buffalo, N.Y., to their deaths because he’s a fanboy of “Old Dominion.”
Not included in that figure are the Union soldiers who died fighting to keep the country together, among them the black soldiers who were slaughtered at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 when they tried to surrender to soldiers under the command of, who else, but the “honorable man” himself.
But, again, “history’s history.”