Knights, Puritans, and Jesus: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and the archetypes of American masculinity
Strawbridge, Wilm K.
Hall, A. William
I interpret Civil War romanticism by looking at well-known archetypal characters such as the knight, the Puritan, and the Christ figure. I argue that sectional reunion occurred, in part, because Americans shared a common celebration of the Christian/chivalrous hero expressed through stories about the lives and personalities of leading figures of the Civil War. Western traditions like Christianity and its medieval warrior code, chivalry, conditioned Americans to seek heroes who conformed to a certain pattern that resembled the knightly ideal. Chivalry did not crowd-out other forms of masculine behavior, but during the nineteenth century, the British century, Americans had not yet created a man in their own image. That would come later with the twentieth century’s most favored man: the cowboy. Americans created Robert E. Lee as a knight figure resembling Western heroes such as King Arthur. Unlike the more controversial Confederate notables Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, the Lee figure offered Americans the genteel, Christ-like, hero who could be made to represent all of white America. Davis was too defiantly unreconstructed to ever affect much sectional agreement, and Jackson simply could not be made to fit the chivalrous pattern. Thus, Lee allowed southerners to identify themselves as uniquely chivalrous and honorable compared to the modern North. At the same time, the Lee figure provided northerners the opportunity to romanticize a charming, orderly, Old South while rejecting the violent, narrow-minded, states' rights South best symbolized by Davis. I prefer to interpret commentary about the Civil War as storytelling and do not use terms such as the Lost Cause or Civil War memory. High-ranking officers, the common solider, and those who never participated in the Civil War each told stories about it. Due to the large number of stories told, certain common themes became evident in American interpretations of the Civil War era. Common stories include: Lee at Appomattox, Jackson's unmerciful marches against Union forces, and Davis (almost) eluding capture dressed as a woman. Taken together the sub-stories reveal much about the grand narrative of the Civil War, and how Americans, though succeeding to a great extent, failed to completely reunite.