Decisions, Decisions

The Erstwhile Conservative, Anson Burlingame, and I have been debating the moral aspects of the Civil War in response to one of the E.C.’s posts, “The Romance of Rebellion”.   We have beaten the topic up pretty well, but the issue of morality for leaders such as Robert E. Lee remains unresolved.  Anson appropriately raised the case of Erwin Rommel in the same context, but in WWII.

Unbalanced scales

Image via Wikipedia

At some point in time we all come to decision-forks in the road of life, sometimes apparent at the time and sometimes only apparent in the rearview mirror of our memories.  I can list some of my no-going-back decisions, just off the top of my head:

  • When I asked my first girlfriend out on a date.
  • When I signed up to take Latin in high school.
  • When I resolved to apply to various service academies for scholarships.
  • When I ended my relationship with my first girlfriend.
  • When I proposed to my wife.
  • When I applied for submarine duty.
  • etc.

Yogi Berra said it best.  “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”  That’s

Fork in the road. To the left is Cherry Lane. ...

Image via Wikipedia

what we do.  We make a choice and go on from there.  It would be counter-productive to constantly review such decisions because they are mostly irrevocable and because doing so would lead to cognitive dissonance and indecision.  So, we decide and then proceed.  And one of the stronger memes characterized by what we deem “good leaders” is decisiveness.  Significantly, it was indecisiveness that was the flaw in General McClellan’s character, a flaw for which Lincoln rightly sacked him.

The judgement on the rightness of critical decisions comes later, sometimes much later.  In Rommel’s case I recognize that he finally did the right thing, and did so courageously.  For Lee I submit that he did not do the right thing.  Slavery was wrong, but he chose to embrace it.  However, he did do many other things right, including fighting bravely, but ending the struggle when the inevitable was apparent.

How mitigating for Lee is the fact that slavery was thoroughly woven into the fabric of his youth, his  Virginian culture and the South’s economy?  That is admittedly powerful.  There was a tipping point there, where Lee’s decision could have gone either way.  Why did it go the way it did?  Factors must include his upbringing, education, religion and tendency to introspection.  Looking at the history of the Civil War I think the closeness of this call, this tipping point, is apparent in how the country was split.  The state of Virginia was split.  Even families were split.  And public opinion is still split across the country.

Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...

Scars of a whipped slave, via Wikipedia

Some may say it is unfair to criticize people for making the wrong, the immoral, decision at those forks in the road because those moments are brief and the decisions not easily revised.  But then, isn’t that the essence of high responsibility?  Great leaders must be held to a higher standard in my opinion.

I believe discussions like the one that Duane started are healthy.  It is mainly in the medium of writing and reflection on history that we humans have hope of making better decisions when we come to those inevitable forks in the road still ahead of us.  In this regard, in this context, I can think of no more-important quality in a national leader than a thorough and thoughtful grasp of history.  That’s a lesson we all should take to the voting booth.  IMHO.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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4 Responses to Decisions, Decisions

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    Good summary of the Lee debate. But as I just commented in a reply to your comment on my blog on a different subject:

    What IF the South had in fact “won”. Can you imagine a better man to have become the President of that new country?? Character counts more than political opinions in my view. And suppor for slavery now is certainly a character flaw but there were a helluva lot of men of real distinction BACK THEN that supported slavery.

    So one must put character critiques and leadership critiques within the context of the times in my view. And I put REL right up there with some of the best men in terms of character and leadership that we have ever seen in our entire history.

    For Christ’s sake, Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. Does that mean we should have not monuments for THOSE men. Would you or Duane suggest that we tear down the Washington Monument or Jefferson Memorial???



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      What if the South had won the Civil War? That’s an interesting question, Anson. You have stated elsewhere you opinion that if the slaves had just been a little more patient, slavery would have died a natural death. Now I am pretty sure that you did not choose to read the Civil War essay for which I provide a link in Duane’s post on “. . . Romance of Rebellion” because it has some answers in it that run counter to what you like to think. If you had read it you would have seen, among others, this:

      Reigning over the study of slavery was Yale’s U.B. Phillips, the son of slave owners. For decades he was the only scholar to undertake a systematic examination of the plantation economy, which, he argued, was a benign and civilizing force for African captives. He concluded that slavery was an unprofitable system that would have soon died out peacefully. That would have surprised the Southerners who in the 1850s certainly believed there was money to be made in slavery. In the decade before the war, per capita wealth grew more than twice as fast in the South as it did in the North, and the prices of slaves and land both rose by some 70%. If slavery was dying out, it sure was hard to tell.

      You may recall too my mentioning that slaves in 1861 were the single largest financial asset in all of the United States. And given that the Civil Rights movement didn’t happen for a hundred years, you still believe that slavery would have died a natural death? Say, have I got a nice bridge to sell to you!

      In case you should reconsider exercising some of your braincells on that essay, I will provide the link again HERE HERE.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      My computer leaped ahead of me – I have more to add to the last comment –

      There is a profound difference between REL’s decision to defend the cause of slavery and the fact that Jefferson and Washington had slaves. In the latter case, slavery was not a debatable issue – it was ubiquitous throughout the 13 colonies. The issue had not been seriously debated and it was accepted throughout the culture. In Lee’s case, the issue was ripe, with the North solidly against slavery. The secession of the South brought it to a head – it was a turning point and Lee made his choice, full-well knowing the central issue.


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    I have been reading a great book about Brazil, beginning with tribal indians, then the European onslaught and thence up to the modern day. Very interesting read and believe me we treated our Indians much better than the Spanish and Protegues treated “theirs” starting in the late 1500’s.

    The demise of slavery, even more vital in Brazil than in our colonies began with the Bristish fleet preventing the exportation of blacks from Africa to the two American continents. That happened long before the issue came to a head in our own Civil War.

    And it is interesting to note that slavery died without a Civil War in Brazil around the same period of time that it died in the United States. Then read the centuries long struggle of the Jesuits in Brazil fighting slavery for a very long time against the landed gentry in Brazil based on simply moral arguments backed by standing up to the landed gentry (and getting killed for it as well) again over a long period of time.

    Now why did the South lose the Civil War? Simple in my view. It remained a stricly agraian society long after the Industrial Revolution began in England long before the Civil War. The North had the industry to turn their peaceful industries into a war machine that could never be equalled by the South. God and morality did not defeat the South anymore than such defeated the Nazis. Power, raw power from the North and then the entire U.S. won the Civil War and WWII, pure and simple.

    “Mine Eyes have seen the glory…..” my hind foot. Those Northern eyes saw the “glory” only after it made a helluva lot of ordinance and essentially enslaved a lot of European immigrants (See “Gangs of New York”) to carry those guns into the southland.

    And then we can examine Sherman’s march to the sea or the carpetbaggers or reconstruction or how former slaves were and in some cases still are treated in the cities of the North.

    And then we find some idiot today that thinks Lincoln was the worst President ever to hold that office in our history!!!

    Then go back and reread about crazies, both left handed and right handed, today!

    But I would much rather argue over debt and deficits today rather than the Civil War. I am not at all sure how debating REL’s moral choices are applicable to today’s politics.

    Oh, I forgot, the Tea Party is a continuation of the fight over slavery, right? That seems to me to be Duane’s motivation for starting this argument today.

    I suppose I should go read up on how we handled Bolsheviks in America during the WWI era. Might be some applicability to today’s struggle I suppose!



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