Robert E. Lee, Meth Cookers, Hillbilly Yentas . . . and me.

Hillbilly Yentas, Robert E. Lee, and MeQuick Update: Add to the following Christopher Dickey’s article this week in the Daily Beast: How I Learned to Hate Robert E. Lee 

In the past week Robert E. Lee’s legacy has been “debated” in many forums. Law students at Washington & Lee want Rbt. E. dropped from the masthead; the NAACP petitioned to have Lee’s portrait removed from a County Seat in Florida; it’s the 150th anniversary of Arlington National Cemetery, the former estate of Colonel Robert E. Lee, United States Army; Michael Korda released a new Lee biography, appeared on NPR and received more hate mail than pretty much anyone ever in the long history of On Point.  

This reminded me of an incident at Ft. Dix. I was writing at a picnic table on a warm – for late November – night  when a scene from the later – much later – part of my Civil War Trilogy hit me like a ton of bricks. It came out of nowhere, I scribbled furiously, was completely caught unaware by an emergency ‘Recall” bell (i.e., back to dorms or else). I calmly organized my papers, a friend ran over, yelled it was serious, as in ‘move your ass or report to the SHU’ serious, so I did . . . and left the folder.  I didn’t realize it until I was in my room, no way to get out to look for it.

I did not sleep that night, sprinted out at 6:30 with the breakfast few, was stopped halfway to the picnic table – one of my student’s had grabbed it and was on his way to give it to me . . . .
                   . . . . with about six friends, all of them Hillbilly Yentas (my coinage).   Hillbilly yentas: (n.) An unmistakable subset Federal inmates; meth cookers of the Blue Ridge Mountains; known for John Brown beards; unruly hair, missing teeth, funny as hell when unprovoked. Known to travel in packs while gossiping about everybody else in the prison.

So six or seven hillbilly yentas assisted with the return of my folder, I thanked them . . . profusely.  I got along well with them, so I was a bit put off by the less than effervescent ‘your welcome’.  Their leader, a guy I was friendly with in class, looked down at the grass, the sky, waited for a jet tanker from McGuire Air Force base to clear the rooftops, before muttering, “The boys ain’t too pleased with your description of Mr. Lee.”


Federal troops took Arlington House in May 1861. It was never given back to the Lee family,

The folder they handed back to me was at least two inches thick, they had either read the entire thing overnight or just happened to flip it open to the few lines about ‘Mr. Lee’.  Either way, I was stunned.  Somehow, I had the presence of mind to say, quite calmly, “Read it again,” fumbled through, pulled out the handwritten page, handed it to the leader, everyone huddled around him, I did not take the moment to effect an escape with the real manuscript.  This is what they read, corrected for grammar (yeah, not all that easy to be creative and grammatical on a bench, at night, in the cold, in the middle of a prison):

. . I watched the distinguished, gray-haired, impeccably uniformed man ride, eyes fixed on some far away point, backbone ram rod stiff as he sat bolt upright on the equally legendary Traveler. His was a face at once alien – the face of the thousands who had just wasted the last four years trying to kill me – and familiar – the face of the ‘old army’ the face, if not the epitome, of ‘Before.’

I studied that perfectly bearded face, a face I had admired and respected since Mexico (the last four years admittedly included) full on, in profile, from behind, as Lieutenant General Robert E. Lee rode by, moving down the dirt lane – left alone even by the dust.

By the time I had a clear view of the back of his head I realized, suddenly and disconcertingly with a surge of pure emotion that made my hands shake and my empty stomach nauseated, that I hated the man. I despised him beyond words – my own or any I could possibly hope to recall and quote. That genius had extended the fucking war years, caused the deaths of friends, acquaintances, enemies, and total strangers who, had they lived, might have become one or more of the above.

Death and more death while he befuddled, confused, terrified, controlled, and unmasked as frauds men such as my once great friend McClellan, poor Ambrose. All because honor dictated state before country – a dilemma this particular war had now rendered moot . . . after loping off a chunk of his beloved state and desolating the rest.

He had tried to kill me, forced me to confront horrors I would have been richer to have missed, hurt me physically in ways I would never fully recover from, insured I would not sleep well for a generation, forced me, time and again, to confront the inequities of my friends and myself . . . so his conscience and sense of honor would be assuaged.

All that raced through my head, made me physically ill. I have, to date, never reconciled the feelings I had that day for my former comrade-in-arms as I watched that living anachronism ride away.

They read it again, had a brief discussion, the leader patted me on the shoulder, said, “You’re alright for a Northern boy – rest’a th’ book is good, too.”  That was it, taking the time to read it in the way it was meant to be read rather than from their preconceived notion of what I, a guy with ‘014’ in his number (Fed code for Connecticut) would write about Lee in a Civil War novel written in the first person from the viewpoint of, well, a man from New England.

I suppose there’s a lesson in there somewhere as well . . . .


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