In the 2008 film Valkyrie, Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a German army colonel who played a key part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The film is a solid portrayal of a fascinating real life story. Hitler had every intention of fighting the war to the end and the colonel feared Hitler’s “never surrender” attitude would bring about the destruction of the German homeland. Although Stauffenberg was in the German army during the country’s worst years, and even participated in the the invasion of Poland most viewers of the film––not to mention students of history––would agree that Stauffenberg is a hero despite past sins.
Like the colonel-turned-assassin, Robert E. Lee has been viewed by many Americans as an unlikely hero for the past 150 years. The Virginia slaveholder felt torn at the onset of the Civil War, writing years later that, “though [I was] opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.” As for slavery, the other issue generally seen as the cause of the war, Lee ultimately chose his homestate of Virginia over the Union. Upon hearing word of Virginia’s formal secession, he resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the state militia, fighting for the Confederate States of America until his surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. After the Civil War ended, however, Lee became a leading figure in support of healing the wounds of the country. He always had qualms with secession and there is compelling evidence that he believed the institution of slavery to be morally reprehensible, calling it “a moral and political evil.” Thus, the slave-holding Confederate general turned a page in his life after surrendering at Appomattox, and dedicated himself to re-engaging with the North to promote sectional unity.
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