The first man I ever loved had been dead for a hundred and thirty years. Among other problems.
First crushes are embarrassing enough when they are on people who are alive, go to your school, and did not lead the Confederate forces during the Civil War.
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Robert E. Lee was my teen idol.
I put his picture in my middle school locker. Everyone else had the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, proudly splayed in their Hip Jean Ensembles and big baggy shirts that made everyone in the nineties and early aughts look like they were ready to go bowling at a moment’s notice. To give you a full picture of my locker, I also had a picture of Jar Jar Binks and a collage I had constructed of James Longstreet and four other Confederate generals, which I had cleverly labeled The Longstreet Boys, but in the prime position was a big glamour shot of Robert E. Lee I had printed out, resplendent in all his sepia-tinted dot-matrix-stippled glory.
They could keep their Chad Michael Murrays and their Leonardo DiCaprios, their coy Jonathan Taylor Thomases with milk mustaches (“Got milk?”). I had the one stud to rule them all.
“Sure, Leo’s okay,” I thought. “But where is his warhorse Traveller? Sure, Justin Timberlake can sing. But he would have been helpless at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Nick Carter? Yeah, he’s cute, but would he have coped with defeat at Gettysburg by turning to his adjutant and crying out, ‘Too bad! TOO bad. OH! TOO BAD’? Doubtful.”
In retrospect, I see how awkward this was. Not just awkward. This was an ill-advised crush with centuries of history against it. Centuries. And justly so.
“Oh God,” you’re probably saying right now. “Ahhh, you are some kind of horrible racist person.”
All I can do is tell you “I’m not, I’m really not, I promise,” but that’s never as instantly convincing as you want it to be. Starting a sentence with “I’m not a racist, but” is almost universally a poor choice. The only safe end to that sentence is to get up, walk silently away, and spend the rest of your life battling injustice.
But let me at least try to explain.
My fixation with the Civil War started in the fifth grade. We had to read historical biographies. I beelined to the L shelf a second too late to grab the Abraham Lincoln book. The Robert E. Lee biography was free, though, and I read it cover to cover. I was hooked.
I read six biographies of the man, each progressively worse, some with passages about his sex life that I demanded my history teacher explain to me. “When he wrote to a female acquaintance on her wedding night, ‘How did you disport yourself, my child? Did you go off like a torpedo cracker on Christmas morning?’,” I asked, “what did he mean? The biographer says the innuendo is obvious, but I have racked my brain and discovered nothing obvious about it.”
“Er,” Ms. Borchart said. “Er. Have your parents explain it.”
The trouble with most biographies of Robert E. Lee is that they are written by unremorseful former Confederates with names like Jefferson Davis Pickett “Die Sherman Die” Jackson and they have titles like, Robert E. Lee: God’s General and Robert E. Lee: Like Jesus, but More Honorable. How incredible, I thought, paging through them, that such a genuinely superior human had ever been so maligned by history. Why wasn’t EVERY middle school named after him, instead of just a couple in Virginia? Where was his picture in all our textbooks?
I set out to set the record straight.
“Duty is the sublimest word in our language,” I scrawled on the designated Meaningful Quote space we each were given on our desks. “Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.—Robert E. Lee.” I cut out his picture and glued it on my history textbook.
My parents tried to rescue me from an obsession they quite correctly realized would be deeply embarrassing later. For Christmas, my mother gave me a book called Lee Considered, which offered a critical perspective on Robert E. Lee. I refused to even skim it.
They looked on, helpless, as I carried my Lucky Stuffed Robert E. Lee figurine to my progressive middle school to bring me good for- tune on my exams. Lucky Stuffed Robert had distinguished gray hair and rode a little stuffed replica of Lee’s horse Traveller.
They kept trying to sit me down and explain that, while I knew that Robert E. Lee was a gentle soul who was followed around by a friendly chicken on his campaigns, and that he was clearly not a racist because of one apocryphal anecdote I had found in the third book about his postwar career, maybe other people did not know that. Maybe I could keep my voice down in this restaurant so that people did not come over and chide them for Passing Their Awful Retrograde Views on to an Innocent Child. Would I like a book about General Grant? How about a nice book about General Grant? General ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Grant was really cool. He smoked cigars! Once he got arrested for speeding . . . with a horse! Didn’t I want to get into General Grant?
No, I said. I was adamant. What Robert and I had was real, and I knew it.
Every conversation was a land mine. Scratch any subject and I could find a Robert E. Lee connection.
My high school put on Les Misérables. “Les Misérables!” I said. “That reminds me of a great joke from the Civil War era, when someone asked an old Southern lady, ‘Hey, have you heard of Les Misérables’ and she said, ‘Well, they’re a darn sight better than Grant’s Miserables!’ ”
There was a silence.
“That was the punch line,” I added.
At home, our cat jumped on the dinner table. “Get that cat off the table,” my dad said.
“Robert E. Lee’s cats used to sit on the dinner table,” I volunteered, cheerily. “I found it in his wartime letters.”
The cat looked menacingly at us. She got vicious if you tried to remove her from a surface, hissing and lashing out at everyone around her, like General McClellan if you tried to get him to move his army before he was ready.
“See?” my mother said. “There’s precedent.”
“Well,” my father said, looking a little pained, “if it was good enough for Robert E. Lee . . .”
Back at school, we studied sexually transmitted diseases. “Gon-orrhea!” I exclaimed. “Robert E. Lee’s corps commander A. P. Hill had that!”
“How do you know these things?”
I shrugged modestly. “You read a few biographies, you pick these things up.”
. . .
Online it was worse, if that were possible. My screen name was RELee[string of number I should probably not divulge]. (Embarrass- ing old screen names are the lower-back tattoos of the Internet age.) I spent hours in AOL Reference chat rooms pretending that I actu- ally was Robert E. Lee, because I was unclear on the concept of how screen names worked.
The conversation usually went something like this:
ScreenName2: A/S/L? ScreenName3: 42 M Texas.
RELee: 61, but vigorous/M/The Maryland countryside, astride my loyal horse Traveller
RELee: Good evening to all.
XXXlubeee7: want 2 see sexxxy vids of Britney & Xtina mud wrestling?
RELee: I am content in my marriage to Mary Custis Lee, thank you. What think you of the present time of trial?
ScreenName3: haha HI Robert
RELee: Good evening to you, sir. Have you news of General Stuart? I fear that he is riding around the Union army again, in defiance of my orders.
(XXXlubeee7 has left the chat) (ScreenName2 has left the chat)
RELee: Ah, I see Mary is calling. I must leave you, gentlemen. Remember, duty is the sublimest word in our language.
Finally I became discouraged and stopped going in. What was the point? If they were just going to talk about sexy mud wrestling, I had nothing to contribute.
My love life was rather quiet. I knew sex had something to do with torpedo crackers and Christmas and that if you had it you might get gonorrhea like A. P. Hill. But if you wanted a hobby that would introduce you to large crops of good-looking men, sitting alone with a mound of Civil War books was not really the best choice.
In the books themselves it was hard to find good-looking men who were not lying in the middle of a ditch with a bayonet protrud- ing from their vital regions. Of course, Robert E. Lee stood head and shoulders over most men in these books—literally. He was five foot eleven. His West Point classmates called him “the Marble Model.” Yeah they did, I thought, gazing rapt at the picture of him in my locker. He also had size four and a half shoes, which worried me a little, but I had heard that this correlation was an urban legend anyway. Besides, it was unlikely that we were ever going to con- summate this union. I wasn’t going to be a home wrecker.
I mean, it was all very well, in theory, to feel a deep passion for a guy like Robert with nice wavy hair, good posture, and a keen grasp of nineteenth-century military strategy. But this was a married man! He had six lovely children: Custis, Fitzhugh, Rooney, Robbie, Anne, and Agnes, who was afflicted with neuralgia. And his wife, Mary Custis Lee, had been a real trouper. According to the guide at Arlington House, she was a big believer in hygiene, back in an era when everyone else still thought the best way to keep you disin- fected was to pack your wounds with salt and mutter runes at you. This was why all her children had been born so healthy. Did I really want to ask Robert E. Lee to betray his values by cheating on his wife? Who did I think I was?
I can attest that Not Being a Historical Homewrecker was a sincere concern because I recently found a scene I wrote at a sleepover in sixth or seventh grade when my friends asked me to describe my crush. It ran as follows:
Lee leaned against the door panel, waiting, waiting. He was waiting for her, his visitor from the future. He had staked much on this, her theory of time, that nothing they did would affect him, but was still nervous.
A knock—she was there.
“Alexandra!” he exclaimed. She ran to him, entered his arms, and she felt his strength. She pulled back.
“Let’s go in,” she said. They turned to enter, but Lee stopped her gently and leaned toward her, his arms weaving around her slight waist. “I love you,” he murmured, and they kissed on the lips, a long slow kiss that was just long enough for him to use his hands.
This was the first, if not the most embarrassing, of my Civil War writings. I heard Faulkner wrote about the Civil War, so I slogged through Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. Afterward, everything I wrote consisted of thick clusters of overwrought adjectives and slightly dazed nouns huddled together without commas and erratically italicized, with the occasional pronoun wandering the lines between them trying to figure out whom it belonged to. This influence culminated in a hideous four-hundred-page tangle of a novel that I called The Sisters of Mountingbrook, about two neighbor families in the Old South, one of which had a plucky pair of daughters who attended all-girls’ schools and learned self-sufficiency, the other of which had two sons, one of whom was deeply insecure about his masculinity because he had fallen in love with his college roommate while they gazed out the window discussing states’ rights. Once, I forced it on a houseguest. “Wow,” she said. “This had so many more words than I was expecting.”
But it wasn’t like I could actually make my way back to the Civil War era and do anything about all these feelings, could I?
Then I learned about reenactment.
When I first got invited to go reenacting, I was ecstatic. It was like I had gotten a golden ticket, except instead of going to a giant, sprawling chocolate factory full of every wonder a child’s imagination could conjure, I got to go to a gross muddy field full of bearded men with bayonets who wanted a do-over for the Civil War.
In general, the people who show up in droves with bayonets and rifles and authentic canteens in hand are not the people who think the war went right the first time. Which is why someone at every Civil War reenactment looks out over the field and jokes, “How on earth did the Union win when they were so hopelessly outnumbered?”
In fact, the most satisfying reenactment I ever attended was at a little town that did the battle twice, once as a Union victory and once as a Confederate, so that everyone would leave happy. If only the people running the real war had been so considerate.
The man who had extended the invitation was Mr. D, the history teacher at the all-boys’ school across the way. He had a beard and was part of a historical Southern rock band called Johnny Reb and the Lost Cause. We listened to their CD, Sabers and Roses, as we bumped along toward the reenactment in Mr. D’s large white van full of authentic Confederate gear and camping equipment.
Johnny Reb and the Lost Cause played historical, guitar-driven rock whose target audience was Confederate cavalry generals. On their Web site the slogan reads, “It ain’t over—it’s just the longest cease-fire in history.”
Mr. D’s major contribution to the CD was an impassioned vocal on “Maryland, My Maryland,” not just the first verse, but all the grimy old verses about how Maryland hoped to join the Confederacy and how it violently hated Abraham Lincoln. “The despot’s heel is on thy shore,” he sang. “Maryland, my Maryland. His torch is at thy temple door. Maryland, my Maryland. Avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore and be the battle queen of yore, Maryland my Maryland.”
They also covered “Brown Sugar.”
Mr. D’s whole family came along on the trip—his son as a drummer boy, his daughter as a camp follower. She walked around barefoot and cooked us breakfast over the campfire.
And—wonder of wonders—there was a boy my age.
His name was Winfield. He was shorter than I was, with blond hair. Dressed as a Union messenger boy, he was striking, and we took to each other at once.
He wasn’t dead or from 1830, but I was willing to overlook these deficiencies because he looked like Haley Joel Osment. He had al- mond eyes, which is something I have always wanted to be able to write in a sentence describing a real human being. Now I just need to meet someone with “bedroom eyes” or “roseleaf lips” and I will be all set to go.
We were sitting by the campfire one night under the pines, watching the flames die, poking with a stick at the glass bottle some- one had allowed to fall in among the piled logs. Over at the band- stand, music started up. There was a dance. Fiddle tunes wafted over to us as the light leached slowly out of the sky and the fireflies sparked to life in the pine trees.
I smiled at Winfield in what I thought was a winning manner and flexed my personality sensually. Given that I was wearing a man’s full Civil War uniform, white shirt tucked into giant baggy pants with suspenders and a cap covering my hair, I had to rely a lot more on my personality and a lot less on my raw physical magnetism than usual. I fidgeted with my suspenders. The pants were much too large for me. They hung baggily off my hips. Even under the hat you could tell I was a girl. My growth spurt had showed up early and decisively, like Buford’s cavalry at Gettysburg. I was wearing a training bra by fifth grade, and I got to stand at the back of all the class photos. By middle school we had begun to sort our heights out, unlike the boys who were just getting the uneven growth spurts that made them look like they came from different breeds—clumps of dachshunds standing between gangly greyhounds and the occasional malamute, yet all technically classed under the heading “dog.”
But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was lost in Winfield’s eyes, like certain parts of the Army of Northern Virginia had been lost during critical portions of the Battle of the Wilderness.
“Let’s go check out the dance,” Winfield suggested.
I began to feel the kind of nervous, electric excitement that people liken to butterflies taking off and landing and beating around your stomach. I felt the way cannons surely felt when you had packed them with powder and canister according to specifications and a man was standing next to them holding the string that would ignite the fuse.
I felt the way Atlanta felt after Sherman got through with it, by which I mean “my entire body was on fire,” not “deeply resentful of all Northerners now and forever and hey whoops there go all my landmarks.”
I felt the way a torpedo cracker probably felt right before Christmas morning, if you had to put a fine point on it.
We neared the bandstand, talking of this and that. The moon was up. Damn, I thought, glancing up at it. I began to see what all those poets had been getting at.
Maybe we would dance.
No, that was stupid. Dancing was stupid. At dances, I was always the person who stood flush against the clammy auditorium wall shouting what I took to be insightful remarks over the blasts of *NSYNC. (“GETTYSBURG WAS LONGSTREET’S FAULT!” “Who?” “LONGSTREET!”) I couldn’t dance. I especially couldn’t Virginia Reel. It looked intricate and impossible, like knitting but with humans.
“You don’t want to dance, do you?” Winfield said. He said the word like it was something unpleasant you had to pick up with tweezers.
“No!” I said. “No, sir. No, thank you.”
The music continued to waft up from the bandstand. The danc- ers completed their reel and began to drift to and fro in the moon- light, couples dotting the grass, their shadows mingling. A firefly flickered on and off.
We stopped under a tree, and as we talked I became aware that we were gradually moving closer, like the Union and Confederate armies converging on Gettysburg in June of 1863, clumsily and without the usual cavalry reconnaissance.
“Alexandra,” Winfield said. He leaned toward me.
“Yes?” I leaned in as well, making certain that my feet were pointing toward him. I had read that pointing your feet toward someone was a sign of interest. The moonlight caught on his up- turned face. This is how it’s going to go, I thought. This is how it’s going to go! Was this, I wondered, how General Pickett felt at the start of his fateful two-mile walk? A little nervous, sure, but at least confident that his hair looked good.*
He leaned closer. I leaned closer.
“What do you think about world politics?” he asked. “Ahmrrgh,” I managed, swallowing. I began the long lean backward. No, that was how General Pickett felt.
The battle itself was uneventful. Marching and more marching through buggy dry grass with an authentic nineteenth-century fab- ric-covered canteen clanking against your thigh. Plenty of time to ponder exactly what had gone wrong.
For me the essence of reenacting is those moments when things could have gone differently. If the troops had just swept over the crest of the hill. If. If. If only Ewell had moved. If only I had moved. If only someone had moved.
But no one did, and that was just the way it went.
The funny thing about this embarrassing piece of my past is that it coincides with an embarrassing piece of America’s past—that ill-advised fixation with the Lost Cause, the One That Got Away, historically speaking, the abusive ex who suddenly became the sum of his politest moments and most dashing cavalry maneuvers because you didn’t actually have to live with him.
Winfield was just the first in what would be a long series of romantic anticlimaxes; I’d reach what George W. Bush in his memoir calls a Decision Point, and—nothing.
“You’re intimidating,” my mother reassured me. “I think guys find you intimidating.” She made me sound like a heavily fortified position with lots of Napoleon cannons peering over my battlements. Like Vicksburg, I thought. Of course even Vicksburg had fallen eventually. I just needed to wait for Union troops to blockade my harbor as part of the Anaconda Plan.
Anaconda Plan. That sounded like it could be a way in. “Hey,” you could say to a guy, “is that your Anaconda plan or are you just happy to see me?” This was a lot better than the other Civil War–re- lated pickup lines I had come up with. (“Hey, are you the fire that killed General Stonewall Jackson? Because you seem friendly!” “He’s a total John Brown—crazy, bearded, but definitely hung.”)
With time, the passion faded. Every so often a trapping of my for- mer life would flare up unexpectedly, like an appendix.
“Don’t send your college application from THAT e-mail address,” my mother said, as I fired up RELee.
“Why not?” I asked.
She gave me a look. “They’ll think you’re some kind of horrible racist.”
“I’m not!” I said. “And Robert E. Lee wasn—” She gave me another look.
“Oh my God,” I said. “You’re right.”
I got a new e-mail address. Robert E. Lee faded back into the past, in my life if not in our nation’s history.
I went to college, made new friends. We were all grown-up, we assured one another. Not like then.
“I had such embarrassing celebrity crushes in middle school,” my new friends said.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “We’ve all been there.”
God, that first infatuation is embarrassing. Even the ones that aren’t doomed from the start.
It’s all so much worse now, with the Internet there. The Internet is like having an elephant for a drinking buddy. It knows all your most mortifying secrets—and it never forgets. You know that somewhere out there, always, lumbering along the savanna, is a record of every embarrassing thing you have ever done or thought, unless you’ve had the presence of mind to mortify yourself exclusively in longhand.
But you never think like that at the time. This is your first love. You have to carve it into your screen names and tattoo it on your Tumblr. You don’t even care how it looks.
When you love it, you love it so much that all you can see are the bright spots. You love it so much because you have filled it up with little pieces of yourself, all the brightest bits, because that is what love means, that first, that most shocking, that most unrequited love—when you first find yourself in someone else, or think you do.
This is the thing that comes burning out of you, this is the thing you have to talk about again and again and again, it is the song you never tire of playing, the count creeping up into the thousands of thousands, the page you keep turning back to read over again.
But anything you loved, however intensely, becomes mortifying the moment you cease to love it. That is love’s curse and power—you miss all the parts that drive everyone else bonkers. Then one day it’s over and you notice: He gurgles when he talks. She’s not as funny as you thought. He’s a Confederate general.
* His hair never looked that good, to be completely honest. You know who had good hair? Custer.