Marse Robert Again

Robert E. Lee

In my very first post for the Science League of America—“Did Robert E. Lee Come from an Ape?”—I indulged my avocational interest in the American Civil War by discussing a scene in the 1993 film Gettysburg and the 1974 novel The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, on which the film was based. In the novel, the Confederate general James Longstreet tells a visiting British officer about a previous conversation: “Well, we were talking on that. Finally agreed that Darwin was probably right. Then one fella said, with great dignity he said, ‘Well, maybe you are come from an ape, and maybe I am come from an ape but General Lee, he didn’t come from no ape’” (emphasis in original). In the film, the words are put in the mouth of George Pickett (he of the famous bloody charge), and he’s expressing his own opinion, not that of a third party, but the joke is basically the same.

I wondered then whether the joke was anachronistic, though. My reservations weren’t due to Darwin’s reticence in the Origin of Species about human evolution—he only hinted that “light will be thrown on the origin of man and its history”—since his readers were able to see the implications nevertheless, as the early reviews of the book show. Rather, although the first American edition of the Origin was published in early 1860, I wondered whether career army officers like Longstreet (serving in Texas before the war) and Pickett (serving in the Pacific Northwest before the war) would have had the opportunity and the inclination to read it, or even popular reviews of it, before or during the war. To know for sure, I concluded, “What I really need to read, I guess, is a dissertation on The Popular Reception of Evolution among American Armed Forces, 1859–1865!”

Well, such a dissertation is still unknown to me. But in looking through Carlyle Marney’s “Dayton’s Long Hot Summer,” a chapter in D-Days at Dayton: Reflections on the Scopes Trial (1965), I found a clue. Marney (1916–1978) was a Baptist preacher born in Harriman, Tennessee, about forty miles northwest of Dayton—close enough that as a high school student he played sports against its high school teams. He received his A.B. degree from Carson-Newman College (now University) in Jefferson City, Tennessee, and his Th.M. and Th.D. degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. At the time he wrote the chapter, he was the senior minister at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, the author of five books, and a national voice advocating business ethics, racial equality, and church-state separation.

In his chapter, Marney asks, “Have you heard the old saw that Darwin’s bomb was sixty years exploding in the South? It is not so. By the winter of 1863 on the Rappahannock River in Confederate camps the ordinary Rebel knew a song to the effect that while he, the hardtack and ramrod type, was probably descended from a monkey this certainly did not apply to ‘Marse Robert’ E. Lee!” No reference is provided, but it certainly didn’t sound like a fiction on Marney’s part. And it occurred to me that, while writing the original blog post, I hadn’t considered the possibility that Shaara was relying on a source for the joke rather than concocting it himself for his novel. There’s no reason to suppose that Shaara was reading Marney’s chapter, but perhaps they were both relying on a common source. So I returned to the Civil War literature to check.

As it happens, it was easy to identify a plausible source: Four Years under Marse Robert (1903) by Robert Stiles (1836–1905). Although Stiles was born in Kentucky, he was reared in the North, graduating from Yale College in 1859. During a visit to Richmond, Virginia, in 1860, however, he found himself surprisingly at home in the South. When Virginia seceded in 1861, he abandoned his studies at Columbia Law School and moved to Virginia, where he enlisted in the Richmond Howitzers. His memoir was popular, with three editions published during his lifetime and subsequent editions in 1910, 1977, and 1988. And in it there appears: “The proviso with which a ragged rebel accepted the doctrine of evolution, that ‘the rest of us may have descended or ascended from monkeys but it took a God to make Marse Robert,’ had more than mere humor in it.”

The phrasing of that sentence suggests that Stiles was quoting a previous account. Although he doesn’t offer a citation, I found, in J. William Jones’s Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1874), a plausible precursor: “One night some soldiers were overheard discussing the tenets of atheism around their camp-fire, when a rough, honest fellow cut short the discussion by saying: ‘Well, boys, the rest of us may have developed from monkeys; but I tell you none less than a God could have made such a man as “Marse Robert!”’” (emphasis in original). Jones (1836–1909) served, and attained celebrity, as a chaplain in the Confederate Army. The report isn’t contemporaneous, but Jones was writing less than a decade after the war, so I think that it’s reasonable to regard the anecdote as veridical. If so, Shaara’s joke isn’t anachronistic.

Neither in Stiles nor in Jones is there any mention of a song, however. So either Marney was embroidering on their accounts or he was remembering reading—or even hearing—the song from elsewhere. For what it’s worth, I haven’t been able to find any reference to such a song. I hate to disappoint the music-loving section of my readership, though, so here instead, quoted from Marney’s chapter, is “that dreadful ditty everybody sang”:

You can’t make a monkey out of me
Just because I came from Tennessee
I refuse to think
That I’m the missing link
I ain’t got no monkey manners[,]
Gee, I [even] hate bananas!

What ditty is it? In his article on “Scopes Trial and Fundamentalism in the United States” in the Encyclopedia of Life Sciences (2001), Joe Cain identifies the song as “Evolution Blues” (1925) and describes it as anonymous; if he’s right about the title and the date, then it’s by Jean Harmon and Walter Goodwin. On YouTube you can enjoy the instrumental version as performed by Jud Hill’s Blue Devils.