Robert E. Lee after the Civil War
Robert E. Lee from a photograph taken after the war.
Picture taken from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: III: Retreat from Gettysburg , p.248
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Robert E. Lee Jr.: The Legend’s Last Son Followed the Family to War
In a modern painting entitled "Chance Meeting," artist Dan Nance portrays an encounter between General Robert E. Lee and his youngest son and namesake on the Second Manassas Battlefield. (Painting by Dan Nance)
After serving as a junior officer, ‘Rob’ Lee wrote a renowned chronicle of his father’s life
IT WASN’T EASY LIVING in the shadow of the Confederacy’s greatest general, but Robert E. Lee Jr. had an interesting and accomplished Civil War career. He fought in the artillery and cavalry and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He later became one of his father’s greatest chroniclers through the publication of Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee in 1904.
Robert Edward Lee Jr. was the sixth of his parents’ seven children. The youngest of three boys, he was born October 27, 1843, atArlington Plantation, the home of his mother, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of George Washington. Rob’s other grandfather was Revolutionary War cavalryman “Light Horse” Harry Lee.
Robert E. Lee Jr. poses as a toddler with his mother, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)
The family’s military tradition had its challenges. As a Regular Army officer, the elder Lee was gone for long periods conducting engineering work on military defenses in Virginia, New York, Maryland, and Georgia. When the Mexican War broke out, Captain Lee served as an engineer in Winfield Scott’s forces. In Recollections and Letters, Rob said his earliest memory of his father was of him returning home from Mexico after an absence of nearly two years. According to Rob, his father didn’t recognize him and kissed Rob’s playmate by accident. It would not be the last time Rob’s father failed to recognize his son.
As was true of the other Lee children, Rob received an excellent education. He first attended school in Baltimore, while his father was serving at Fort Carroll. When Robert E. Lee moved to West Point, N.Y., in 1852 to serve as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, Rob followed. Rob remembered his father helping him with Latin and teaching him how to ride a horse. But Rob wrote, “I saw but little of my father after we left West Point” in 1855, when the senior Lee was ordered to St. Louis in preparation for his next assignment out West, chasing Comanche warriors across the hot and arid Texas plains.
Despite his father’s absences, “it was impossible to disobey him,” Rob recalled. “My mother I could sometimes circumvent and at times took liberties with her orders…but exact obedience to every mandate of my father was a part of my life and being.” From November 1857 to February 1860, Robert E. Lee returned to Arlington to settle the estate of George Washington Parke Custis. Young Rob had another couple of years to enjoy with his father.
In contrast to his father and brothers, Rob was not interested in pursuing a military education. He attended the University of Virginia, which in the prewar period was a raucous, all-male institution where students drank, shot pistols, and broke things. Rob might have been
Robert Jr. grew up at Arlington Plantation while his father was stationed at army posts for long periods. This June 28, 1864, photo shows Union troops occupying the Lee home. (Library of Congress)
full of youthful energy, but like his father, he was also religious. In May 1860, he underwent a spiritual conversion. “How are you getting along with your God,” he wrote his sister Mildred in January 1861. “O! my sister,” he said, “neglect not him. I have suffered much from neglecting him.”
When the Civil War broke out, Rob—not yet 18 years old—was an eager volunteer. In the spring of 1861, young men from the University of Virginia organized military companies, and Rob became a commissioned officer in the “Southern Guard.” He marched with this unit all the way to Winchester before Governor John Wise ordered the students back to Charlottesville. In December 1861, Rob wrote there were only 50 students left at the university—down from 650 the previous year—because so many had enlisted in the Confederate Army.
Rob grew up in a thriving slaveholding society, and his racial views reflected that reality. In January 1862, a few months before he reenlisted, Rob visited White House plantation, the home of his brother William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, better known as “Rooney.” Rob wrote to Mildred that “the most delightful thing about the place is the set of negroes. They are the real old Virginny kind, as polite as possible devoted to their master & mistress, who are devoted to them & who do every thing for them.”
Robert Jr.’s older brothers, Maj. Gen. William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, left, and Maj. Gen. Custis Lee also served in the Army of Northern Virginia. Both were captured by Union troops. (From left: Library of Congress Heritage Auctions)
On March 28, 1862, Rob joined the Rockbridge Artillery as a private, and with that unit experienced his first fighting in the Shenandoah Valley. During the first few weeks of his service, the Confederate Army was in a difficult moment of transition. In April, the Confederate Congress passed a controversial conscription act, the first in American history. The act drafted men from the ages of 18 to 35 and kept them for three years or until the end of the war. The act led to the reorganization and consolidation of regiments. “The whole army seems very much dissatisfied,” Rob wrote to his father on April 23. He noted there were “a good many desertions among the militia & the valley men who refuse to leave their homes behind them.” Rob himself was not discouraged, and he looked down on those men of wavering patriotism.
In May at Front Royal, Va., Confederates routed a much smaller force of Federals under Colonel John Reese Kenly. Rob wrote of overrunning Federal camps and the men helping themselves to bacon, sugar, coffee, and other luxuries. We “got all kinds of sweetmeats,” Rob wrote his father, “the most delicious canned fruit of all Kinds ginger cakes by the barrels sugar candy & all Kinds of ‘nick nacks.’” Rob said he made a “hearty meal” of “bread & butter ginger cakes & sugar wh[ich] helped me out, for I was nearly starved.” The young artilleryman said the Confederate damage amounted to $100,000.
Victory did not erase the harsh realities of war. Rob saw one of his friends badly wounded in the face at Front Royal. As for himself, he was exhausted. “I think I have been through as hard a time as I ever will see in this war,” he told his father. “For twenty four days we have been marching & this is the fourth day we have rested Through rain mud water woods up & down mountains & for two weeks half starved.” The hard fighting, though, energized him. “I am now as hearty as a buck feeling better than I ever did in my life,” he reassured his father.
Rob did not see General Lee again until the Seven Days Battles. By then, his father had been put in command of the Army of Northern Virginia and was fighting to drive Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac from the outskirts of Richmond. Rob remembered that by then, “short rations, the bad water, and the great heat, had begun to tell on us, and I was pretty well worn out.”
At the Second Battle of Manassas, Rob, serving as the “No. 1” man in charge of ramming artillery rounds down his cannon’s barrel, was again in the thick of combat. “My face and hands were blackened with powder-sweat,” he recalled, “and the few garments I had on were ragged and stained with the red soil of that section.” Rob encountered his father on the battlefield and managed to get his attention. “Well, my man, what can I do for you?” he remembered his father saying. “Why, General don’t you know me?” Rob replied. Once his father realized who he was talking to, he was “much amused at my appearance and most glad to see that I was safe and well.”
After the war Robert Jr. settled at Romancoke, a plantation on the Pamunkey River, but struggled as a farmer and missed his family in Lexington. (Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy, 1807-1870. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897)
Shortly after Second Manassas, the Army of Northern Virginia headed north toward the Potomac River and Maryland. During the busy days of marching, Rob recalled he “occasionally saw the commander-in-chief, on the march, or passed the headquarters close enough to recognise him and members of his staff, but as a private soldier in Jackson’s corps did not have much time…for visiting …. ”
His next opportunity to talk to his father came on September 17, the day of the notorious Battle of Sharpsburg. During that bloody fight, when 23,000 men became casualties, Rob remembered that “our battery had been severely handled, losing many men and horses. Having three guns disabled, we were ordered to withdraw, and while moving back we passed General Lee and several of his staff, grouped on a little knoll near the road …. Captain Poague, commanding our battery, the Rockbridge Artillery, saluted, reported our condition, and asked for instructions.”
The general listened to Poague’s report and told him to take his damaged guns to the rear, but to prepare his remaining cannon for more action. As he talked to Poague, Lee’s eyes drifted over the battle-worn men on the battery, once again apparently not recognizing his youngest son. Rob recalled that he approached his father, said hello, then asked, “General, are you going to send us in again?” Replied the commander, “Yes, my son, you all must do what you can to help drive these people back.”
By the fall of 1862, Rob, his father, and his brother and cavalry officer Rooney had survived several bloody campaigns, but the family suffered loss all the same. In October, his sister Annie died of disease in North Carolina, where she had fled to escape the ravages of war in Virginia. “I shall never see her any more in this world,” Rob wrote of Annie.
As much as possible, the family tried to stay together. Rooney was promoted from colonel of the 9th Virginia Cavalry to brigadier general and leadership of North Carolina and Virginia troopers. Rob became a lieutenant and one of Rooney’s staff officers and remained optimistic about the Confederacy’s future. “I think we’ll whip old Burnside badly when we meet him,” he wrote in late November 1862. Events proved him correct. Lee’s forces soundly defeated Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside in December at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Months of relative inactivity followed. Rob fought at Chancellorsville on May 1-3, 1863, but he did not march north with the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg Campaign. That might have been because Rooney was wounded at Brandy Station on June 9 and captured soon thereafter and sent to a Northern prison, where he languished for months. With his brother out of the army, Rob worked for a while with the Ordnance Department in Richmond.
Rob was not depressed by the news of his father’s July defeat at Gettysburg. Later that month, he told his mother that “the men & officers are in very good spirits & very desirous of establishing their fame firmly, which they think has been a little shaken at Gettysburg.” By then, Rob had rejoined the cavalry, serving in Colonel John R. Chambliss’ 13th Virginia Cavalry, and he defended his fellow horsemen against accusations that the cavalry “never does anything.” “Truth is we do all the hard work of the Army,” he said, noting there was “freedom in this branch which is delightful.”
Rob remembered that at the time of the 1864 Overland Campaign, morale was still high in the Army of Northern Virginia. He wrote, “it never occurred to me, and to thousands and thousands like me, that there was any occasion for uneasiness.” The men of the Army of Northern Virginia “firmly believed that ‘Marse Robert’…would bring us out of this trouble all right.” Rob was wounded at the May fighting near Spotsylvania, but he recovered and rejoined his command. In a July 1864 letter to his sister Agnes, he wrote of soldiers getting plenty to eat, and he was impatient to “turn our horses out on the fine grass in Maryland & Pennsylvania.”
Charlotte “Lottie” Taylor Haxall married Robert Jr. in November 1871 but died of tuberculosis in September 1872. (Beaux and Brains of the 60’s, G.W. Dillingham Co, 1909)
During the Petersburg siege, on August 15, 1864, he was wounded slightly in the arm at the Second Battle of Deep Bottom. The wound took Rob out of action for three weeks.
By 1865, Rob’s outlook had grown darker and he was pessimistic about his future. “I don’t know whether I shall ever see you again,” he told his sister, Mildred. But he could still be funny, warning Agnes in March: “Don’t let Sheridan get my trunk,” referring to Union Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan.
In the final days of the war, Rob had a horse shot from under him, an event he remembered happening on April 2 or 3. Thankfully for him, he was cut off from the rest of the army. He said he was “surprised” when he heard of the news of the surrender. He rejoined his command and accompanied the remnants of the Jefferson Davis government to Greensboro, N.C. That was as far as he made it. He eventually returned to Richmond and was paroled in May 1865.
With the South devastated, Rob tried his hand at farming. He settled in King William County, Va., roughly 40 miles east of Richmond. As the owner of “Romancoke,” he ran a small plantation on the Pamunkey River. The estate was left to Rob in 1857 by his grandfather, George Washington Parke Custis. At Romancoke, Rob—far from his family in Lexington—found himself a lonely bachelor and struggling farmer.
Unlike his oldest brother Custis, who became president of Washington and Lee University, and Rooney, who later became a U.S. congressman, Rob kept a low profile after the war and his racial views had not progressed beyond condescending references to African Americans. In February 1866, he told a sister about “Old Coon,” a black woman helping him keep house. A year later, he dismissed the plight of the freed people of the South, saying, they were “stirred up by baptizing & politics,” but added “that theory would never be demonstrated by Cuffee.”
He still received advice from his father. “You must have a nice wife,” the elder Lee told him in August 1867. “I do not like you being so
lonely. I fear you will fall in love with celibacy.” General Lee traveled to Romancoke several times to see his bachelor son. Rob apparently cared little about entertaining, and after one trip General Lee decided his son needed a proper set of silverware. The general last visited Rob in the spring of 1870.
The news of his father’s death on October 12, 1870, hit Rob hard. After the general’s death, he lamented his own “selfishness & weakness” and praised his father for the “example of true manliness he set me all through his life.” In contrast, he felt he had “done so little for him.”
Rob’s uncertain finances, the shabbiness of his estate, and the fact that he was far from family and city life slowed his prospects of finding a wife. After a long courtship, in November 1871 he married 23-year-old Charlotte Taylor Haxall, but the marriage to “Lottie,” as she was known, proved brief. She died of tuberculosis on September 22, 1872. “I try to believe that all is for the best,” he wrote after her death, “but it is very hard—hard to believe, harder still to feel so.” A year later, Rob lost his mother, who had suffered from debilitating ill health. A few weeks before her death, Rob’s sister, Agnes, had also died.
In 1875, Rob departed for England with his sister Mildred. He stayed there for a year. Rob eventually moved from Romancoke to Washington, D.C., where he worked in the insurance business. In March 1894, Rob married Juliet Carter, the daughter of Colonel Thomas H. Carter, a Virginian who had served in the Army of Northern Virginia’s artillery.
Rob and Juliet had two daughters, Anne Carter (1897-1978) and Mary Custis (1900-1994). In 1904, Rob published Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. The book included transcriptions of his father’s letters, recollections of his spoken words, and anecdotes drawn from Rob’s memories of those of his older siblings. The book was well received and remains essential reading for Lee scholars.
Robert Jr. eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked in the insurance business and married a second time. In 1904, Robert Jr. published Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)
Rob died on October 14, 1914, and he is buried with his family in the Lee crypt in Lexington. Robert E. Lee biographer J. William Jones wrote of him, “No braver or more chivalric man ever lived, and his death is lamented by his surviving comrades of the war, and by a host of friends.”
In many ways, Robert E. Lee Jr. was a typical Confederate soldier. He was an unmarried enlisted man in his 20s who fought in the ranks and a defender of the racial status quo. He survived the war, though he saw many of his friends and comrades killed.
In other ways, his life was atypical in that he was the son of the Confederacy’s greatest warrior and a member of one of the South’s most celebrated and elite families. An unsuccessful farmer after the war, the ex-Rebel moved, ironically, to the federal capital of Washington, D.C., to seek better financial opportunities.
Rob’s career may have been humble compared with others of his generation, but his letters provide an important link between the pre- and postwar South, and he was the liveliest and funniest writer of any member of his family. His Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee remains an important source on his famous father.
Colin Woodward is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War. He lives in Richmond,
where he is host of the history and pop culture podcast “American Rambler.” He is revising a book on country singer Johnny Cash.
The Myth of the Kindly General Lee
The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.
The strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee is how few of the qualities his admirers profess to see in him he actually possessed.
Memorial Day has the tendency to conjure up old arguments about the Civil War. That’s understandable it was created to mourn the dead of a war in which the Union was nearly destroyed, when half the country rose up in rebellion in defense of slavery. This year, the removal of Lee’s statue in New Orleans has inspired a new round of commentary about Lee, not to mention protests on his behalf by white supremacists.
The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.
There is little truth in this. Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.
But even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black. Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. That ideology is known as the Lost Cause, and as the historian David Blight writes, it provided a “foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system.”
There are unwitting victims of this campaign—those who lack the knowledge to separate history from sentiment. Then there are those whose reverence for Lee relies on replacing the actual Lee with a mythical figure who never truly existed.
In the Richmond Times Dispatch, R. David Cox wrote that “for white supremacist protesters to invoke his name violates Lee’s most fundamental convictions.” In the conservative publication Townhall, Jack Kerwick concluded that Lee was “among the finest human beings that has ever walked the Earth.” John Daniel Davidson, in an essay for The Federalist, opposed the removal of the Lee statute in part on the grounds that Lee “arguably did more than anyone to unite the country after the war and bind up its wounds.” Praise for Lee of this sort has flowed forth from past historians and presidents alike.
This is too divorced from Lee’s actual life to even be classed as fan fiction it is simply historical illiteracy.
White supremacy does not “violate” Lee’s “most fundamental convictions.” White supremacy was one of Lee’s most fundamental convictions.
Lee was a slave owner—his own views on slavery were explicated in an 1856 letter that is often misquoted to give the impression that Lee was some kind of abolitionist. In the letter, he describes slavery as “a moral & political evil,” but goes on to explain that:
I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.
The argument here is that slavery is bad for white people, good for black people, and most important, better than abolitionism emancipation must wait for divine intervention. That black people might not want to be slaves does not enter into the equation their opinion on the subject of their own bondage is not even an afterthought to Lee.
Lee’s cruelty as a slave master was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”
The trauma of rupturing families lasted lifetimes for the enslaved—it was, as my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates described it, “a kind of murder.” After the war, thousands of the emancipated searched desperately for kin lost to the market for human flesh, fruitlessly for most. In Reconstruction, the historian Eric Foner quotes a Freedmen’s Bureau agent who notes of the emancipated, “In their eyes, the work of emancipation was incomplete until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited.”
Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington, Virginia, plantation, Pryor writes, nearly led to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property, one that lasted until a Virginia court forced him to free them.
When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”
Every state that seceded mentioned slavery as the cause in their declarations of secession. Lee’s beloved Virginia was no different, accusing the federal government of “perverting” its powers “not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” Lee’s decision to fight for the South can only be described as a choice to fight for the continued existence of human bondage in America—even though for the Union, it was not at first a war for emancipation.
During the invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free black Americans and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” to the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”
Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander, A. P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As the historian Richard Slotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”
The presence of black soldiers on the field of battle shattered every myth that the South’s slave empire was built on: the happy docility of slaves, their intellectual inferiority, their cowardice, their inability to compete with white people. As Pryor writes, “fighting against brave and competent African Americans challenged every underlying tenet of southern society.” The Confederate response to this challenge was to visit every possible atrocity and cruelty upon black soldiers whenever possible, from enslavement to execution.
As the historian James McPherson recounts in Battle Cry of Freedom, in October of that same year, Lee proposed an exchange of prisoners with the Union general Ulysses S. Grant. “Grant agreed, on condition that black soldiers be exchanged ‘the same as white soldiers.’” Lee’s response was that “negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange and were not included in my proposition.” Because slavery was the cause for which Lee fought, he could hardly be expected to easily concede, even at the cost of the freedom of his own men, that black people could be treated as soldiers and not things. Grant refused the offer, telling Lee that “government is bound to secure to all persons received into her armies the rights due to soldiers.” Despite its desperate need for soldiers, the Confederacy did not relent from this position until a few months before Lee’s surrender.
After the war, Lee did advise defeated southerners not to rise up against the North. Lee might have become a rebel once more, and urged the South to resume fighting—as many of his former comrades wanted him to. But even in this task Grant, in 1866, regarded his former rival as falling short, saying that Lee was “setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to be hardly realized.”
Nor did Lee’s defeat lead to an embrace of racial egalitarianism. The war was not about slavery, Lee insisted later, but if it were about slavery, it was only out of Christian devotion that white southerners fought to keep black people enslaved. Lee told a New York Herald reporter, in the midst of arguing in favor of somehow removing black people from the South (“disposed of,” in his words), “that unless some humane course is adopted, based on wisdom and Christian principles, you do a gross wrong and injustice to the whole negro race in setting them free. And it is only this consideration that has led the wisdom, intelligence and Christianity of the South to support and defend the institution up to this time.”
Lee had beaten or ordered his own slaves to be beaten for the crime of wanting to be free he fought for the preservation of slavery his army kidnapped free black people at gunpoint and made them unfree—but all of this, he insisted, had occurred only because of the great Christian love the South held for black Americans. Here we truly understand Frederick Douglass’s admonition that “between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”
Privately, according to the correspondence collected by his own family, Lee counseled others to hire white labor instead of the freedmen, observing “that wherever you find the negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find a white man, you see everything around him improving.”
In another letter, Lee wrote, “You will never prosper with blacks, and it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours. I wish them no evil in the world—on the contrary, will do them every good in my power, and know that they are misled by those to whom they have given their confidence but our material, social, and political interests are naturally with the whites.”
Publicly, Lee argued against the enfranchisement of black Americans, and raged against Republican efforts to enforce racial equality in the South. Lee told Congress that black people lacked the intellectual capacity of white people and “could not vote intelligently,” and that granting them suffrage would “excite unfriendly feelings between the two races.” Lee explained that “the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.” To the extent that Lee believed in reconciliation, it was among white people, and only on the precondition that black people would be denied political power and therefore the ability to shape their own fate.
Lee is not remembered as an educator, but his life as president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee) is tainted as well. According to Pryor, students at Washington formed their own chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and were known by the local Freedmen’s Bureau to attempt to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from the nearby black schools.
There were at least two attempted lynchings by Washington students during Lee’s tenure, and Pryor writes that “the number of accusations against Washington College boys indicates that he either punished the racial harassment more laxly than other misdemeanors, or turned a blind eye to it,” adding that he “did not exercise the near imperial control he had at the school, as he did for more trivial matters, such as when the boys threatened to take unofficial Christmas holidays.” In short, Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence toward black people carried out by his students as he was when they were carried out by his soldiers.
Lee died in 1870, as Democrats and ex-Confederates were commencing a wave of terrorist violence that would ultimately reimpose their domination over the southern states. The KKK was founded in 1866 there is no evidence Lee ever spoke up against it. On the contrary, he darkly intimated in his interview with the Herald that the South might be moved to violence again if peace did not proceed on its terms. That was prescient.
Lee is a pivotal figure in American history worthy of study. Neither the man who really existed, nor the fictionalized tragic hero of the Lost Cause, is a hero worthy of a statue in a place of honor. As one Union veteran angrily put it in 1903 when Pennsylvania was considering placing a statue of Lee at Gettysburg, “If you want historical accuracy as your excuse, then place upon this field a statue of Lee holding in his hand the banner under which he fought, bearing the legend: ‘We wage this war against a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to humanity.’” The most fitting monument to Lee is the national military cemetery the federal government placed on the grounds of his former home in Arlington.
To describe this man as an American hero requires ignoring the immense suffering for which he was personally responsible, both on and off the battlefield. It requires ignoring his participation in the industry of human bondage, his betrayal of his country in defense of that institution, the battlefields scattered with the lifeless bodies of men who followed his orders and those they killed, his hostility toward the rights of the freedmen and his indifference to his own students waging a campaign of terror against the newly emancipated. It requires reducing the sum of human virtue to a sense of decorum and the ability to convey gravitas in a gray uniform.
There are former Confederates who sought to redeem themselves—one thinks of James Longstreet, wrongly blamed by Lost Causers for Lee’s disastrous defeat at Gettysburg, who went from fighting the Union army to leading New Orleans’s integrated police force in battle against white-supremacist paramilitaries. But there are no statues of Longstreet in New Orleans.* Lee was devoted to defending the principle of white supremacy Longstreet was not. This, perhaps, is why Lee was placed atop the largest Confederate monument at Gettysburg in 1917, but the 6-foot-2-inch Longstreet had to wait until 1998 to receive a smaller-scale statue hidden in the woods that makes him look like a hobbit riding a donkey. It’s why Lee is remembered as a hero, and Longstreet is remembered as a disgrace.
The white supremacists who have protested on Lee’s behalf are not betraying his legacy. In fact, they have every reason to admire him. Lee, whose devotion to white supremacy outshone his loyalty to his country, is the embodiment of everything they stand for. Tribe and race over country is the core of white nationalism, and racists can embrace Lee in good conscience.
The question is why anyone else would.
* This article originally stated that there are no statues of Longstreet in the American South in fact, there is one in his hometown of Gainesville, Georgia. We regret the error.
Victims hid their baldness, as well as the bloody sores that scoured their faces, with wigs made of horse, goat, or human hair. Perukes were also coated with powder—scented with lavender or orange—to hide any funky aromas. That changed in 1655, when the King of France started losing his hair.
Avoid bright colors, non-traditional colors, and unusual patterns, because they make people concentrate on the clothes and not on the individual. It’s also best not to wear black, since that can seem cold and authoritative, removing a sense of sympathy for the individual.
Feature Lee After The War
After Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox courthouse on April 9, 1865, the general was pardoned by President Lincoln. He was unable to return to his estate in Arlington, Virginia, however, because it now sat in the middle of a national cemetery, overlooking the graves of thousands of union soldiers.
Lee and his family instead moved to Lexington, Virginia, where he became the president of Washington College. It is believed that he accepted this low-profile post, which paid only $1,500 a year, because he felt it unseemly to profit after such a bloody and divisive conflict. In 1865, Lee signed an amnesty oath, asking once again to become a citizen of the United States. He did so as an active encouragement for confederate soldiers to rejoin the United States.
Lee's own desire to become an American citizen fell victim to fate. His oath of allegiance was misplaced, and he was still considered a guest in his own country when he died of heart failure on October 12, 1870. Lee's oath was only discovered 100 years later in the National Archives.
On August 5, 1975, at a ceremony at Arlington House, President Gerald Ford called Lee an example to succeeding generations and had his citizenship restored. He is buried on the grounds of the former Washington College, now known as Washington and Lee University.
Image: General Robert E. Lee, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
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What America Keeps Forgetting About Robert E. Lee
John Reeves is the author of the forthcoming book The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee: the Forgotten Case Against an American Icon (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).
He was accused of treason. Only the hunger for reconciliation saved him.
Seven weeks after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Judge John C. Underwood demanded justice, while providing instructions to a federal grand jury in Norfolk, Virginia. He defined treason as “wholesale murder” that “embraces in its sweep all the crimes of the Decalogue.” This horrific act, Underwood declared, had murdered tens of thousands of young Americans during the recent war, “by the slaughter on the battlefields, and by starvation in the most loathsome dungeons.” He was outraged that the men most responsible for the rebellion – “with hands dripping with the blood of our slaughtered innocents and martyred President” – were yet still at large.
Underwood urged the grand jurors to send a message to their countrymen that future rebellions would not be tolerated, stating, “It is for you to teach them that those who sow the wind must reap the whirlwind that clemency and mercy to them would be cruelty and murder to the innocent and unborn.” He then concluded his remarks by advising that Robert E. Lee would not be protected from prosecution by his agreement with Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
On June 7, 1865, Underwood’s grand jury indicted Robert E. Lee for treason, charging him with “wickedly, maliciously, and traitorously” carrying on war against the Constitution and the “peace and dignity” of the United States of America. Lee faced death by hanging, if found guilty of the charges.
Americans today might not know about Lee’s indictment by the Norfolk grand jury. The actual indictment went missing for 72 years and many scholars remain unaware that it has been found. All told, 39 Confederate leaders would be indicted for treason by Underwood’s court.
Our amnesia about this episode becomes evident periodically. Shortly after a rally held by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said in an interview that Robert E. Lee “gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today.”
It wasn’t different back then. Confederate leaders, who placed their allegiance to their states above the federal authority, were charged with treason by the United States government. In the antiquated language of his indictment, Lee was accused of “not having the fear of God before his eyes, nor weighing the duty of his said allegiance, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil … to subvert, and to stir, move and incite insurrection, rebellion and war against the said United States of America.” Like his fellow citizens, Kelly appears unaware of this history. Somehow, we seem to have erased this event from our collective memory.
Despite President Andrew Johnson’s commitment to prosecuting the indicted rebels, the charges were eventually dropped in February 1869, after a series of false starts and procedural delays. In the end, the very understandable desire for reconciliation among both northerners and southerners after the war was deemed more important than the obligation to punish those who tried to destroy the Republic. The pervasive idea that the Civil War was just a misunderstanding between “men and women of good faith on both sides,” as General Kelly said in the interview, is a direct result of the decision to drop the treason charges against the Confederate leadership.
Even though Lee may have been an excellent soldier and a fine gentleman, he also violated the U.S. Constitution in order to defend a society built upon chattel slavery. This mustn’t be forgotten. In Trump’s America, we are witnessing the reemergence of white nationalism along with almost daily challenges to constitutional norms. In light of these alarming trends, Americans will benefit from revisiting the legal case against Robert E. Lee after the Civil War.
Initially, Lee had reason to be hopeful. General Grant intended that the Confederate soldiers would not face treason trials and severe punishments. His agreement with Lee at Appomattox concluded, “each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.” That last line has been described by the historian Bruce Catton as one of the greatest sentences in American history.
Grant maintained that Lee “would not have surrendered his army, and given up all their arms, if he had supposed that after the surrender he was going to be tried for treason and hanged.” There was another consideration as well. After having waged a brutal total war against the South, Grant wrote his wife in late April 1865 that he was “anxious to see peace restored, so that further devastation need not take place in the country.”He felt the suffering of the South in the future would “be beyond conception” and observed, “People who talk of further retaliation and punishment, except of the political leaders, either do not conceive of the suffering endured already or they are heartless and unfeeling and wish to stay at home out of danger while the punishment is being inflicted.”
Andrew Johnson, who became president after the death of Lincoln just six days after Appomattox, saw things much differently. A southerner from Tennessee, who remained loyal to the Union, Johnson was well-known for his uncompromising stance on treason. After the fall of Richmond in early April 1865, he had declared, “treason is the highest crime known in the catalogue of crimes” and “treason must be made odious and traitors must be punished.” For Johnson, death would be “too easy a punishment” for the traitors. In one of his greatest speeches, delivered in the Senate in December 1860, he said South Carolina had put itself “in an attitude of levying war against the United States.” He added, “it is treason, nothing but treason.” A few months later, Johnson declared on the Senate floor that if he were president and was faced with traitors, he would “have them arrested and if convicted, within the meaning and scope of the Constitution, by Eternal God,” he’d have them executed.
Johnson’s desire for retribution represented a stark contrast with the seemingly lenient, benevolent attitude of Abraham Lincoln. On the morning of April 10, the day after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, Johnson had hurried over to the White House so he could protest directly with the president against the indulgent terms given to Lee by Grant. Johnson believed Grant should have held Lee in prison until the administration figured out what to do with him. During the late afternoon on April 14, just hours before the attack at Ford’s Theatre, Johnson had met privately with the president, telling Lincoln he was going too easy on the rebels. Johnson noted that he’d be much, much tougher on traitors if he were president.
Upon becoming president, Johnson received widespread support for his plan to prosecute the leading rebels. Grieving northerners wrote Johnson letters saying that the assassination of Lincoln was somehow a natural result of treason against the Union. One citizen described John Wilkes Booth as having graduated from the “university of treason” that had Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee as teachers. Across the North, there was an outflow of anger over the assassination and Andrew Johnson heard the growing drumbeat for bringing Lee, Davis, and the other Confederate leaders to justice.
Before Johnson could prosecute Lee, he needed to make sure that Grant’s agreement with Lee didn’t prohibit civil charges from being filed after the war was concluded. Johnson sought advice on this subject from General Benjamin Butler, a prominent attorney from Massachusetts who had also served in the field for much of the war. After surveying the historical record, Butler argued that a parole was merely a military arrangement that allowed a prisoner “the privilege of partial liberty, instead of close confinement.” It did not in any way lessen the possibility of being tried for crimes resulting from wartime activities.
Having reviewed Lee’s agreement with Grant, Butler asserted: “Their surrender was a purely military convention and referred to military terms only. It could not and did not alter in any way or in any degree the civil rights or criminal liabilities of the captives either in persons or property as a treaty of peace might have done.” Butler then concluded “that there is no objection arising out of their surrender as prisoners of war to the trial of Lee and his officers for any offenses against municipal laws.” This finding paved the way for the Johnson administration’s decision to pursue charges against Lee in Judge Underwood’s courtroom in June 1865.
Grant fiercely objected to the decision to indict Lee and the other Confederate leaders. In a letter on Lee’s behalf to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Grant wrote:
In my opinion the officers and men paroled at Appomattox C.H. and since upon the same terms given to Lee, can not be tried for treason so long as they observe the terms of their parole…. I will state further that the terms granted by me met with the hearty approval of the President at the time, and of the country generally. The action of Judge Underwood in Norfolk has already had an injurious effect, and I would ask that he be ordered to quash all indictments found against paroled prisoners of war, and to desist from further prosecution of them.
Despite Grant’s sincerity, his beliefs about the paroles were almost certainly incorrect. It’s difficult to imagine that an agreement hammered out between two generals on a battlefield could protect thousands of men from treason charges or possible war crimes.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson differed with Grant and told him so. What happened between them remains a mystery. Between June 16 and June 20, 1865, Grant and Johnson met once or twice to discuss the indictment of Lee by the Norfolk grand jury. The two disagreed vehemently on how to handle Lee in the future. Johnson wanted to prosecute him, while Grant believed the paroles protected him from punishment for his wartime actions. Grant may have even threatened to resign his commission if Lee was arrested and prosecuted. Finally, on June 20, 1865, Attorney General James Speed wrote Norfolk District Attorney Lucius Chandler, regarding the recently indicted Confederate leaders: “I am instructed by the President to direct you not to have warrants of arrest taken out against them or any of them til further orders.”
Many writers have repeated Grant’s belief that this resulted in a “quashing” of the charges against Lee. This view is mistaken. In his letter to Chandler, Speed instructed him not to arrest them “til further orders.” Johnson and Speed were willing to concede that the paroles protected the Confederate officers as long as the war continued. The war wouldn’t officially end until the rebellion was finally put down in Texas in August 1866. Toward the end of 1865, Johnson and his cabinet decided to prosecute Jefferson Davis first instead. It made sense to begin treason trials with the former Confederate President, who was often referred to as an “arch traitor” by the northern press. Davis was being held at Fortress Monroe in Virginia and was mistakenly believed by many Americans to have been connected to the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination. If the government couldn’t win a case against Davis, then future treason trials against the rest of the Confederate leadership would be untenable, to say the least. It’s likely Lee would have been tried next, after a successful prosecution of Davis.
By early 1866, the Johnson administration had made several decisions that would have a major impact on possible cases against the former rebels. First, it had decided that treason trials must be held before a civil court rather than a military tribunal and any jury trials would be held where the crimes were committed. In the cases of Davis and Lee, the appropriate venue would be in the state of Virginia. Johnson’s cabinet also agreed that Chief Justice Salmon Chase must preside over treason trials, along with Judge John C. Underwood, in the Circuit Court serving Virginia in Richmond. Everyone believed the Chief Justice would provide legitimacy to any guilty verdicts that might be found. Plus, the abolitionist Judge Underwood was viewed as too partisan to handle the cases on his own.
The insistence that Chase preside over the Davis trial resulted in endless delays. The Chief Justice wouldn’t appear in the Circuit Court until the war officially declared over in August 1866. Once he was ready in March 1867, then it was the government’s prosecution team that needed more time. After being pushed until the spring of 1868, the trial was delayed again while Chase presided over the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. There seemed to be no end to the comedy of errors.
The postponements may have spared the Johnson administration a humiliating “not guilty” verdict in the Davis case. The decision to try treason cases in Virginia made it highly likely that one or more jurors would vote for acquittal. In 1866, Judge Underwood had told the Joint Committee on Reconstruction that the only way Davis or Lee could be convicted of treason would be with a “packed jury.” When questioned about whether he could pack a jury to convict Davis, Underwood answered, “I think it would be very difficult, but it could be done I could pack a jury to convict him I know very earnest, ardent Union men in Virginia.” Underwood eventually assembled the first mixed-race jury in Virginia history for the Davis trial, but the prosecution team was still wary. And Andrew Johnson’s racism made him extremely uncomfortable that a jury that included African Americans might decide such an important case.
Ultimately, it seemed more and more likely that the government might lose in the Davis case and Johnson, who became a lame duck in November 1868, decided to drop all of the charges against Davis, Lee, and the other 37 Confederate leaders in February 1869, just one month before the inauguration of the new president, Ulysses S. Grant. Despite Andrew Johnson’s best efforts, it’s undeniable he failed to make treason odious. There would be no convictions and punishments for the crime of treason committed during the Civil War. When Johnson left office, John Brown had been the only American in United States history executed for treason.
Johnson blamed Chase for the failure, citing the delays of 1865 and 1866. He also faulted Congress for impeaching him. If Johnson had been fair, he too, would have had to accept some of the blame. His administration’s decision to try treason cases where the crimes were actually committed assumed that impartial juries could be found in these places. This was wishful thinking. Only military commissions or northern juries were likely to convict Davis, Lee, and the other Confederate leaders of treason.
In the end, his administration offered amnesty to all participants in the rebellion, while insisting treason had in fact been committed by the Confederate leadership. Perhaps treason had not been made odious, yet it’s also true America has never had a widespread rebellion since. The 14th Amendment made it clear that citizens now owed their primary allegiance to the federal government, not the individual states.
Years after Lee’s death, John William Jones – a chaplain at Washington College – wrote, “this noble man died ‘a prisoner of war on parole’ – his application for ‘amnesty’ was never granted, or even noticed – and the commonest privileges of citizenship, which are accorded to the most ignorant negro were denied this king of men.” Jones is not quite right in his assessment. The true story of Lee’s punishment for his role in the war is far more nuanced than Jones indicated.
The toughest penalty against Lee was the government’s decision in January 1864 to acquire his family estate at Arlington due to unpaid taxes. This was a huge loss for Lee personally and his family would not be compensated for it during his lifetime. The Arlington estate, now the site of Arlington National Cemetery, remains federal property to this day.
Lee suffered yet another penalty by the government for his role in the war, as a result of the ratification of the 14th Amendment in July 1868. According to Section 3: “No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States … shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”
In addition to being prevented from holding public office, Lee was initially prohibited from voting in his beloved Virginia after the war. Lee’s voting rights, along with other former rebels, were restored in July 1869, however. At the time of his death, Lee would have been eligible to vote in Virginia.
On Christmas Day, 1868, Johnson provided a general amnesty and pardon to everyone who participated in the rebellion, including Lee. For political reasons, Johnson never intended to reply individually to Lee’s pardon application of 1865. Johnson had decided to not personally pardon either Lee or Jefferson Davis. The latter, a bitter foe of Johnson, would never ask for one.
When we step back and look at the U.S. government’s treatment of Lee, we see that he did suffer substantial economic and political penalties for his role in commanding the armies of the Confederate States of America. Most of them, but not all, had been removed by the time of his death. When you factor in the loss of Arlington, it’s fair to say that Lee paid dearly for his decision to side with the South. Northerners and southerners nevertheless tended to view Lee’s treatment differently. Many northerners felt Lee had been lucky to escape the hangman’s noose, and should have been somewhat more conciliatory toward the government as a result. The vast majority of southerners, on the other hand, believed their hero had been treated harshly by the authorities. It made it difficult for them to restore their allegiance to a government that would act in such a way.
Today, we no longer remember the seriousness of the treason charges that were made against Lee in 1865. By forgetting, it’s been easier to remember Robert E. Lee as an “honorable man,” as John Kelly recently described him. The renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass warned future generations of Americans about the danger of forgetting this history in a speech titled “Address at the Graves of the Unknown Dead” on Decoration Day, May 30, 1871. Delivered at Arlington National Cemetery, the former location of Lee’s family estate, Douglass wondered, “I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?” He urged his audience to never forget that “victory to the rebellion meant death to the Republic.”
Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, where she covers news from the U.S. Capitol while also traveling across the country to report on how decisions in Washington affect people where they live and work.
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Excerpt: 'Robert E. Lee'
Robert E. LeeBy Noah Andre TrudeauPaperback, 256 pagesPalgrave MacmillanList price: $16
There are few figures of the American Civil War who hold a place of such reverence and importance as Robert E. Lee of Virginia. Viewed from the comfortable distance of time, his life is often reduced to its simplest components -- duty and honor, with more than a touch of military audacity. Yet from the moment he rode onto history's center stage, until he left it, he undertook a profound and seldom-acknowledged personal journey. It began and ended in
Virginia, marking moments of exceptionally dramatic turning points for Lee and America.
June 1, 1862
General Robert E. Lee, newly appointed commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, departed Richmond around 1:00 P.M. accompanied by a few aides and orderlies. They rode east to the Nine Mile Road and followed it. As they did so they passed through some of the human debris of a battle that had taken place on May 31 near a once-picturesque road intersection called Seven Pines. Under the overall command of General Joseph E. Johnston, some 20,000 Rebel soldiers had attacked a smaller Federal force holding an advanced position. At the end of the bloody day, more than 5,000 Rebels were casualties and very little had been gained. Counted among the fallen was General Johnston, whose wound was serious enough to force him to leave the field. His immediate successor in the army's chain of command quickly made it evident that he was in over his head and incapable of directing the substantial force the Confederacy had assembled to protect its capital. Later that day, Lee received a note from Confederate President Jefferson Davis which explained that Johnston was wounded and that Lee would succeed the fallen officer in command of the army.
It was a daunting, even impossible assignment. A massive U.S. army had marched and bulled its way up the Virginia Peninsula to within a few miles of Richmond. Some efforts had delayed the enemy advance, but not once was a serious blow struck. Seven Pines was supposed to change that, but at the end of the day there was scant to show for all the blood spent. The task of turning things around had been given to Lee.
He was ready. All his life, it seemed, had been leading to this moment. All his military skill, experience, leadership, and intuition would be needed if the nascent nation was to survive the next weeks. A staffer with the party pointed out the Hughes home, then serving as army headquarters. In just a few minutes, Lee would formally take command of the forces defending Richmond.
Robert E. Lee and his staff drew up before the humble house and dismounted. Soon it would be all his responsibility to find a way to fight for peace.
April 9, 1865
General Robert E. Lee looked deep into the darkness of a military field commander's worst nightmare. His once magnificent army had been cruelly whittled to a division's size by battle losses, disease, and desertion. Ahead and behind him was the enemy, determined and in great strength. To one side an impassible river, to the other rough country unfit for large numbers of men moving in formation. No training or experience ever prepares a soldier for the prospect of capitulation. Speaking with one of several staff officers and senior subordinates this day, Lee cut to the sharp edge of the matter: "The question is, is it right to surrender this army. If it is right, then I will take all the responsibility."
Lee had carefully dressed in a new uniform that morning, including, as another officer present recollected, "sword and sash and an embroidered belt, boots, and gold spurs." A number of messages had already passed between the lines, trying to pin down the details for a meeting with the enemy commander, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. ("Unconditional Surrender") Grant. As each update arrived, Lee invariably queried the dispatch bearer for his opinion of how matters stood. Lee's principal subcommander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, was characteristically blunt. "I asked if the bloody sacrifice of his army could in any way help the cause in other quarters," the officer remembered. "He thought not. Then, I said, your situation speaks for itself."
The sun had eased past the meridian when at last a note came from Grant himself, acknowledging Lee's previous efforts to communicate his intentions, indicating his present course of travel, and deferring to the Rebel chieftain to select the meeting place. Some little details were settled and then it was time to go. Just a few hours earlier, when any hope of extracting the army from its dilemma had been extinguished, Lee confided to an aide: "Then there is nothing left [for] me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths."
Accompanied only by one staff officer, a courier, and a Union liaison, Lee began the slow ride down the hill to the village of Appomattox Court House, where he would surrender the Army of Northern Virginia.
First he would make peace and then, perhaps, find peace.
Excerpted from Robert E. Lee by Noah Andre Trudeau. Copyright 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited.
Tv The Civil War Robert E. Lee after the War CSPAN March 5, 2021 11:10am-12:24pm EST
Matt Atkinson, a Gettysburg National Military Park ranger, discussed the post war life of former Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He highlighted Lee's efforts to promote a reconciliatory attitude among southerners and his time as president of Washington College, now known as Washington & Lee University. This talk was recorded in January 2015 by the National Park Service.
Sponsor: Gettysburg National Military Park
TOPIC FREQUENCY Robert E. Lee 37, Washington 11, Pickett 10, Richmond 10, Virginia 9, Savannah 8, Moseby 7, Gettysburg 6, Lee 6, George Pickett 6, Us 5, Johnson 4, Lexington 4, United States 3, Mary 3, Appomattox 3, Kristina Bond 2, Davis 2, Baltimore 2, America 2
How Did Robert E. Lee Become an American Icon?
After President Dwight D. Eisenhower revealed on national television that one of the four “great Americans” whose pictures hung in his office was none other than Robert E. Lee, a thoroughly perplexed New York dentist reminded him that Lee had devoted “his best efforts to the destruction of the United States government” and confessed that since he could not see “how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me.” Eisenhower replied personally and without hesitation, explaining that Lee was, “in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. . . . selfless almost to a fault . . . noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities . . . we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.”
Eisenhower was not the first president of the United States to express such reverence for Lee, nor would he be the last. Needless to say, the story of how anyone becomes a heroic role model to a nation that he has made war upon is likely to be a bit complicated, but in this case it is well worth telling simply for what it says about the extraordinary elasticity of historical symbols when they can be bent to the aims of a cohesive, purposeful set of interests in the present.
Postbellum white southerners borrowed the term “Lost Cause” from Sir Walter Scott’s romantic depiction of the failed struggle for Scottish independence in 1746. For them, however, memorializing their recent and bitter defeat at the hands of the Yankees was no mere flight into escapist fantasy. Rather, it was part of a willful strategy, aimed at both restoring white supremacy in the South and regaining the economic and political power needed to insulate white southerners from any future northern interference in their racial affairs. If this could be achieved, insisted Lost Cause advocate Edward A. Pollard, the South might yet triumph “in the true cause of the war, with respect to all its fundamental and vital issues.” Accordingly, the carefully constructed Lost Cause legend justified secession as a courageously principled act, glorified the society that badly outmanned white southerners had gone to war to preserve, and even transformed their defeat on the battlefield into a source of moral elevation. Lost Cause proponents presented slavery as a benign and civilizing institution and insisted that it certainly was not the reason behind secession. Although he had declared forthrightly in 1861 that slavery was the very “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, its former vice president, Alexander Stephens, was equally adamant by 1868 that the Civil War had not been fought over “that peculiar institution” but was “a strife between the principles of states’ rights and centralism.”
Jefferson Davis, meanwhile, became a moving force within the Southern Historical Society (SHS), composed primarily of prominent former Confederates intent on amassing a formidable arsenal of historical documentation “from which the defenders of our cause may draw any desired weapon.” Sensing that these historical weapons might be deployed not simply to exalt the Lost Cause but perhaps even to regain some of its objectives, Davis marshaled the resources of the SHS to ensure that the Confederacy and his leadership thereof would be presented in the most favorable light.
Davis’s SHS compatriot, Robert L. Dabney, also saw the potential to spin history into propaganda that would stir the emotions of succeeding generations of white southerners and, it was hoped, secure the sympathies of white northerners as well. To that end, as Dabney saw it, what the South really needed was “a book of ‘Acts and Monuments of Confederate Martyrs.’” The most obvious martyr-in-waiting was none other than Jefferson Davis himself. Davis’s presidency had seen its share of conflict, but his two years in prison and unwavering insistence that the South’s cause had been both just and noble soon transformed him into an emotional symbol of Confederate suffering. Even Atlanta journalist Henry Grady, the champion of a “New South” built around business and industry, would exalt Davis as “the uncrowned king of our people.”
General Robert E. Lee astride Traveller, after the Civil War.
In reality, however, Davis’s repeated declarations that even knowing “all that has come to pass . . . I would do it all over again” made him a less than ideal spiritual monarch for Grady’s New South, whose economic fortunes depended on securing the good graces of wealthy northeastern investors. Clearly, this was an enterprise in which no one dubbed “the chief of traitors” by the New York Times stood to be much of an asset.
Davis’s beloved Southern Historical Society would nonetheless prove critical to sacralizing the historical and personal reputation of the man who would actually become not just an embodiment of the highest ideals of the Lost Cause, but one whom succeeding generations of northern and southern whites alike found both admirable and inspiring. As the son of a Revolutionary War hero whose thirty-two years of exemplary military service had actually earned him an invitation to lead the Union Army in suppressing the southern rebellion, Robert Edward Lee had known his own very personal Gethsemane before respectfully declining this offer, explaining that he could not bring himself to take up arms against his native state. In his role as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee had quickly earned the respect of comrades and foes alike, and when it had finally become inescapably apparent that nothing was to be gained from fighting further, he had respectfully rejected Jefferson Davis’s call for continued resistance through guerilla tactics that would reduce his men to “mere bands of marauders” and serve only to inflict further suffering on the civilian population. In stark contrast to Davis’s unbridled bitterness, Lee had advised his fellow southerners to “unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of the war” and endeavor to “promote harmony and good feeling.” Finally, instead of launching an undignified and divisive campaign for personal vindication, Lee had humbly sequestered himself in relative obscurity as president of little Washington College until his death in 1870.
Lee’s death at age sixty-three actually left his would-be canonizers free both to invoke him as they pleased and to ensure that his reputation remained immaculate by dispelling the lingering questions about his leadership at Gettysburg. Former subordinates like Generals Jubal A. Early and John B. Gordon (who was also something of a front man for Grady’s New South campaign) deftly mobilized the Southern Historical Society’s formidable “spin machine” to lay blame for the defeat squarely at the feet of General James Longstreet.
Regardless of whether Longstreet’s failure to advance in the timely fashion that Lee apparently ordered had actually sealed the Confederates’ fate at Gettysburg, absolving Lee at his expense gave Lost Cause propagandists full license to cultivate the legend of Lee’s infallibility as “a public officer without vices [and] a private citizen without wrong.”
In a Gilded Age America rife with scandal and greed, such a selfless and incorruptible hero was not a hard sell. The New York Herald had already declared upon Lee’s death that “here in the North we . . . have claimed him as one of ourselves” and “extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us.” Frustrated and perplexed by such eulogies, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass complained bitterly that he could scarcely find a northern newspaper “that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee,” whose military accomplishments in the name of a “bad cause” seemed somehow to entitle him “to the highest place in heaven.” Twenty years later, a crowd estimated at 100,000 to 150,000 showed up in Richmond for the unveiling of a massive statue of Lee astride his beloved mount, Traveller. Even a writer for the Minneapolis Tribune who took exception to white southerners’ insistence on anointing Lee “as a man of finer and better mold than his famous antagonists” was forced to admit that the “Lee cult is much in vogue, even at the North, in these days.”
Although it had denounced Jefferson Davis as a traitor on more than one occasion, in 1903 the New York Times charged that the Kansas congressional delegation had simply been “waving the bloody shirt” of sectional bitterness when they opposed efforts to place Lee’s statue in the U.S. Capitol. Journalists were hardly alone in helping to nationalize Lee’s appeal. Popular historian James Ford Rhodes, an Ohioan, praised him unstintingly, as did no less a proper Bostonian than Charles Francis Adams II, who felt Lee’s courage, wisdom, and strength could only “reflect honor on our American manhood.” No one put greater stock in American manhood than Theodore Roosevelt, who, with characteristic restraint, pronounced Lee “the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth” and declared that his dignified acceptance of defeat helped “build the wonderful and mighty triumph of our national life, in which all his countrymen, north and south, share.” A generation later, as readers devoured Douglas Southall Freeman’s adoring four-volume biography of Lee, another President Roosevelt would simply laud him “as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”
White Americans’ overwhelmingly uncritical embrace of Lee actually was central to the story of how, in historian David W. Blight’s terms, the campaign for national “reconciliation” thoroughly trumped the old “emancipationist” vision of the abolitionists and Radical Republicans during the first half century or so after Appomattox. In addition to New South propagandizing about the reciprocal benefits of northern investment in southern economic revitalization, the racial practices and attitudes of white southerners seemed far less troubling amid the frustrations of dealing with the nonwhite peoples brought under American supervision by the imperialist ventures of the 1890s. Further discouragement against meddling in southern race relations came not only from Rhodes and Adams, but a new generation of southerners who earned their doctorates at Columbia under Professor William A. Dunning and did their part as academic historians to portray the Reconstruction experiment as both ill-advised and unduly harsh on defeated and struggling white southerners.
Union veterans of the war, meanwhile, were encouraged to forget the bitter antagonisms that had fueled the conflict itself and to respect, even embrace, their former enemies who had battled so courageously for a cause effectively ennobled simply by their steadfast dedication to it. In short, what mattered now was not why each side had fought, but simply that each had fought honorably and well, a fact that should inspire feelings not of resentment but of brotherhood, regardless of who wore the blue and who the gray. When more than 53,000 of these old soldiers came together for the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1913, it was not, as Virginia governor William Hodges Mann admonished the group, “to discuss what caused the war of 1861–65,” but simply “to talk over the events of the battle here as man to man.”
In 1913 fifty years after some of the fiercest fighting of the Civil War, veterans from opposing sides met again at Gettysburg.
Woodrow Wilson, the first southern-born president since the Civil War (and also an ardent admirer of Lee), praised the gathering as the ideal opportunity “to celebrate . . . the end of all strife between the sections.” In the wake of the affair, the National Tribune, a Union veterans’ organ, eagerly hailed the “death of sectionalism” and the “obliterating of Mason and Dixon’s line.”
More than two generations later, Walker Percy, who had been thoroughly catechized in the Reconciliationist gospel as a youth, found it alive and pervasive as the nation began its official observance of the Civil War centennial. Contemporary writing about the war, Percy noted, “commemorates mainly the fighting. . . . Yet it is all very good-natured. . . . In the popular media the war is so friendly that the fighting is made to appear as a kind of sacrament of fire by which one side expresses its affection for the other.” Compared with politics, certainly, there was “an innocence about combat,” and the centennial’s narrow focus on the military aspects of the war virtually assured that Robert E. Lee would garner even more attention than Abraham Lincoln, especially given “Lee’s very great personal qualities,” not to mention “the American preference for good guys and underdogs, and especially underdog good guys.”
The almost ostentatious magnanimity shown the Confederates during the centennial was especially striking because a century after emancipation, as Percy noted, “the embarrassing fact that the Negro is not treated as a man in the North or the South” was effectively “a ghost at the [centennial] feast.” Sit-ins and freedom rides had already marked a more confrontational turn in the civil rights movement, and centennial officials hoped to avoid having their activities drawn into this conflict, either by segregationist demagogues invoking the idealized states’ rights rhetoric of the Confederates or by black leaders likening their crusade to the struggle for emancipation. On the latter point, as one of them explained, “We’re not emphasizing Emancipation. You see, there’s a bigger theme—the beginning of a new America.”
As the nation entered what would become the most acutely dangerous years of the Cold War, national unity and morale clearly took precedence over the divisive issue of racial equality. All the more reason to use this occasion, as a Georgia centennial pamphlet put it, to “discern from our history what has made us the most powerful and united [nation] on the face of the earth.” Naturally, if facing up to Cold War realities required a renewal of faith in American virtue, a Virginia centennial spokesman could think of no finer example than Robert E. Lee, “a man largely without hate, without fear and without pride, greed or selfish ambition.” Regarded by North and South as easily the war’s greatest general and rivaled only by Lincoln as its greatest man, Lee, as historian Thomas L. Connelly saw it, “emerged from the Centennial more than ever adored by the nation.”
As centennial activities wound down with an April 1965 reenactment of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Congress was considering an aggressive new voting rights bill that would profoundly alter the dynamic of both southern and ultimately national politics. In addition to the sweeping changes in the political and economic status of many African Americans that have marked the last half century, scholars have effectively toppled the historical pillars that once supported the old Reconciliationist temple, showing, for example, that slavery was not only the root cause of the Civil War but an incredibly brutal rather than benign institution. Moreover, contrary to Reconciliation lore, enslaved blacks had readily abandoned their old masters in great numbers as the Yankees approached and thus had played a critical role in their own emancipation, not to mention the outcome of the war.
Fifty years ago, African Americans gained little traction in protesting their virtual exclusion both from the planning process for the Civil War centennial and from the core narrative that centennial officials were pushing. Suffice it to say, the sesquicentennial observance promises to be different. Not only are blacks themselves far better positioned politically and economically to influence the tone and content of the various activities, but in an era of heightened racial sensitivity, a great many whites are less inclined to allow for ambiguity in Confederate symbols, human and otherwise. Over the last generation, we have seen heated conflicts about the Confederate battle flag in Georgia and several other states. Statues and paintings could be just as divisive. Blacks and whites squabbled in 1995 over placing a statue of Richmond’s own Arthur Ashe, a tennis legend and widely celebrated humanitarian, near the likenesses of Lee, Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and other Confederate stalwarts adorning the city’s Monument Avenue. A veritable firestorm erupted a few years later when a black councilman compared displaying Lee’s picture in his inner-city district to hanging Adolf Hitler’s portrait in a public square in Israel and threatened a boycott if a mural featuring Lee were not pulled from an exhibition of paintings featuring historically prominent Virginians that adorned Richmond’s Canal Walk. Not surprisingly, perhaps, sensitivity to historical symbolism has been slow to subside in the former Confederate capital, where in April 2011 vandals spray-painted “No Hero” on statues of both Lee and Jefferson Davis.
Elsewhere in the South, African-American activists demanded the removal of monuments or the renaming of public streets, parks, buildings, and schools commemorating Confederate leaders or prominent slaveholders. In New Orleans, for example, the majority black school board voted to change Robert E. Lee Elementary School to Ronald E. McNair Elementary in honor of the first black astronaut, who was also a victim of the Challenger disaster.
For many black southerners, the widespread assault on Confederate icons and symbols went hand in hand with celebrating the crusade to free the South from the racial system constructed on the ruins of the Confederate legacy. Civil rights museums and memorials became prominent attractions in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Memphis to name but a few, and by 1996 the cities and towns of the old Confederacy accounted for 77 percent of the nation’s streets named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the greatest breakthroughs accompanying the destruction of Jim Crow was registered in opinion surveys, which since the late 1960s have consistently shown blacks about as likely as whites to identify themselves as southerners. This does not mean, however, that the two always agree on how that identity should be represented. Championing efforts to remove the Confederate insignia from the Georgia state flag, Atlanta journalist John Head made it clear in 1993 that “the South is my home [and] I am a Southerner,” but he would not accept “the Confederate battle flag as an emblem in which all Georgians can take pride.” Some fifteen years later, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey sounded much like Head when she insisted, “There are other Souths beyond the white Confederate South. . . . My South didn’t lose the war. We won.”
Trethewey’s dichotomy might be just as applicable to the civil rights movement, of course, and Lee’s decision to choose the wrong side of one of America’s greatest moral crusades ultimately consigned him, by default at least, to the wrong side of the other. Ulysses S. Grant could respect his vanquished counterpart “who had . . . suffered so much for a cause,” even though he felt constrained to add, “that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Not surprisingly, separating man and cause is far trickier today than it was in 1865. Defenders who are quick to point out Lee’s dislike of slavery are not always so swift to note that he actually described it as “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race” or that he believed “the painful discipline” inflicted on the slaves was “necessary for their instruction as a race.” Such a view may have distinguished him but little from the majority of northern whites at the time, but it was Lee, after all, who commanded a massive military effort that, if successful, would surely have extended the life span of slavery regardless of the broad moral or economic currents that had already begun to cut against it. Nor is there any gainsaying that Lee’s installation in first the southern then the national pantheon owes much to the efforts of those who were also bent on restoring and preserving white supremacy in the postbellum South, or that he has been the namesake of many a klavern of Kluxers, or that, of all his contemporary champions, none sing his praises more lustily than the belligerent representatives of neo-Confederate secessionist groups.
Yet, for all these associations with unsavory actors and hurtful causes, not to mention the determined efforts of a bevy of historians obsessed with finding fault, a 1996 survey indicating that he was still admired by 64 percent of respondents in the South and 60 percent of those outside it suggests that, for many Americans, Robert E. Lee remains something of a Teflon icon. Even a reviewer who criticized an NEH-supported January 2011 PBS documentary on Lee for taking it too easy on “a slavery apologist” whose “Old Dominion snobbery and sense of honor” had led him to “back the wrong side for the wrong reasons” had to admit the subject of the film himself was “a whole lotta man.” Not everyone, of course, is willing to grant Lee such benefit of the doubt, particularly African Americans troubled by Lee’s actual and figurative connections with the persecution of their forebears. Understandably, they would prefer to see other, more affirmative icons front and center in a hotly contested public memory that frequently tells us less about a broadly defined past than the aims and sensibilities of those who seem to hold sway in the present. Denying that whites held sole claim to what “the South” means, Natasha Trethewey explained, “I don’t want to take it away from anyone. I just want them to recognize that it’s mine, too.”
Such recognition is also essential if the South’s (and thus, the nation’s) history is to be presented both accurately and comprehensively. However, when Trethewey insists that “my South didn’t lose the war,” she points not to the separate pasts of blacks and whites so much as to the way in which, at critical times, they simply experienced a common past quite differently. Doing full justice to such a past makes stark juxtapositions and contrasts inevitable. It is not necessarily a bad thing that the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site shares top billing as an Atlanta tourist attraction with the massive images of Lee, Davis, and Stonewall Jackson carved into nearby Stone Mountain, or even that Virginia celebrates Lee-Jackson Day on the Friday preceding the Monday observance of Rev. King’s birthday. After all, “We Shall Overcome” never seems more stirring and powerful than when it is performed in places like Birmingham or Selma, where it is still very easy to remember what actually had to be overcome.
Finally, there is surely polarization enough over the far more substantive and urgent concerns of a needful present without incessant quarreling over how the past is represented. When an Annapolis councilman called for the former slave port to issue an official apology for the “perpetual pain, distrust and bitterness” that slavery inflicted on black people, a constituent allowed that she would “prefer that the aldermen have a resolution to atone for the lack of a decent middle school curriculum in Anne Arundel County.”
For all his apparent personal virtues, there is no denying Robert E. Lee’s direct connection with the cause of slavery or his symbolic appropriation by those who succeeded in replacing slavery with Jim Crow. Unfortunately, although it might make for good political melodrama and perhaps even gladden the departed soul of Frederick Douglass, stripping Lee’s name from a school is unlikely to reduce overcrowding in its classrooms, upgrade its computer or science labs, or end drug trafficking in its corridors. If it would, ironically enough, Lee—at least the one Dwight Eisenhower saw in the portrait on his wall—would likely be the first to join Douglass in endorsing the move.
Historian James C. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia and the author of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity. His work on the book was supported by a $40,000 grant from NEH.
Watch the video: Students weigh in on Robert E. Lee High School name change (January 2022).