Today marks the anniversary of the birth of Robert Edward Lee, best remembered as General-in-Chief of the Confederate army during the War Between the States. Living as we do in a day when history is oft forgotten — or deliberately defamed and its monuments destroyed — it is worthwhile to consider the legacy of such an iconic American figure.
Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807, in northeastern Virginia, to Anne Hill Carter Lee and Revolutionary War hero Colonel Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. The elder Lee was a cavalry leader under General George Washington who was later elected governor of Virginia, and then to Congress. Sadly, Henry Lee’s reputation was tarnished by financial troubles, and he traveled to the West Indies when Robert was six years old, never returning. It was under these circumstances that Robert was raised by his mother, who instilled in him a strong sense of honor and duty.
In 1825, Robert Lee received an appointment to West Point, graduating second in his class and entering the distinguished Engineer Corps. In 1831, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, great-granddaughter of George Washington’s wife Martha and her first husband, Daniel P. Custis. As a result of the marriage, the Lees inherited both land and slaves.
It was in 1846, during the Mexican War, that Lee first rose to prominence. Serving under Major General Winfield Scott, he received three brevets for gallantry for leading efforts to seize or avoid Mexican strongholds. In September 1852, Lee returned to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as its superintendent.
In 1859, having returned East to settle the estate of his father-in-law, Lee was dispatched by the War Department to retake the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, which had been captured by radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers. Lee oversaw a detachment of U.S. Marines, who recaptured the arsenal with no loss of life.
Though the issue of slavery had been a contentious one for decades, the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was the breaking point, leading several Deep South states to secede and form a new country, the Confederate States of America. Others would follow. For the South, the primarily catalyst for war was slavery and its extension westward, and secondarily the issue of states’ rights and a host of economically oppressive federal tariffs and policies benefiting the more populous northern manufacturing states to the detriment of the agrarian South. All of the 11 stats forming the Confederacy, mentioned slavery among the causes of their declarations of secession. Lee’s Virginia accused 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.”
For Lincoln, his objective was, first and foremost, to preserve the Union. As for slavery, Lincoln had long favored the “colonization” option, first to Africa and then to Central America, noting: “It is nearer to us than Liberia — not much more than one-fourth as far as Liberia, and within seven days’ run by steamers. Unlike Liberia it is on a great line of travel — it is a highway. The country is a very excellent one for any people, and with great natural resources and advantages, and especially because of the similarity of climate with your native land — thus being suited to your physical condition.”
In 1861, Lee was offered the rank of brigadier general in the new army of the Confederacy, but he declined. In April of that year, at the recommendation of his former superior, General Scott, Lee was offered command of the Army of the Potomac by President Lincoln. He was a top graduate of the United States Military Academy who had proven himself as a warrior during the Mexican-American War, and as an officer for 32 years including his service as Superintendent of the USMA.
This was a time of great anguish for Lee, who opposed both secession (along with Jubal Early and Stonewall Jackson, later generals under Lee) and slavery.
Of slavery, in 1856, Lee wrote to his wife: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former.”
Lee added, “I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race. … The doctrines and miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small part of the human race, and even among the Christian nations what gross errors still exist!”
Among other expressions of the Lee’s views on slavery, he and his wife established a school for slaves, a brave endeavor considering it was illegal to do so in Virginia.
Lee, was not a slave owner. However, he was charged with managing the estate of his wife’s father in 1857, including 189 enslaved people. Mary Anna Lee’s father had decreed in his will that plantation slaves should be freed five years from the time of his death. Lee did not have the legal authority to free those slaves in 1857 and instead prepared them for freedom. In 1862, Lee freed all those slaves in accordance with Custis’s will, and part of his father-in-law’s former plantation is now Arlington National Cemetery.
Similarly, but rarely mentioned, Ulysses Grant, who would become Lincoln’s Union commander and later president, managed the 850-acre White Haven plantation of his wife’s father near St. Louis. Grant actually worked slaves and purchased slaves, whom he also later freed.
Of secession, Lee wrote, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of. I am willing to sacrifice every thing but honour for its preservation.” According to W. Fitzhugh Brundage, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, “Robert E. Lee did oppose secession. On that point, there is no dispute.”
It was under this cloud of conflicting loyalties and beliefs that Lee was called upon to choose sides in the coming conflict. In the end, his loyalty was first and foremost with Virginia. Lee wrote to a friend, “If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I. But if she secedes (though I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution), then I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.”
Thus, he declined Lincoln’s offer to command Union forces. Responding to General Scott, he offered thanks and sincere regret, explaining, “I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state? … I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the army, and save in defense of my native state … I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.”
When Lincoln called for tens of thousands of Union soldiers to head south to preserve the Union by force (something James Madison said would be tantamount to a declaration of war against a state), the decision was made for Lee and thousands of other soldiers who had once worn Union blue.
During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Madison rejected language that would permit the federal government to suppress secession and observed rightly: “A Union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.” Prophetically, Madison also foresaw a time when slavery would divide the nation, observing: “The real difference of interests, lay not between large and small, but between the Northern and Southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences formed a line of discrimination.” A decade earlier, Benjamin Franklin had warned, “The ordaining of laws in favor of one part of the nation, to the prejudice and oppression of another, is certainly the most erroneous and mistaken policy.”
After Lincoln called up troops, Virginia, which had previously voted 2-to-1 against secession, responded to Lincoln’s call-to-arms by voting 2-to-1 in favor.
Upon reading of Virginia’s secession and entrance into the Confederacy, Lee said to his wife, “Well, Mary, the question is settled.”
Soon thereafter, Lee accepted a commission as a general in the Confederate army. “Let each man resolve to be victorious,” he told his officers, “and that the right of self-government, Liberty, and peace shall find him a defender.” He entered the war on the side of the Confederacy out of loyalty to defend the rights of the state of Virginia, not out of some imagined “evil” desire to maintain slavery. To suggest otherwise is intellectually dishonest.
Lee’s brilliance as a military leader is legendary. Like George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Lee fought an army far larger, better armed, better provisioned, and better trained than his own. Also like Washington, Lee was revered and loved by his men.
In June 1862, Lee assumed command of wounded General Joseph E. Johnston’s army, renaming it the Army of Northern Virginia. It became the most victorious of all Confederate armies. With sharp and loyal generals like James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, James Longstreet, and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson under his command, Lee’s army continually outsmarted, outmaneuvered and outfought the Union armies, even when badly outnumbered.
In the early years of the war, Lee’s armies achieved major victories in the Seven Days Battles, Shenandoah Valley, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.
However, for the Confederate army, these victories came with a steep price. Though inflicting huge losses on the Union army, the South suffered losses of their own and, with far fewer soldiers than the Union army enjoyed, it became a war of attrition. Lee knew he needed to act boldly to win the war quickly and decisively.
By late 1862, it was apparent to Lincoln that preservation of the Union could not be achieved without emancipation of slaves. Despite resistance from his free white labor constituents in the North, who did not want competition from an influx of black laborers from the South, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
With many in the North disillusioned after seeing a war they expected to be brief turn into a long and bloody nightmare, and calling for Lincoln to negotiate a peace with the Confederacy, Lee believed that dealing a devastating defeat to the North on its home soil would bring Lincoln to the negotiating table.
Lee’s first attempt turned disastrous when a dispatch with his battle plans was misplaced and fell into the hands of Union General George McClellan. The element of surprise lost, Lee’s army still fought fiercely at Antietam, in what was the single bloodiest day of battle, inflicting 12,400 casualties while sustaining 10,100 of their own. Though McClellan’s forces suffered greater losses, it was considered a loss for Lee, who was forced to turn back south.
Lee’s second and final attempt at victory on Northern soil occurred July 1-3, 1863, at Gettysburg. Though historians have long debated the particulars, the general consensus is that Confederate forces were plagued by poor communication, bad intelligence, and the decision by Lee to throw everything he had at the well-entrenched Union army, regardless of the cost.
Lee spent two days trying to break the Union line with artillery bombardment and frontal assaults, leading to massive casualties for his army. Dismissing the objections of General Longstreet (and perhaps more importantly without counsel of the recently killed Stonewall Jackson), Lee ordered continued frontal assaults, resulting in his men being cut down by Union artillery from entrenched positions. The results were devastating.
On the final day of the battle, and again over the objections of Longstreet, Lee ordered Major General George Pickett on a frontal assault of Union General George G. Meade’s heavily fortified position despite having no artillery support. Pickett’s men fought valiantly for Lee, but it was a suicide mission. Those soldiers who did manage to break through the Union line were quickly repelled. At Gettysburg, Lee lost nearly a third of his entire army.
In a moment that displayed his true greatness, however, and why his men adored him, Lee did something that generals rarely do; he accepted blame. Riding among the retreating wounded, he lamented, “It’s all my fault … I am very sorry — the task was too great for you — but we mustn’t despond.” Later that night, speaking to a cavalry officer, Lee said, “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians.”
Gettysburg proved the turning point of the war. Short on arms and supplies, and casualties mounting, Lee was forced to retreat south and fight defensively for the remainder of the war. Later victories came with great loss of Confederate soldiers, and Lee knew he’d reached an end.
Though many of his commanders and soldiers urged him to continue fighting a guerrilla war, Lee immediately dismissed such talk, and on April 9, 1865, with less than 10,000 soldiers remaining in his army and unwilling to shed additional blood in a losing cause, Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.
After his surrender at Appomattox, Gen. Lee wrote to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard: “I need not tell you that true patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them — the desire to do right — is precisely the same. The circumstances that govern their actions change, and their conduct must conform to the new order of things. History is full of illustrations of this: Washington himself is an example. At one time, he fought in the service of the King of Great Britain; at another, he fought with the French at Yorktown, under the orders of the Continental Congress of America, against him.”
After the war, Lee became one of the chief proponents of reconciliation between North and South.
Regarding slavery, Lee wrote, “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South.” Lee, like Lincoln, remained a proponent of segregating blacks from whites, though not exporting them back to Africa as Lincoln proposed.
In an interview with a New York Herald reporter, Lee noted, “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.” Understood in context, many wrongly believed that slaves would not survive if freed, only to be ostracized and excluded by racist views.
Ulysses Grant said of Lee and slavery: “He fought long and valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people have ever fought, and for which there was the least excuse.”
But it is too simplistic to assume the War Between the States was just one of defending the institution of slavery. Most of the Southern combatants could never have afforded to own a slave. The fact is, there were many honorable men of the Confederate States of America whose objective was, first and foremost, the protection of states’ rights — men who were decidedly not motivated by the continuation of the abhorrent institution of slavery.
Regarding the grievances of the Southern states, Lee advised the former Confederate states not to rise against the federal union again.
Once paroled and served as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, a position he held until his death on October 12, 1870. Most of the funding to restore operations of Washington College came from Lee’s Union admirers in New York and other northern states.
In fact, according to biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, a New York-based insurance company offered Lee $10,000 just to use his name — an offer few others would have refused at the time but which Lee did refuse:
“The repeated business offers that came to him seem to have awakened no yearnings. Nothing appears in his correspondence to show any desire on the part of any member of the family that he accept the post of supervisor of agencies of the Knickerbocker Life Insurance Company, a position pressed on him in the winter of 1868-69 at the then dazzling salary of $10,000. Not a flutter was aroused in the president’s house, so far as one may now judge, by rumors that he might be named president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.”
Lee was a true son of the Old South. Words like “honor,” “loyalty,” and “duty” defined the code he lived by, while also making him a man of seeming contradictions.
Though today, leftist radicals condemn Lee for leading the Confederate armies, we would do well to consider how his former enemies saw him. Upon his passing, the following eulogy was published in the New York Herald:
For not to the Southern people alone shall be limited the tribute of a tear over the dead Virginian. Here in the North, forgetting that the time was when the sword of Robert Edward Lee was drawn against us, forgetting and forgiving all the years of bloodshed and agony, we have long since ceased to look upon him as the Confederate leader, but have claimed him as one of ourselves; have cherished and felt proud of his military genius as belonging to us; have recounted and recorded his triumphs as our own; have extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us for Robert Edward Lee was an American, and the great nation which gave him birth would be to-day unworthy of such a son if she regarded him lightly.
He conquered us in misfortune by the grand manner in which he sustained himself, even as he dazzled us by his genius when the tramp of his soldiers resounded through the valleys of Virginia. And for such a man we are all tears and sorrow to-day. … As a slaveholder, he was beloved by his slaves for his kindness and consideration toward them.
In his death our country has lost a son of whom she might well be proud, and for whose services she might have stood in need had he lived a few years longer, for we are certain that, had occasion required it, General Lee would have given to the United States the benefit of all his great talents.
He was similarly eulogized in Europe.
According to the London Standard:
Few are the generals who have earned, since history began, a greater military reputation; still fewer are the men of similar eminence, civil or military, whose personal qualities would bear comparison with his. The bitterest enemies of his country hardly dared to whisper a word against the character of her most distinguished general, while neutrals regarded him with an admiration for his deeds and respect for his lofty and unselfish nature, which almost grew into veneration, and his own countrymen learned to look up to him with as much confidence and esteem as they ever felt for Washington.
No one pretending to understand in the least, either the general principles of military science or the particular conditions of the American war, doubts that General Lee gave higher proofs of military genius and soldiership than any of his opponents. He was outnumbered from first to last; and all his victories were gained against greatly superior forces, and, with troops deficient in every necessary of war except courage and discipline. Never, perhaps, was so much achieved against odds so terrible. Always outnumbered, always opposed to a foe abundantly supplied with food, transports, ammunition, clothing and all that was wanting to his own men, he was always able to make courage and skill supply the deficiency of strength and supplies.
Truer greatness, a loftier nature, a spirit more merciful, a character purer, more chivalrous, the world has rarely, if ever, known. Of stainless hue and deep religious feeling, yet free from all taint of cant and fanaticism, and as dear and congenial to the cavalier Stuart as to the puritan Stonewall Jackson; unambitious, but ready to sacrifice all to the call of duty; devoted to his cause, yet never moved by his feelings beyond the line prescribed by his judgment; never provoked by just resentment to punish wanton cruelty by reprisals which would have given a character of needless savagery to the war; both North and South owe a deep debt of gratitude to him, and the time will come when both will be equally proud of him. … A country which has given birth to men like him may look the chivalry of Europe in the face without shame, for the fatherlands of Sidney and of Bayard never produced a nobler soldier, gentleman and Christian than Robert Edward Lee.
And finally, reflecting on the character of the man in battle, there is this extraordinary account about a Union soldier’s contact with Gen. Lee, as related by Confederate Brig. Gen. A.L. Long and Union Brig. Gen. M.J. Wright in their Memoirs of Robert E. Lee:
We cannot better end this somewhat extended chapter than by presenting the following incident, which is so consonant with … the character of General Lee that no better voucher for its complete truth could be offered. … It is a story told by an old “Grand Army” man…
“I was at the battle of Gettysburg myself. … I had been a most bitter anti-South man and fought and cursed the Confederates desperately. I could see nothing good in any of them. The last day of the fight I was badly wounded. A ball shattered my left leg. I lay on the ground not far from Cemetery Ridge, and as General Lee ordered his retreat he and his officers rode near me. As they came along I recognized him, and, though faint from exposure and loss of blood, I raised up my hands, looked Lee in the face, and shouted as loud as I could, ‘Hurrah for the Union!’ The general heard me, looked, stopped his horse, dismounted, and came toward me. I confess that I at first thought he meant to kill me. But as he came up he looked down at me with such a sad expression on his face that all fear left me, and I wondered what he was about. He extended his hand to me, and grasping mine firmly and looking right into my eyes, said, ‘My son, I hope you will soon be well.’ If I live to be a thousand years I shall never forget the expression of General Lee’s face. There he was, defeated, retiring from a field that had cost him and his cause almost their last hope, yet he stopped to say words like those to a wounded soldier of the opposition who had taunted him as he passed by. As soon as the general left me I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground.”
These observations reflect the true character and historical significance of Robert Edward Lee. He was revered in his day and this, for his military genius, and loved for his bravery, honor and loyalty. Though leading the fight in a losing cause, a component of which was reprehensible, there was much about him that is worth emulating today — which is why we remember him still. His, was a critical chapter in the history of American Liberty.
(Footnote: A longtime friend of The Patriot Post, the late distinguished George Mason University professor Walter Williams, issued erudite warnings about the consequences of historical ignorance here and here, including the removal of historic markers to Confederate generals and the rewriting of American history.)
(Footnote 2: Today, more than 150 years after the conclusion of the War Between the States, the African slave trade is still thriving. While there were an estimated 13 million people enslaved between the 15th and 19th centuries, mostly by the British and French, today the Global Slavery Index estimates that more than 40 million people are subjugated by some form of modern chattel slavery, most often referred to now as “human trafficking.” And Africa is the epicenter of that enslavement. Of course, the nation taking the most action to end human trafficking worldwide is … the United States. Beyond African slave trafficking, the tribal genocide in Nigeria and other African nations today — the slaughter of tens of thousands of men, women, and children — rarely receives media mention.)
(For perspective, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest is said to be the founder of the KKK. Fortunately, hearts change. Read Forrest’s remarks on racial reconciliation.)