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I am sure, from different sources, that his men were willing to fight to the death, even if they were surrounded. Also, if they were willing to fight in the first place, because the issue was so important, why did he give up there? Why not keep fighting?
This still baffles me -
Does anyone know why?
The simple answer is that General Lee didn't want to see his men destroyed. There was correspondence between Generals Lee and Grant in the days before the actual surrender, as both recognized the disparity of position between Lee's Army and the larger, better supplied Union Army that kept pushing him west, away from Richmond and away from supply.
Prelude to Surrender
On April 3, Richmond fell to Union troops as Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia in retreat to the West pursued by Grant and the Army of the Potomac. A running battle ensued as each Army moved farther to the West in an effort to out flank, or prevent being out flanked by the enemy. Finally, on April 7, General Grant initiated a series of dispatches leading to a meeting between the two commanders.
"General R.E. Lee, Commanding C.S.A.: 5 P.M., April 7th, 1865. The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia. U.S. Grant, Lieutenant-General"
The note was carried through the Confederate lines and Lee promptly responded:
"April 7th, 1865. General: I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender. R.E. Lee, General."
The correspondence continued up until that day the two generals met at Appomattox.
Lee had been facing the problem of fighting only a defensive strategy since the defeat at Gettysburg. Even though the previous year had cost the Union dearly at Petersburg/Cold Harbor/The Crater, and elsewhere, Lee was aware that Sherman had made it to the sea and was heading North. The fall of Richmond was the last straw.
There was no longer hope for victory. Without that hope, he was not going to ask his men to die in vain. He got the best terms that he could manage so that most of them could go home and try to rebuild after the war.
You ask: why not keep fighting?
With hope gone, what they were fighting for was not achievable.
With their bases of supply destroyed or captured, they were approaching the problem of having nothing to fight with.
To augment KorvinStarmast's excellent answer, it's worth looking at a map to understand just how over the war was.
Source Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection
Since the beginning of the war, the South had been blockaded by sea cutting off cotton exports and arms imports. This left them with increasing financial problems, and fewer and fewer quality arms to fight with.
In 1863, with the Union victory at Vicksburg, the Confederacy was split in two cutting off the manpower and supplies from Texas and the Western Confederacy.
In 1864 the Confederacy was split again in Sherman's March To The Sea leaving the Carolinas and Virginia left to fight alone. In December, The Army Of The Tennessee was rendered ineffective as a fighting force in the Battle of Nashville.
1865 found Lee with the last effective Confederate army in the Eastern Confederacy. He was being chased by the Army of the Potomac and knew Sherman would be coming up from the south. In April he'd failed to raise the siege of Richmond (the Confederate capital) at the Battle of Five Forks and realized the capital was lost.
The mission of the Army Of Northern Virginia was to attack Washington D.C. (and thus win the war) and defend Richmond. It could no longer do the former, and it had failed at the latter.
Tactically, Lee knew he was totally outnumbered and outgunned with an almost certainty of being surrounded. His capital was lost, he had no hope of resupply. His enemy was lavishly supplied. There was no hope of winning the war.
Personally, to continue would only further harm his men and his beloved Virginia. Sherman's army was tearing through the Eastern Confederacy and he did not want to see Virginia suffer the same fate as Georgia. If he fought on, his men would die by starvation or by a bullet. If he surrendered, his men would be allowed to lay down their arms on good terms.
The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.
They were even allowed to keep their horses and mules for farming, and were given rations for the trip home.
Lee's surrender was just the first. For over a month, holdout armies and governments of the Confederacy would fight and surrender.
Robert E. Lee
Richmond, Virginia April 20, 1865
Mr. President… At the commencement of the withdrawal of the army from the lines on the night of the 2d, it began to disintegrate, and straggling from the ranks increased up to the surrender on the 9th. On that day, as previously reported, there were only seven thousand eight hundred and ninety-two (7892) effective infantry. During the night, when the surrender became known, more than ten thousand men came in, as reported to me by the Chief Commissary of the Army. During the succeeding days stragglers continued to give themselves up, so that on the 12th April, according to the rolls of those paroled, twenty-six thousand and eighteen (26,018) officers and men had surrendered. Men who had left the ranks on the march, and crossed James River, returned and gave themselves up, and many have since come to Richmond and surrendered. I have given these details that Your Excellency might know the state of feeling which existed in the army, and judge of that in the country. From what I have seen and learned, I believe an army cannot be organized or supported in Virginia, and as far as I know the condition of affairs, the country east of the Mississippi is morally and physically unable to maintain the contest unaided with any hope of ultimate success. A partisan war may be continued, and hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence. It is for Your Excellency to decide, should you agree with me in opinion, what is proper to be done. To save useless effusion of blood, I would recommend measures be taken for suspension of hostilities and the restoration of peace.
I am with great respect, yr obdt svt
R. E. Lee Genl
As you can see, most men were not willing to fight. The war was hopelessly lost, and continue to fight would be "useless effusion of blood" (unlike Alamo. other Confederate armies could get no reinforcement from devastated country).
Actually, only fanatic Jefferson Davis prevented restoration of peace two month earlier, after Hampton road conference, which could save South humiliating military capitulation and loss of thousands lives.
I wanted to correct TechZen answer, but my score is not high enough to comment; so I am doing it in my answer.
Artillery officer who was trying to convince Lee to take to guerrilla warfare was not General Preston; his name was brigadier General Edward Porter Alexander. This is how Lee responded to him:
“ If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy's cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from. And, as for myself, you young fellows might go bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.”
Robert Lee was the great general. But his greatest service for his country was not what he did on the battlefields as army commander, but what he did not allowed to do. It was this surrender, which prevented guerrilla warfare. This was his service for both South and North. Jefferson Davis did not take his advice, and insisted on war continuation. But fortunately, confederate generals did not obey his orders, they followed Lee.
Generals will order their soldiers to "fight to the death" only when there is a military or political advantage to be gained. This was not the case here.
At the Alamo, some 174 Texans defended a fort to the death and inflicted several hundred casualties (a multiple of their own number) on the Mexicans. This weakened Santa Anna to the point where he could not pursue the main Texas force under Sam Houston until he received reinforcements. Houston also received reinforcements and won the battle of San Jacinto. A similar story could be told for say, the "fight to the death" defense of Stalingrad, to buy time for the encircling forces.
In the case of the Confederates, they had just been ousted from their fortified positions around Richmond, which was the Confederate capital. Half starved soldiers were fleeing west on foot, many without shoes. There were only about 30,000 left from an original strength of over 60,000. (And the decline in Confederate strength was more than 50% because many of these men were replacements for fallen veterans, supported by limited ammunition and almost no artillery.)
Their objective was Lynchburg, which supposedly offered them food and transportation to the mountains where there was at least a hope of a guerrilla resistance. Neither was present there, and the Confederates were caught in open country, outnumbered four to one, (not the earlier two to tone, in fortified positions), with hordes of Union cavalry ready to cut down any stragglers or "escapees" from the main fight. Under the circumstances, a "fight to the death" would have been suicide, without the chance of winning or even inflicting meaningful casualties.
In 1864, with his line broken at Spotsylvania, the same General Lee asked his men to "fight to the death" to close the breach at a place called the "Bloody Angle" by offering to personally lead the counterattack, to allow his engineers to build a new defense line. Their success prolonged the war almost a year. No such advantage offered itself around Lynchburg.
All these answer are right to some extent but there was one critical moment when IIRC General Preston, his artillery officer tried to convince him to take to guerrilla warfare.
But Lee was already thinking far ahead. He, like Grant and Lincoln knew that the Union had to be healed back into a functioning whole. The best interest of the South and North now rested with the rapid reintegration of South back into the Union.
Arguably, it was in the four years he lived after the war in which he became the hero that the Myth of the Lost Cause had tried to foist on him. He used his enormous moral authority and charisma to stamp out any violence and speed reintegration.
If he'd lived another 10 or 15 years, the history of American might have been much better. Instead, in 1877, we got Civil War 1.5, the Democrats Strike back in which they murdered or drove out all the Republicans from the South while at the same launching a similar war of terror in the North to establish the all-white Unions and lock in the big city Democrat machines. The mostly Irish thugs in the North that murdered "scabs" and fought the Pinkerton's who defended them, became the basis of America organized crime, which formed a complex with the unions and the party machines.
It's possible Lee could have prevented some of that had he lived longer. He did try to ensure that Freedmen were allowed their 2nd Amendment rights as well as opposing the early Jim Crow laws that sought to prevent skilled Freedman like blacksmiths from competing on an equal basis with whites.
The Gentleman’s Agreement That Ended the Civil War
One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, on April 9, 1865, a lone Confederate horseman violently waving a white towel as a flag of truce galloped up to the men of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry near Appomattox Court House and asked for directions to the headquarters of Major General Philip Sheridan. On orders from generals Robert E. Lee and John Gordon, the rider, Captain R. M. Sims, carried a message requesting a suspension of hostilities to allow negotiations of surrender to take place. He made his way to General George Armstrong Custer, who sent the rider back to his superiors with the following reply: “We will listen to no terms but that of unconditional surrender.”
The South’s Army of Northern Virginia was in its final hours. The Union army, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, had relentlessly pursued the Confederate troops—this time, there would be no possible escape. Lee and his men were famished, exhausted and surrounded. “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant,” he told his staff that morning, “and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” Messengers, racing between the lines, carried communiques between the two camps, to halt the fighting and arrange a meeting. Generals Grant and Lee agreed to convene at the home of Wilmer McLean at Appomattox Court House to stop the fighting between their two armies. The most punishing conflict ever fought on American soil was coming to an end.
The Civil War was entering its fifth year. Nothing in America’s experience in the past or since had been so brutal or costly. The toll on the nation had been enormous, and few had escaped its impact. More than 600,000 Northern and Southern soldiers had died, hundreds of thousands maimed and wounded billions of dollars had been lost and destruction of property was widespread. The war at times seemed to have no resolution. But the previous December, General William T. Sherman had completed his destructive march to the sea the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, had fallen earlier in April and now the once great Army of Northern Virginia was decimated and surrounded.
Lee arrived at the McLean house first, wearing a crisp gray uniform and dress sword. Grant entered a half hour later, dressed informally in what he called a “soldier’s blouse,” his boots and pants spattered with mud. Grant’s staff officers crowded the room. The two commanders sat across from each other in the home’s parlor, Lee in a tall caned armchair and Grant in a swivel chair with a padded leather back next to a small oval side table. They made some small talk before Lee asked on what terms Grant would “receive the surrender of my army.”
Many within the Union considered Confederates traitors who were personally responsible for this tremendous loss of lives and property. Lee’s own army had threatened the nation’s capital and had to be driven back in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. The terms of surrender, however, would be a simple gentlemen’s agreement. Healing the country, rather than vengeance, directed Grant’s and the Lincoln administration’s actions. There would be no mass imprisonments or executions, no parading of defeated enemies through Northern streets. Lincoln’s priority—shared by Grant—was “to bind up the nation’s wounds” and unite the country together again as a functioning democracy under the Constitution extended retribution against the former Confederates would only slow down the process.
The Army of Northern Virginia would surrender their arms, return home, and agree “not to take up arms against the Government of the United States.” At Lee’s request, Grant even allowed Confederates who owned their own horses to keep them so that they could tend their farms and plant spring crops. A Union officer wrote down the terms. Grant then signed the document on the side table next to his chair and passed it to Lee for his signature. Firing of salutes spontaneously rang out as news of the surrender reached nearby Union lines. At once, Grant sent out the order, “The war is over the rebels are our countrymen again and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.” Other Southern forces remained in the field further south, but few would continue fighting when they learned of the outcome at Appomattox. With Lee’s surrender, the war effectively came to an end.
On April 9, 1865, a lone Confederate horseman violently waving a white towel (above) as a flag of truce galloped up to the men of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry near Appomattox Court House and asked for directions to the headquarters of Major General Philip Sheridan. (National Museum of American History)
Those present at Appomattox knew this was a historic moment. Over McLean’s objections, Union officers snapped up his furniture as trophies, leaving behind gold coins as payment. General Sheridan took the side table, Brigadier General Henry Capehart removed Grant’s chair, and Lieutenant Colonel Whitaker obtained Lee’s. Sheridan gave the table to Custer as a present for his wife, Elizabeth, who would also receive from Whitaker a portion of the surrender towel the Confederate rider used earlier that day.
Over the decades, as if by some force of nature or history, the trophies of war removed form McLean’s home reunited at the Smithsonian. Capehart had given the Grant chair to one of his officers, General Wilmon Blackmar, who bequeathed it to the Institution in 1906. Whitaker would donate Lee’s chair to a Grand Army of the Republic charity event, where it was purchased by Captain Patrick O’Farrell and later donated to the Smithsonian by his widow in 1915. In 1936, Elizabeth Custer, whose late husband is better remembered for his last stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn than his role in the Civil War, gave the side table and her portion of the surrender towel. United again, these common everyday objects—a red striped towel, a couple of chairs, and a side table—document an extraordinary moment in history, when the Civil War effectively came to an end, and, though dramatically remade, the nation would be preserved.
Reconciliation after the war would not be as easy or painless as many of the individuals who crowded into the McLean parlor on that spring day had hoped. While finding a path to reunite the nation might have been the goal of some, others turned to the struggle over political, social and economic power in the post-war era that saw tremendous and far-reaching changes. Reconstruction was a slow and at times violent undertaking, and Lincoln’s wish that the nation shall have a new birth of freedom would largely be deferred. The Union was saved, but the intersections of race and legacy of slavery, which was at the core of the Civil War, continues to confront Americans today.
These objects from that day a century-and-a-half ago act as silent witnesses to remind us of a truly remarkable time when two generals helped choreograph an unusually understanding armistice between two war-weary combatants.
Harry R. Rubenstein originally wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian Institution and Zócalo Public Square.
An inglorious end
It was not a prestigious post or a high-paying one, but it suited Lee. At the war’s end, Lee wanted only to live a quiet life… and to become a citizen of the United States again. He signed an oath of amnesty in 1865, asking to become a citizen once more.
A twist of fate, or perhaps a quiet act of malice, caused Lee’s paperwork to be lost. The oath was never officially filed, and Lee was never again a citizen of the U.S. in his lifetime. That piece of paper stayed lost for a century and was only found later in the National Archives. Lee died as a guest of the United States on October 12, 1870, of heart failure.
Here's Why America Must Never Forget Lee's Civil War Surrender To Grant
Key point: This was a meeting for the ages.
When Confederate General Robert E. Lee learned on the morning of April 9, 1865, that Union infantry was both in front and behind of his meager army of 12,500 effectives as it approached Appomattox Court House in central Virginia, he resigned himself to the sad task before him. He must ride to Union lines and request an interview with Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
“There is nothing left me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” Lee told his staff.
Disaster at Sailor’s Creek Further Depleted Lee’s Already-Thin Ranks
A week earlier Lee had ordered Confederate forces in Richmond and Petersburg to retreat west toward a rendezvous at Amelia, a stop on the Richmond and Danville Railroad. At that time his army numbered about 36,000 men, but in a series of desperate clashes at Sailor’s Creek on April 6 a good chunk of his army was captured. Straggling also took a heavy tool.
Lee set out to meet with Grant shortly after Noon on Palm Sunday. He was escorted by Lt. Col. George Babcock of Grant’s staff and brought with him his adjutant, Lt. Col. Walter Taylor, his secretary, Lt. Col. Charles Marshall, and orderly Sergeant George Tucker. Grant had suggested in his correspondence that Lee choose the meeting place. So Lee sent Marshall ahead on the important task. Marshall selected sugar speculator Wilmer McLean’s red brick house.
Grant Makes Small Talk About Mexican War During Surrender
At 1:30 PM Grant entered McLean’s parlor and went immediately to shake Lee’s hand. They were a study in contrasts of age and attire. Grant in his early 40s wore a muddy and dusty uniform because his baggage had not caught up with him at the front. Lee in his late 50s was immaculately groomed in a dress uniform with polished brass buttons. Grant had difficulty reading Lee’s dignified demeanor. He did not fathom the deep sadness his adversary felt at having to surrender the remnant of a once formidable army.
Grant made small talk about their having met once in the Mexican War. When Lee asked for conditions, Grant said that the Confederates would be paroled but must pledge not to take up arms again against the U.S. government.
Shortly afterwards Lee rode off to inform his army of the terms, Union cannon began to boom in celebration. Grant ordered the firing stopped immediately, informing his staff, “The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.”
Appomattox Court House is situated in central Virginia about 90 miles west of Richmond and 18 miles east of Lynchburg. To reach it from east or west, take US 460. When approaching the town of Appomattox, take State Route 24 north to the National Park Service-administered site.
Speculators Dismantled McLean House, But Park Service Rebuilt It
Although there are a number of extant buildings within the park, such as Clover Hill Tavern, Meeks Store, and Woodson Law Office, the McLean House was dismantled in 1893 by speculators who concocted a money-making scheme. The speculators planned to reassemble the house in the nation’s capital as a war museum but nothing came of the scheme. Subsequently, the National Park Service rebuilt the house on its original foundation in the 1940s.
The best place to begin your visit is at the visitor center inside the reconstructed court house. Rangers and volunteers at the visitor center can answer questions about the park and the historical event that occurred on the site. The visitor center has museum exhibits, video programs, maps of the park, and restrooms.
Including the reconstructed court house, there are about 10 buildings (extant or reconstructed) that were in the village at the time of the surrender and are an integral part of the park. These are all within a short walk of the visitor center. Must-see sites are the McLean House and the Clover Hill Tavern. The tavern, which was built in 1819, is the oldest structure in the village. It was where Confederate parole passes were printed. Other key sites are a short drive away. They include the locations of Lee’s and Grant’s headquarters, which are at the east and west sides of the park, respectively.
A Tearful Farewell at the Stacking of Arms
On the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road, which passes in front of the court house, the surrendering Confederate soldiers on April 12 deposited their cannon, rifles, flags, and accoutrements in a ceremony observed by 5,000 Union soldiers who lined the road. Many tears were shed as Confederate soldiers said goodbye to each other to travel back to their farms and homes.
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.
Federal soldiers who performed one of the last duties at Appomattox
A detail of the Twenty-sixth Michigan handed out paroles to the surrendered Confederates.
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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.”
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A Question of Loyalty: Why Did Robert E. Lee Join the Confederacy
ROBERT E. LEE should not be understood as a figure defined primarily by his Virginia identity. As with almost all his fellow American citizens, he manifested a range of loyalties during the late-antebellum and wartime years. Without question devoted to his home state, where his family had loomed large in politics and social position since the Colonial era, he also possessed deep attachments to the United States, to the white slaveholding South and to the Confederacy— four levels of loyalty that became more prominent, receded or intertwined at various points. Lee’s commitment to the Confederate nation dominated his actions and thinking during the most famous and important period of his life.
A letter from Lee to P.G.T. Beauregard in October 1865 provides an excellent starting point to examine his conception of loyalty. Just six months after he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Lee explained why he had requested a pardon from President Andrew Johnson. “True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another,” stated Lee, “and the motive which impels them—the desire to do right— is precisely the same. The circumstances which govern their actions change and their conduct must conform to the new order of things.” As so often was the case, Lee looked to his primary hero, George Washington, as an example: “At one time he fought against the French under Braddock, 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.” Although he did not say so explicitly, Lee’s “desire to do right” surely stemmed from his understanding of duty and honor. That understanding placed him in the uniforms of the United States, the state of Virginia and the Confederacy within a period of a few weeks in 1861.
Lee’s loyalty to Virginia certainly predominated during the momentous spring of 1861. A drift toward disaster inaugurated with South Carolina’s secession in December 1860 reached crisis in mid-April. Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on the 12th, the Federal garrison formally capitulated on the 14th and Abraham Lincoln issued a call on the 15th for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion.
On April 18, Lee met separately with Francis Preston Blair Sr. and General Winfield Scott. Empowered by Lincoln to “ascertain Lee’s intentions and feelings,” Blair asked Lee to assume command of the army being raised to put down the rebellion. Lee declined the offer and proceeded immediately to Scott’s office, where he recounted his conversation with Blair and reiterated that he would not accept the proffered command. Tradition has it that Scott, a fellow Virginian, replied, “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life but I feared it would be so.”
Word of Virginia’s secession, voted by the state’s convention on April 17, appeared in local newspapers on the 19th. In the early morning hours of April 20, Lee composed a one-sentence letter of resignation to Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Later that day he wrote a much longer letter to Scott that announced his decision and included one of the most frequently quoted sentences Lee ever penned or spoke: “Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.” The War Department took five days to process Lee’s resignation, which became official on April 25.
By then he had received an offer from Governor John Letcher to take command of all Virginia’s military forces. Lee traveled to Richmond on April 22, talked with Letcher and accepted his native state’s call. On the morning of April 23, a four-man delegation from the secession convention accompanied Lee to the Capitol. Shortly after noon, the five men entered the building, where delegates were in private session. As he waited for a few minutes outside the closed room, Lee doubtless contemplated French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s life-size statue of George Washington— his model of military and republican virtue. Walking into a crowded chamber, Lee listened to remarks from John Janney, the convention’s president. The vote for Lee had been unanimous, observed Janney, who then summoned the memory of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee’s famous tribute to Washington: “We pray God most fervently that you may so conduct the operations committed to your charge, that it will soon be said of you, that you are ‘first in peace,’ and when that time comes you will have earned the still prouder distinction of being ‘first in the hearts of your countrymen.’”
Lee the Virginian indisputably held center stage during this dramatic period. As he put it to his sister Anne Lee Marshall, “I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” Yet many members of Lee’s extended family were staunch Unionists, including Anne and many cousins. Moreover, approximately a third of all Virginians who had graduated from West Point remained loyal to the United States. Among the six Virginian colonels in U.S. service in the winter of 1861, only Lee resigned his commission. In short, many Virginians, including some who were very close to Lee, did not abandon the United States during the secession crisis.
VERY STRONG TIES second of Lee’s four loyalties under consideration—certainly complicated his decision on April to the United States—the 20. As already noted, George Washington, the greatest of all Virginians, was Lee’s idol, and the Revolutionary general and first president had been a consistent advocate of a national point of view. There would be no nation without Washington, no sense of the whole transcending state and local concerns. Lee came from a family of Federalists who believed in a strong nation as well as the need to look after Virginia’s interests. In 1798 his father had opposed the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, with their strong advocacy for state power, because they would have denied the national government “the means of preserving itself.” The Virginia Resolutions, Light-Horse Harry Lee argued, “inspired hostility, and squinted at disunion.” If states could encourage citizens to disobey federal laws, “insurrection would be the consequence.”
Lee’s devotion to the American republic made sense for one who had served it for 30 years as a gifted engineer, a staff officer who contributed substantively to American victory in the war with Mexico, and superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He identified the country’s professional soldiers, and most especially graduates of West Point, as disinterested national servants whose labors amid dangerous circumstances highlighted the shallowness of petty political bickering. Although Whiggish or even Federalist in his political views, Lee applauded news of Democrat James Buchanan’s election in 1856 as best for the nation. He wrote Mrs. Lee from Texas in December, remarking that “Mr Buchanan it appears, is to be our next President. I hope he will be able to extinguish fanaticism North & South, & cultivate love for the country & Union, & restore harmony between the different sections.”
Lee opposed secession during the winter of 1860-1861, and in the letter to his sister Anne already quoted described his “devotion to the Union” and “feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen.” His letter to Winfield Scott on April 20 further testified to how wrenching it had been “to separate myself from a Service to which I have divoted all the best years of my life, & all the ability I possessed.” Earlier that year, Lee echoed his Federalist father in telling Rooney, his middle son, that the framers meant for the Union to be perpetual. He read Edward Everett’s The Life of George Washington, published in 1860, and thought his professional model’s “spirit would be grieved could he see the wreck of his mighty labors!” Lee lamented the possibility that Washington’s “noble deeds [would] be destroyed and that his precious advice and virtuous example so soon forgotten by his countrymen.”
Despite his clear affection for the United States, Lee left its army—which brings us to a third level of loyalty. He strongly identified with the slaveholding South, and this loyalty, which aligned nicely with his sense of being a Virginian, helped guide him in the secession crisis. His political philosophy stood strikingly at odds with the virulent rhetoric of secessionist fire-eaters however, as he wrote to Rooney well before his resignation, “The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North as you say. I feel the aggression, and am willing to take every proper step for redress.” In his meetings with Francis Preston Blair and Winfield Scott on April 18, 1861, Lee proclaimed that though opposed to secession he “would not take up arms against the South” or fellow Southerners.
A desire to maintain racial control figured most prominently in Lee’s Southern identity. Often portrayed as opposed to slavery, he in fact accepted the peculiar institution as the best means for ordering relations between the races and resented Northerners who attacked the motives and character of slaveholders and seemed willing, or even eager, to disrupt racial stability in the Southern states. In late December 1856, he ruminated at considerable length to his wife on the topic. “[S]lavery as an institution,” he wrote, “is a moral and political evil in any country. It is useless to expiate on its disadvantages.” But he also believed slavery was “a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strongly for the former.” The fate of enslaved millions should be left in God’s hands: “Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery controversy.”
Lee unequivocally denounced abolitionists, alluding to what he termed “the systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South.” Such actions “can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a civil & servile war.” Abolitionists might create an apocalyptic moment by persevering in their “evil course.” Unlike many white Southerners, Lee never used “northerner” and “abolitionist” as synonyms. Extensive intercourse with officers from the North during his long pre–Civil War career in the army probably promoted geographical tolerance. As a young engineer, he had served under Connecticut-born Andrew Talcott, whose high character impressed Lee and laid the groundwork for a long friendship.
Yet Lee certainly resented Northerners who would tamper with the South’s racial order, an attitude that continued during the war. Although it is seldom quoted by historians, his response to Lincoln’s final proclamation of emancipation leaves no doubt about the depth of his feeling. On January 10, 1863, he wrote to Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon, calling for greater mobilization of human and material resources in the face of U.S. military power that threatened complete social disruption in the Confederacy. Lincoln’s proclamation laid out “a savage and brutal policy,” stated Lee with simmering anger, “which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction….” Lee’s use of “degredation,” “pollution” and “social system”—words often deployed by white Southerners in antebellum discussions about the possible consequences of abolitionism—highlight the degree to which Lincoln’s policy menaced more than the integrity of the Confederate political state.
Those who cling to the idea of Lee as preeminently devoted to his state must come to terms with a fourth important loyalty. Once Virginia joined the Confederacy, Lee quickly and decisively adopted a national as opposed to a state-centered stance. His most important loyalty during the conflict was to the Confederate nation—something consistent with his Southern and Virginia identities. Lee’s national viewpoint stands out vividly in his wartime correspondence. He consistently urged Confederate soldiers, politicians and civilians to set aside state and local prejudices in their struggle to win independence. The Confederacy, though born of a secession movement in the Deep South censured by Lee during the winter and spring of 1860-61, maintained a social order he deemed essential for a population counting millions of black people amid the white majority.
Lee articulated his views about the relative importance of state and national concerns on many occasions. A letter to South Carolina’s secretary of state, Andrew G. McGrath, in late December 1861 provides one example. Just eight months into the war, Lee took the long view regarding the topic of subordinating state to nation. He laid out a strong case for mustering South Carolina’s “military strength…& putting it under the best and most permanent organization. The troops, in my opinion, should be organized for the war.” The last sentence addressed the problem of 12-month volunteers, many thousands of whose enlistments from the spring of 1861 would be ending just as spring military campaigning commenced. Lee warned that George B. McClellan’s Union army near Manassas Junction would hold a huge numerical advantage unless the governments of South Carolina and other states met the national challenge. “The Confederate States have now but one great object in view, the successful issue of war and independence,” Lee explained to McGrath: “Everything worth their possessing depends on that. Everything should yield to its accomplishment.”
The Confederate people debated a number of issues relating to the enlargement of national power at the expense of state authority or individual liberties, and in every instance Lee came down on the side of measures that furthered the nation-building project. Although no precise breakdown of sentiment across the Confederacy in this respect is possible, Lee stood among those most willing to accept greater central power to achieve military victory and independence.
During the winter and spring of 1861-62, for example, he instructed his aide Charles Marshall to “draft a bill for raising an army by the direct agency of the Confederate Government.” Lee wanted legislation to extend by two years the service of those who previously had enlisted in good faith for 12 months, to classify all other white males between the ages of 18 and 35 as eligible to be placed into Confederate uniform, and to give Jefferson Davis the power “to call out such parts of the population rendered liable to service by the law, as he might deem proper, and at such times as he saw fit.” Marshall aptly noted, “This measure completely reversed the previous military legislation of the South….The efforts of the Government had hitherto been confined to inviting the support of the people. General Lee thought it could more surely rely upon their intelligent obedience, and that it might safely assume command where it had as yet only tried to persuade.” Lee favored a Richmond government with the power to compel service from its male citizenry. The U.S. government never had dealt with its male citizens in this fashion (though the Lincoln administration would do so in the spring of 1863), and many Confederate citizens regarded national conscription as a significant abridgement of individual rights and freedoms.
Lee believed the Confederate government often proved too slow to adopt necessary measures. He raised this subject with his son Custis, an aide to Jefferson Davis, while the armies lay in winter camps around Fredericksburg in February 1863. “You see the Federal Congress has put the whole power of their country into the hands of their President,” he reported with grudging admiration. “Nine hundred millions of dollars & three millions of men. Nothing now can arrest during the present administration the most desolating war that was ever practiced, except a revolution among their people. Nothing can produce a revolution except systematic success on our part.” Lee meant military success, which required mobilizing men and materiel on a scale the Confederate government seemed loath to embrace.
LATE IN THE WAR, slaves and freeing all who served honorably in the cause of Confederate independence. He did so not Lee supported arming some because he harbored secret abolitionist sentiment, as some have argued, but because he believed it necessary to win independence. This recommendation followed his earlier call to substitute black men for white men in noncombatant positions in the armies, thereby freeing the latter to shoulder muskets. “A considerable number could be placed in the ranks by relieving all able bodied white men employed as teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers,” he informed Jefferson Davis in the autumn of 1864, “and supplying their places with negroes….It seems to me that we must choose between employing negroes ourselves, and having them employed against us.”
Early in 1865, Federal military forces continued to penetrate deeper into the Confederacy, liberating slaves as they went. The enemy’s “progress will thus add to his numbers,” remarked Lee in a hard-eyed assessment, “and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people….Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this.” If the enrollment of some slaves in the army would bring victory, the white people of an independent Confederacy would be left in charge of ordering their social institutions as they saw fit, though admittedly there would be some necessary adjustments. Should the Confederacy fail to use black manpower this way and lose the war, abolitionists of the North would be in charge, slavery destroyed and the societal convulsions unthinkably wrenching. Lee laid out the stark alternatives: “[W]e must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions.”
Lee’s devotion to a slaveholding republic’s “social institutions”—he had used the phrase “social system” in his letter to Secretary of War Seddon regarding the Emancipation Proclamation—does much to explain his fierce loyalty to the Confederacy. When Lee observed that Union victory would end slavery in a “manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people” and with “evil consequences to both races,” it is reasonable to infer he meant without a guarantee of white supremacy and with massive economic dislocation. During the debate over arming slaves, he reiterated the opinion expressed to his wife in 1856: namely, that he considered “the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country.” That relation, which was most desirable in Lee’s judgment because it afforded white people control over a huge black population, might be maintained indefinitely if Confederate armies established Southern nationality.
Anger at an enemy represented by Lincoln and Union armies in the field deepened Lee’s commitment to the Confederacy. This contradicts a hoary convention that he harbored no bitterness against his opponents and typically referred to them as simply “those people.” The idea that Lee exercised restraint in characterizing his enemy collapses in the face of the most cursory reading of pertinent evidence. In 1870 he spoke to William Preston Johnston, son of Confederate army commander Albert Sidney Johnston, about the “vindictiveness and malignity of the Yankees, of which he had no conception before the war.” That attitude forms a theme through much of Lee’s wartime correspondence and appears frequently in contemporary and retrospective accounts by eyewitnesses.
Throughout the war, Lee deplored Union actions and policies. His response to the Emancipation Proclamation, already discussed, was not the earliest example. The conflict’s first autumn witnessed the death of Colonel John A. Washington, a member of Lee’s staff and grandnephew of the Revolutionary hero, at the hands of Union pickets. “His death is a grievous affliction to me…,” Lee wrote to a cousin, adding, “Our enemy’s [sic] have stamped their attack upon our rights, with additional infamy & by killing the lineal descendant and representative of him who under the guidance of Almighty God established them & by his virtues rendered our Republic immortal.” In December 1861, Lee alluded to “the ruin & pillage” inflicted on various parts of the South by what he termed “the vandals” in blue.
When Maj. Gen. John Pope arrived in Virginia from the Western Theater in the summer of 1862, he announced that Federals would seize civilian property, hang guerrillas and punish anyone who aided them. Lee reacted passionately, writing to Secretary of War George Wythe Randolph that he hoped to “destroy, the miscreant Pope.” The 19thcentury meanings of “miscreant,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, included “depraved, villainous, base” (adjectives) and “a vile wretch, a villain, rascal” (nouns).
Few incidents brought out Lee’s bitterness toward the Federals more dramatically than the hanging of his second cousin William Orton Williams as a spy on June 9, 1863. Several years after the event, a letter from Lee to Williams’ sister Martha indicated the continuing depth of his feeling. “My own grief…is as poignant now as on the day of [the hanging],” he wrote, “& my blood boils at the thought of the atrocious outrage, against every manly & christian sentiment which the Great God alone is able to forgive.”
A FINAL ELEMENT in Lee’s loyal embrace of the Confederacy rested on admiration for his soldiers, who fought and fell in prodigious numbers. In the wake of his victory in the Seven Days’ Campaign, Lee’s congratulatory order to the army lamented the loss of “many brave men” but urged survivors to remember the slain “had died nobly in defence of their country’s freedom” and always would be associated “with an event that will live forever in the hearts of a grateful people.” The soldiers’ “heroic conduct” was “worthy of men engaged in a cause so just and sacred, and deserving a nation’s gratitude and praise.” The grim winter of 1863-64, when near starvation stalked the camps of the Army of Northern Virginia, prompted Lee to mention the suffering and example of Washington’s men. The history of the army, he said, “has shown that the country can require no sacrifice too great for its patriotic devotion.” Then he compared their travails to those of an earlier generation: “Soldiers! You tread with no unequal step the road by which your fathers marched through suffering, privations, and blood, to independence.”
Despite lingering animosity against the United States, Lee meticulously refrained from public criticism of the victors following Appomattox. Meaningful Confederate loyalty was impossible after the surrender, and the postwar Lee officially resumed his prewar fealty to the United States. Duty, he believed, obliged him and all other former Confederates to submit to the dictates of the U.S. government. In statements he knew would be reported, he put aside all impulses to lash out at the North for its conduct during the war or its policies during Reconstruction. This was a painful exercise in restraint because the war had hardened him toward the Confederacy’s former enemies. He was a situational reconciliationist—someone who said things in public that enhanced progress toward reunion but never achieved true forgiveness and acceptance vis-à- vis his old enemies.
Lee completed his time on the stage of 19th-century U.S. history without a dominant national identity. Intense private grievances and political scar tissue from the war guaranteed that his renewed loyalty to the United States, compelled by defeat on the battlefield, never could approximate what it had been before the secession crisis. His postwar letters and statements abound with evidence that he thought of himself most often as a Virginian and a white Southerner, the antebellum loyalties that had taken him away from the United States and into the Confederacy.
We can never know how often the postwar Lee allowed his mind to return to April 23, 1861, when he had entered the Capitol in Richmond to accept command of Virginia’s forces. Had he thought about George Washington’s efforts to forge a national resistance from the efforts of 13 sometimes obdurate colonies as he walked past Thomas Gibson Crawford’s heroic equestrian statue on the Capitol grounds? Or, a bit later, when he stood beside Houdon’s marble effigy outside the chamber where the delegates met? Did he reflect on how his loyalties to Virginia and the slaveholding South had trumped one national loyalty and soon steered him toward another? Lee the Virginian already had been changing that day—his loyalties to home state and the South beginning a transmutation into ardent Confederate purpose.
Gary Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia. This article is adapted from his new book, Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Loyalty, from the University of Georgia Press, 2013.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.