29 Aug Misusing Robert E. Lee
On April 12, 1861, the day secessionists in South Carolina bombarded Ft. Sumter to fire the shots that opened the American Civil War, then-Colonel Robert E. Lee was perhaps America’s most accomplished soldier.
Lee had served with distinction in the Mexican War, leading a reconnaissance patrol that discovered the means by which the Americans defeated the Mexicans at the battle of Cerro Gordo. He had served as Superintendent of West Point, had supervised the construction of numerous coastal fortifications, and most recently, Lee commanded the forces that captured abolitionist John Brown and the gang that had attempted to seize the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia and start a slave rebellion.
As America moved inexorably toward Civil War, General Winfield Scott, the highest ranking American general, and a hero of the Mexican War, told President Abraham Lincoln that he wished Lee to command the Union army. Lee, who on March 28, 1861, had ignored an offer of command in the Confederate army was offered the command on April 18, 1861, just six days after Ft. Sumter.
Lee refused the command on the grounds that he was a Virginian and owed his first allegiance to the state he believed was a sovereign entity with the right to stay in or leave the Union as it saw fit. He would, he said, not make war on the Union, but he would defend the state of his birth.
When Virginia seceded from the Union Lee said, “I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.”
Why would Lee choose the state of Virginia over the United States of America?
While Lee espused the paternalistic attitudes many Nineteenth Century Americans felt toward Africans, it certainly wasn’t because he believed slavery was just; he wrote in 1856 , “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.”
Lee wasn’t pro-slavery, he believed, as did many others of his day, that the United States of America was merely an association of sovereign states that could, if they chose, leave it or dissolve it.
That this view had been forcefully rejected by his fellow Southerner President Andrew Jackson who wrote in a proclamation rebutting an earlier move by South Carolina to nullify federal law, “I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed,” did not back in 1861 make it any less persuasive to many in the South and even some in the North.
We all know of Lee’s legendary conduct of the Civil War campaigns in defense of Virginia, his defeat at Gettysburg and his eventual surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
Were Lee’s erroneous view of the Union and the Constitution and his conduct of the Confederate armies during the Civil War all we knew about Robert E. Lee there would be little controversy in removing his statues from their places of honor.
But it isn’t what Lee did before and during the Civil War that makes him such an important figure in American history – and one that should be honored – it is what he did after the Civil War that earned him the memorials erected to his memory and a place in history that should be honored by all.
When Lee surrendered at Appomattox he also signed a parole document swearing upon his honor not to bear arms against the United States or to “tender aid to its enemies.” Lee’s surrender and his immediate parole were essential in preventing the Civil War from continuing as a destructive guerilla war that would have continued to rend the country indefinitely.
General Grant’s terms provided that all officers and men were to be pardoned, and they would be sent home with their private property – most important, the horses, which could be used for a late spring planting. Officers would keep their side arms, and Lee’s starving men would be given Union rations.
General Grant told his officers, “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.” Although scattered resistance continued for several weeks, for all practical purposes the Civil War had come to an end.*
Just six weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox President Andrew Johnson issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon to persons who had participated in the rebellion against the United States. However, there were certain excepted classes and members of those classes had to make special application to the President.
Robert E. Lee was among those excepted, and there were plenty of people in the North, including members of Congress, who wanted to see him tried and executed for treason.
However, there was one man who refused to countenance such a course of action; General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant rightly understood that fulfilling the terms of his parole of Robert E. Lee were essential to healing the wounds of the Civil War.
Just two months after the surrender at Appomattox Lee sent an application to Grant and wrote to President Johnson on June 13, 1865:
“Being excluded from the provisions of amnesty & pardon contained in the proclamation of the 29th Ulto; I hereby apply for the benefits, & full restoration of all rights & privileges extended to those included in its terms. I graduated at the Mil. Academy at West Point in June 1829. Resigned from the U.S. Army April ’61. Was a General in the Confederate Army, & included in the surrender of the Army of N. Va. 9 April ’65.”
On October 2, 1865, the same day that Lee was inaugurated as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, he signed his Amnesty Oath, thereby complying fully with the provision of Johnson’s proclamation.
Lee’s greatest legacy is not his campaigns, which are still taught at military institutions around the world, but his contribution to national reconciliation.
Although he had ostensibly retired from the national spotlight, Lee became a voice of moderation and patient compliance. In his public letters, a number of which were reprinted in newspapers, he urged that “all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”
Lee vowed to do “all in my power to encourage our people to set manfully to work to restore the country, to rebuild their homes and churches, to educate their children, and to remain with their states, their friends and countrymen.”
Thus, when Congress ordered the drafting of new constitutions in the former Confederate states and disgruntled southerners contemplated a boycott of the system, Lee announced that it was “the duty of the [southern] people to accept the situation fully” and that every man should not only “prepare himself to vote” but also “prepare his friends, white and colored, to vote and to vote rightly.”**
Lee’s code of conduct demanded submission to federal authority. With characteristic self-discipline, he put the past behind him and moved forward. Many southerners proved willing to follow Lee’s example and through them the United States was not only reunited, but rebuilt into the preeminent military and economic power it is today.
Erasing Robert E. Lee from history – or celebrating him as a symbol of “white nationalism” – is a grave error; not only does it distort history to suit the purposes of elements in society that Lee abhorred, it misuses one of the greatest symbols of the social compact that reunited the country after four years of brother against brother bloodshed and hatred.