Once a symbol of national unity and reconciliation, Robert E. Lee is under attack in modern America. In recent years, his name and that of other Confederate generals have been erased from schools across the South, and his statue and those of his Southern compatriots have been removed from countless town squares throughout the country. Washington and Lee University, where Lee served as president after the Cvil War, has removed the historic battle flags of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia that long adorned Lee Chapel, under which the great commander is buried. Like the Confederate flag itself, Lee has become in the eyes of many an emblem of racism and, increasingly and interestingly in our jingoistic age, treason.
How did it come to this?
Long the embodiment of the South’s “Lost Cause,” Lee’s place in the pantheon of America’s secular religion has always been problematic. The Nationalist interpretation of American history holds that the internecine conflict of 1861-1865 was at its heart a conflict over slavery and that the Southern states, by engaging in secession and the use of armed force against the federal government, had essentially committed treason. The clear implication of this interpretation is that those who fought for the Southern cause were traitors and, at least by association, racists. Americans have generally agreed with Ulysses S. Grant that the Confederate cause was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
Yet for most of the twentieth century, such aspersions were muted by Northerners. In the aftermath of Appomattox, there had been talk of hanging Lee as a traitor, though nothing came of it. Among Southern officers, only the commandant of the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Henry Wirz—foreign-born and Catholic, which made it easier—was hanged by the federal government. Lee, like most Confederate leaders, with the notable exception of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, never spent a day in jail, though his great estate at Arlington was lost, having been seized by Union forces during the war. It would soon be turned into a national cemetery for the Union dead.
After the bitter period of Reconstruction, a period of national healing came in the era of the Spanish-American War of 1898, when White Protestant Americans again fought side-by-side against brown-skinned Catholics, as they had done in the Mexican-American war half a century earlier. (Indeed, Lee himself earned a superior reputation in that latter war.) Veterans from North and South gathered at Gettysburg in 1913 to shake hands across the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge that symbolically marked the “high tide of the Confederacy.” In this atmosphere Lee became more than a sectional hero to a Lost Cause; instead he was transformed into a national icon of the spirit of brotherly reconciliation. President Theodore Roosevelt praised Lee as “the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower said of Lee: “Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his faith in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul.”
With the civil rights movement of the 1960s, however, Southerners clung anew to the Lost Cause, making symbolic protest against desegregation of schools and voting rights for African Americans by incorporating the Confederate battle flag into state flags and by naming roads and schools after Confederate generals. Robert E. Lee, at least for a time, stood above this fray. Indeed, it was in 1975 that President Gerald Ford signed into law an act restoring Lee’s citizenship rights (Shortly after the war, Lee had signed the requisite Oath of Allegiance that should have led to the regaining of his citizenship status, but Secretary of State William Seward ignored the request.)
The North’s honoring of Lee was based not only on his indisputable military genius and unassailable integrity. More crucial to the Nationalist interpretation, which has always held sway in the North and increasingly dominates the South now, is the image of Lee as the cooperative penitent, the man who gave up armed resistance to federal power, condemned the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and urged his fellow Southerners to be loyal to Washington. As President Ford declared in signing the bill restoring his citizenship rights, Lee “firmly felt the wounds of the North and South must be bound up. He sought to show by example that the citizens of the South must dedicate their efforts to rebuilding that region of the country as a strong and vital part of the American Union.” He may have been a rebel fighting for a racist cause, the Nationalist school holds, but he saw the error of his ways and properly acknowledged the wisdom of the Union cause.
It is indeed true that Lee urged national reconciliation, writing to a fellow Confederate veteran, “I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony.” Lee accepted the decision of the battlefield and, ever the conservative, adjusted to realities and determined to make the best of things. Unlike some of his former comrades, he would not join in resistance to Reconstruction or stir up feelings of ill will toward federal officials or freed African Americans. In the days leading up to his surrender to Grant in April 1865, he rejected counsel that his army should continue the fight and even suggestions that he should order his men to make for the hills and become guerillas. He could not countenance anarchy and needless, endless bloodshed in the name of political principle. Lee was no ideologue.
For these actions, Northerners are right to praise Lee, though his acquiescence was just that. He never repudiated his decision to fight for his “country” (Virginia) and never criticized the Lost Cause with which he came to be identified. In this, he is not the penitent sinner of the Northern imagination. Yet Southerners have Lee wrong too, for he did not believe in secession as a principle and despised the “fire-eaters” who had led the South down the road of disunion. He was a reluctant rebel who in a conflict between competing duties made the only choice he believed he could rightly make. Lee decided that his first loyalties lay with his family and his state, whom he could not oppose in war, and these trumped his oath as a United States officer to uphold the federal Constitution.
The charge of traitor against Lee—and indeed against all who took up arms in the name of the Confederacy— rings quite hollow. There is not the space here to go into a full-blown analysis of the Constitutional, political, and philosophical issues involved in secession. Suffice it to say that the charge of treason can just as easily be leveled at those in the North who made war upon the Southern states (Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution states, in part, “treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them.”) Southerners did not choose war and wished only for a peaceful separation and independence. Certainly, in the particular case of Lee, it would be churlish to condemn him for either course of action that he might have chosen. He detested secession in principle, agonizing over what route to take when his own Virginia voted to leave the Union in 1861. Conservatives should praise him for deciding that his ultimate duty was to his family and state: “I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relations, my children & my home . . . & never desire again to draw my sword save in defence of my State.”
In regard to the charge that Lee was racist or that he supported a racist cause, again there is not room here to discuss the causes of the War Between the States. Suffice it to say that this issue is one on which honest men can disagree. Certainly Lee himself did not see the conflict in this light. In a letter of 1856 to his wife, Lee had written that “slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any country.” Despising revolutionary social change and the rhetoric of the abolitionists, he hoped for gradual emancipation and shared with Abraham Lincoln a sympathy for the idea of colonizing freed African Americans in Central America or Africa.
Lee never purchased a slave in his life. The slaves over whom he had control, some 200, came to him through his marriage to Mary Custis, a descendant of George Washington. Lee became the executor of the will of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. Though permitted by the will to free the slaves upon the elder Custis’ death in 1857, Lee deemed the slaves necessary to the financial recovery of the Arlington estate. He thus kept them enslaved as long as he could—the will stipulated a maximum of five years—freeing them in December 1862 on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation’s going into effect. Again, Lee believed that his highest duty was to his family, in this case to their economic well-being, and this trumped his concern for the freedom of the particular slaves under his control.
Lee did not enjoy being a slaveholder. He saw his father-in-law’s slaves as a necessary burden; most of them were poor workers, having developed lax habits under the slack supervision of Custis. Lee was compelled by the poor economic and physical condition of Arlington House to cajole its slaves to work longer and harder. Many resisted the new regimen, and several tried to escape. One group of escapees—two men and a woman—were captured in Maryland and were returned to Lee, who likely had them all whipped, including the female slave. In so doing, of course, Lee’s action was not atypical among slaveowners, even in an Upper South state like Virginia, whose laws in fact stipulated that owners administer corporal punishment for certain infractions.
In this, as in his paternalistic attitude toward blacks, Lee fell short of heroism. Of the bondsmen Lee once opined that “the painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race,” and he told a congressional committee after the war that it was his view blacks “at this time, cannot vote intelligently,” though he added, “what the future may prove, how intelligent they may become…. I cannot say more than you can.” As Lee’s great biographer Douglas Southall Freeman writes, his “was the prevailing view among most religious people of Lee’s class in the border states. Lee shared these convictions of his neighbors without ever having come in contact with the worst evils of African bondage.”
His conservative views precluded him from, say, taking the extreme step taken by his relation, Robert Carter III, who because of his radical religious convictions freed all 500 of his slaves in 1800. It should be recalled that George Washington only provided for his slaves’ freedom in his will, and only after his wife Martha’s death (though she freed her slaves during her lifetime, as she feared they might kill her.) Lee thought enough of the prowess of African Americans that he was a proponent of enlisting slaves to fight for the Confederacy and thereby earn their freedom. This is also additional evidence that Lee did not consider the war a crusade to preserve slavery, as he was willing to give up the institution in order to secure the greater goal of Southern independence. In the post-war years, numerous incidents were reported in which Lee flouted the conventions of his class and daringly treated a black man as his equal in social situations.
Despite his flaws when it came to his views on race, Lee should be honored as a hero by all Americans and especially by conservatives. His classical devotion to the idea of duty has been mentioned. His resistance to the temptations of power also demands our acclaim. Much is rightly made of George Washington’s laying down of his sword at the end of the American Revolution to resume his status as a private citizen. Lee similarly passed this Tolkienian test when Abraham Lincoln, on the advice of General Winfield Scott, offered him command of all United States forces in April 1861 after South Carolina forces fired on Fort Sumter. Lee declined the offer, which would have gained for him the ultimate career goal sought by every West Point-trained military man.
We must remember that the alternative for Lee was NOT the command of the Confederate armies. He was not foregoing one offer of power in order to pursue another. Indeed, his home state of Virginia had not yet seceded, and at the moment he rejected Lincoln’s offer the most he could have reasonably hoped for was command of Virginia’s troops (an honor that he did eventually receive.) It ought to be kept in mind also that Lee was aware of the superior manpower number of the North and the superior resources of Northern industrialism; the prospects of Southern independence were far from certain. As with the American Revolutionaries, the noose seemed the most likely end for the leaders of Southern independence.
Even when Virginia seceded and war began, Lee did not immediately receive a high command within Confederate ranks. He was relegated to a desk job, serving as an advisor to President Jefferson Davis. He did not receive a field command until May of 1862, when General Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded during the Seven Days’ Battles on the Virginia Peninsula. Lee then took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, but he would not be appointed commander of all Confederate forces until January 1865. This was a series of events that he could hardly have expected when he refused Lincoln’s immediate offer of power in 1861.
In addition to duty, Lee valued humility. He did not angle for promotion as he chafed at his desk job in Richmond. Rather, he humbly served President Davis, and even after being assigned command of the Army of Northern Virginia, his letters reveal that he always deferred to the prickly Davis. Just as Lee eschewed ambition, so he avoided avarice, turning down several offers in the post-war years to lend his name to companies in return for lucrative compensation. The idea of profiting from the selling of his name was anathema to Lee.
Lee embodied the Aristotelian ideal of moderation. As the deep South seceded in the winter of 1860-1861, Lee, stationed in Texas, was shocked when Texas voted for secession in February 1861; one witness recalled that Lee’s “lips trembled and his eyes [became] full of tears” when he heard the news. Lee voiced his resolve not to take up arms against the Union, “but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in defense of my native state.” When Virginia reversed its initial vote against secession in May 1861—in the light of Lincoln’s decision to make war upon the South—Lee made the anguished decision to resign his commission in the United States Army, concluding that despite his love for the Union, he “could not take part in an invasion of the southern states.”
Lee indeed despised war. Surveying the slaughter of Union troops charging his lines at Fredericksburg in December 1862, Lee commented to an aide: “It is good that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we would enjoy it too much.” As Richard Weaver has argued, this profound statement, “richer than a Delphic saying,” shows Lee to be a true philosopher. In the days after the smashing Confederate victory, Lee wrote to his wife: “What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbours, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!” This is far from the tone of a bloodthirsty martinet drunk on the intoxication of his repeated victories.
Twenty-eight months later, as mentioned above, at Appomattox Lee turned aside the suggestions of aides to continue the fight as a guerilla war. The social anarchy and protracted bloodshed that would result were anathema to the conservative Lee, and he prudently judged that Southern independence was not worth the price. Guerilla war horrified Lee because it would bring down the wrath of Mars more harshly on civilians. Indeed, Lee rejected the idea of total war that was developed by Union Generals Grant, William T. Sherman, and Phillip Sheridan, and embraced by President Lincoln. Lee was always careful to avoid civilian casualties. On the first campaign into Maryland in 1862, Lee issued General Order No. 72, which prohibited the plundering of civilian property and reminded his soldiers “that we make war only upon armed men.”
Lee’s action in issuing this order can be contrasted with that of Union General John Pope, whom Lee had just soundly defeated prior to his foray into Maryland. Only weeks prior to Lee’s Order No. 72, Pope had issued his own order authorizing in Virginia the burning of private homes and the levying of fines upon civilians as retribution for guerilla actions taken against Union troops. More egregiously, in May of 1862, Union General Benjamin Butler, presiding over conquered New Orleans, had issued his infamous General Order No. 28, stipulating that “when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.” In practice, this meant that a female civilian who dared merely to display a Confederate symbol on her dress was liable to be raped by Union troops. Such atrocities did occur.
Lee’s dogged adherence to the traditional, Christian principles of limited war is even more impressive in light of the many atrocities that were authorized and indeed perpetrated against his own people by his enemy. Lee considered the protection of civilian life so important that, as the head of the detachment sent to capture abolitionist John Brown on the eve of the Civil War, Lee ordered his Marines to unload their rifles during their assault on the building where Brown had holed up, lest the hostages that Brown held be injured or killed.
Lee’s amazing self-restraint reflected the advice he had given to a young mother about raising her infant son: “Teach him he must deny himself.” The Christian Lee valued self-control as essential to proper behavior and indeed to personal and public liberty. “I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself,” he said in evaluating his military subordinates. Lee practiced what he preached. He had the rare distinction of being a cadet who did not earn a single demerit at West Point. He expected the same gentlemanly behavior from the young men in his care at Lexington, Virginia’s Washington College, of which he became president after Appomattox. There he reduced the college’s many rules to one simple rule: “Every student must be a gentleman.”
As his name and image, and those of his fellow Confederate officers, are removed from shops, schools, and museums across the country, it is ever more important, especially for conservatives, to speak up for Robert E. Lee. A man of military genius and personal honor, a defender of civilians and civilization, a champion of duty and truth, a model of humility and prudence, Lee was perhaps the last defender of the ideals of the Old Republic, whose greying glory was ground under the wheels of the New Order of the centralized, industrialized state that triumphed in 1865. Though he wore the racial blinders of his class and time, Robert E. Lee was a man of exemplary character and remains an excellent role model for all Americans and is indeed a worthy contender for the title of “Greatest American.”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Please note that this essay was originally published on January 19, 2014.