Robert E. Lee, Virginian
Matthew B. Wills
Mathew Wills is an erstwhile lawyer who has turned to historical writing. His latest book was a biography of a captain in the British Royal Navy, which led to an invitation for him to write for the Naval Review magazine. He grew up on a farm in Tennessee.
For well over 100 years, Robert E. Lee’s reputation as a great general of noble character has stood the test of time. Douglas Southall Freeman wrote R. E. Lee: A Biography in four volumes. It was widely acclaimed upon its publication in 1934. Freeman’s work won a Pulitzer Prize. Freeman would go on to win a second Pulitzer Prize for his biography of George Washington. His biography of Lee was, perhaps, the greater work. Washington was somewhat of a remote historical figure. Lee was more real. Freeman was born on May 16, 1886, in Lynchburg, Virginia, a city not far from Appomattox. He was the son of Walter Burford Freeman, who had fought in the Army of Northern Virginia, and who would have seen Lee many times.
It was essential for Freeman to give an enormous amount of thought and study to understanding Lee’s character. Clearly, he did so. In his foreword, he reveals his unquestionable admiration for Lee as a man:
“Prolonged as my investigation has been and puzzling as some of its problems have appeared to be, I have been fully repaid by being privileged to live, as it were, for more than a decade in the company of a great gentleman. A biographer can ask no richer compensation.”
In 1958, Sir Winston Churchill published the fourth and final volume of his A History of The English Speaking Peoples, entitled The Great Democracies. He had studied the American Civil War in minute detail and had visited some of the most important battlefields. His book describes the course of that conflict in vintage Churchillian prose. Of Robert E. Lee, he wrote, “(Lee) was one of the noblest Americans who ever lived and one of the greatest captains known to the annals of war.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica was founded in 1768. Its 15th edition was published in 1975. In its Macropaedia component, it devoted two full pages to Robert E. Lee. The concluding paragraph reads:
“Although history knows him mostly as ‘The Rebel General,’ Lee was a disbeliever in slavery and succession and was devoutly attached to the republic that his father and his kinsmen had helped bring into being. He was, moreover, very advanced in his rejection of war as a resolution of political conflicts — a fact that has been almost entirely ignored by posterity. As a U.S. Army Colonel in Texas during the secession crisis of late 1860, he wrote, ‘(If) strife and Civil War are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, I will mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind.’”
In its bibliography to the Lee article, the Encyclopedia states that Freeman’s work is the definitive biography of Lee.
In the first decade of this century, Lee was still treated as a great man. Chambers Biographical Dictionary was first published in 1897 in London. Its 8th edition was published in 2007. Chamber’s biographical summary of Lee’s life is entirely favorable. In the subtitle, the writer for Chambers calls Lee “one of the greatest of the Confederate generals,” and in the body of the summary states “Lee’s achievements are central to the history of the American Civil War.”
Regrettably, in recent years there are those who want to destroy Lee’s heretofore stellar reputation for their own political agenda. The most visible sign of this revisionism has been the actions of some city councils to remove or destroy monuments honoring Lee. Virginia’s democrat governor, Ralph Northam, a Democrat, plans to remove perhaps the most famous statue of Lee ever cast. More than 100,000 spectators attended the 1890 dedication of this equestrian statue of Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond. The governor is supported by two radical groups, Black Lives Matter and Antifa. Both of these groups want all future historians to denounce Lee for his adherence to the Southern cause and for leading the Army of Northern Virginia in its greatest battles. It is worth noting that these same radicals are responsible for destroying statues of such disparate historical figures as Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt.
There are those who want to teach schoolchildren that Lee was an evil person. They are defaming an honorable man. It is hard to find anyone in our history whose life reflected more rectitude and grace than his. Because his parents lacked the funds to send him to a university, Lee applied for and received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He would graduate from West Point second in his class. The most coveted of West Point honors was the office of corps adjutant. The adjutant of the corps for 1828 - 29 was Robert E. Lee of Virginia.
At West Point Lee, had shown great promise as a future regular army officer but the ultimate test for every army officer is the crucible of war. In the Mexican War, Captain Lee proved that he could lead men in battle. His leadership and valor did not go unnoticed. General Winfield Scott was commander-in-chief of all American forces in Mexico. After the war, Scott referred to Lee in an official letter as “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.”
On September 1, 1850, Lee became the 9th Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. Throughout his time as superintendent, Lee carefully studied each cadet. He came to know most of their frailties and all of their good points. If a cadet could not keep up with the work, he invariably gave the cadet the opportunity to resign and thus avoid the humiliation of dismissal. Lee’s son Custis graduated from West Point with the class of 1854. To Lee’s gratification, Custis graduated first in his class. Aside from his son, the graduate whom Lee had come to know best was “a stout grey-eyed lad of middle height and broad shoulders, with abundant hair and a dashing manner, a boy born to be a cavalry-man.” He was already known for his three initials as “J.E.B.” His family name was Stuart.
April 18, 19, and 20 of 1861 were decisive days for Lee, for his family, and for his native state of Virginia. Lee was fifty-four. He had spent twenty-two years advancing from the rank of Captain to that of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1858, Lee had been made brevet Colonel. In less than 3 years, this brevet Colonel would be offered command of 75,000 troops to be raised by the federal government to suppress the rebellion in the south. President Lincoln had authorized a trusted advisor, Frances P. Blair, a former editor of The Congressional Globe, to make this offer. On the morning of April 18, Lee traveled by horse from his wife’s estate, Arlington, to Blair’s son’s house on Pennsylvania Avenue for their meeting. Lee later wrote of this interview. “I declined the offer he made me to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field, stating as candidly and as courteously as I could, that though opposed to succession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.”
That same day before leaving Washington, Lee went to see General Scott, who had requested the meeting. He informed his old chief of what had transpired. Scott, deeply moved, said, “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared that it would be so.” Before leaving Scott for the last time, his mentor had told Lee that if he were going to resign his Commission in the U.S. Army, he should not delay. The next morning Lee went into Arlington and read the news that he hoped that he would never see. Virginia had seceded, subject to a referendum by the voters of Virginia. Lee’s judgment told him that the war would not wait on the outcome of the referendum. After midnight on April 19th, he wrote the following letter:
“Honorable Simon Cameron
Secretary of War
I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commission as Colonel of the 1st Regiment of Calvary.
Very Respectfully Your Obedient Servant
Colonel 1st Cavalry”
To have fought with the North was unthinkable; to have remained neutral was emotionally impossible; Lee’s only option was to offer his services to Virginia. It was a matter of conscience. It had nothing to do with slavery. It had everything to do with the threat that Northern armies posed to Virginia. Lee was sure that the largest of these armies would concentrate in the vicinity of Washington before advancing on Richmond. This is exactly what happened.
General Irvin McDowell has been described by historian Bruce Catton as “serious, well-intentioned, hard-working, and deeply unlucky.” By an ironic twist of fate, McDowell confiscated Arlington, the home of Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis Lee, for his headquarters. The Lees had been married at Arlington in 1831. The title to this estate had passed from Mary’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, to his only child, Mary, on his death. Her father was a grandson of Mrs. George Washington and the adopted son of George Washington. Lee could almost feel the presence of Washington at Arlington. He felt totally at home there as a result of his happy marriage and because Washington was his foremost hero.
McDowell, who had never commanded troops in the field, now found himself in command of an army of 34,000. It was then the largest army put in the field in U.S. history. McDowell planned to use his army to engage and destroy a smaller Confederate army defending the approach to Richmond. The first major battle of the Civil War would be fought at a place called Manassas Junction.
The most serious accusation against Lee has been the accusation of treason. This raises a constitutional question. If the southern states had had the constitutional right to secede, their citizens could not be guilty of treason. Section 2 of Article 111 of the U.S. Constitution provided “In all cases . . . in which a State shall be Party, the Supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction.” President Lincoln may have considered bringing an action in the Supreme Court against the southern states. He did not do so, perhaps, because he did not know how the Supreme Court might rule. Today, none can say with certainty what the U.S. Supreme Court would have done in 1861. Walter E. Williams has achieved distinction at George Mason University in Virginia. He is a conservative African-American who is most likely appalled at the efforts of Black Lives Matter and Antifa to vilify Lee.
On July 22, 2020 in a syndicated op-ed piece published in newspapers throughout America, Williams shared his scholarly research with his readers. His opening sentence is revealing. He wrote, "The Confederacy has been the excuse for some of today’s rioting, property destruction, and grossly uninformed statements.”
Williams goes on to inform his readers about a proposal to insert in the U.S. Constitution of 1787 a provision that would permit the federal government to suppress a seceding state. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, rejected it. The minutes from the debate have paraphrased Madison’s reasons as follows: “The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment. . . .” The majority of the delegation to the Constitutional Convention agreed with Madison. That power was never delegated to the United States. This is significant because Article X of the Bill of Rights of 1791 states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Williams explains how the secessionist movement started in New England, where many New Englanders were infuriated by Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Their fury precipitated a movement toward secession. One of its leaders was Timothy Pickering, who had been quartermaster general in the Revolutionary Army and Secretary of War in President Washington’s cabinet. Williams quotes Pickering as asserting: “The eastern states must and will dissolve the Union and form a separate government.”
Williams’ final point addresses the condemnation of Lee as a traitor. Williams writes, “Confederate generals fought for independence from the Union just as George Washington fought for independence from Great Britain. Those who label Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals as traitors might also label George Washington as a traitor.”
Washington and Lee had much in common. They were both born in Virginia. Their forebears came to Virginia from England. Each of them proved to be a great general. Neither had any responsibility for the slave trade. That trade existed to a large extent because of two colonial empires, The Portuguese Empire and the British Empire. It is estimated that approximately four million African slaves were carried on slave ships under deplorable conditions to Brazil. Brazil did not abolish slavery until some 23 years after the American Civil War.
For over 100 years prior to the American Revolution, the British Empire allowed slave ships under equally deplorable conditions to bring African slaves to its North American colonies and to its colonies in the West Indies. Many more were brought to the West Indies than to North America. Some prominent Virginians were well aware of British involvement in the slave trade. One of them was George Mason, the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights. During one of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention, Mason had this to say about Britain’s role in the slave trade: “This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. . . .”
A writer for the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica published in 1975 has made clear British responsibility for the slave trade. “The West Indies plantations relied on a steady flow of slaves from Africa. British merchants and ships profited not only from supplying these slaves but also from the slave trade with other colonies in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, the British were the leading slave traders, controlling at least half of the transatlantic slave trade by the end of the 18th century.”
It is worth speculating what would have happened had Britain abolished slavery in all of her colonies in the middle of the 17th century. The American Civil War might never have taken place.
Lee was never tried for treason due to the magnanimity of President Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln realized that harsh treatment of Lee would cause a wave of bitterness to sweep across the South, imperiling reconciliation for decades. It is probable that Lincoln respected Lee’s valor and integrity, which would have inclined him to be lenient.
Grant’s magnanimity toward Lee is somewhat more surprising. They had commanded opposing armies in some of the bloodiest battles ever fought on American soil. Andrew Johnson, who became President less than a week after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox was neither a great man nor a good President. Although he was from Tennessee, he had no sympathy for the destruction and death toll that the South had experienced. He strongly favored charging Lee with treason. At a White House meeting in June 1865, Grant stood up to his commander-in-chief, telling him he would never agree to try Lee for treason because of his promise to Lee that he would not be prosecuted. Grant was fully prepared to resign from the Army should Johnson proceed with Lee’s prosecution. President Johnson soon backed down. The people of the North generally supported Grant.
After the surrender, Lee categorically rejected any suggestion that Southern soldiers engage in guerrilla warfare. In his correspondences with his erstwhile officers and men, he counseled them to become loyal citizens of the reunified country. When the war ended, Lee had no means to support himself and his family. In August 1865, to Lee’s complete surprise, he was offered the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He accepted with gratitude. The college now bears the name Washington and Lee University. Lee always adjured his students to put “The War” behind them.
While the statue of Lee that had been so proudly displayed for more than 130 years on Monument Avenue in Richmond is in imminent danger of being removed or destroyed by those who despise him, Lee will always be remembered. He will be remembered as the courageous, bold, and decisive commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, as the hero of the South who was revered by millions, and as the Virginian whose love of his native state never dimmed. *