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DIED: 1870 in Lexington, VA.
CAMPAIGNS: Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Court House, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Richmond, Petersburg and Appomattox.
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Robert E. Lee summary: Confederate General Robert E. Lee is perhaps the most iconic and most widely respected of all Civil War commanders. Though he opposed secession, he resigned from the U.S. Army to join the forces of his native state, rose to command the largest Confederate army and ultimately was named general-in-chief of all Confederate land forces. He repeatedly defeated larger Federal armies in Virginia, but his two invasions of Northern soil were unsuccessful. In Ulysses S. Grant, he found an opponent who would not withdraw regardless of setbacks and casualties, and Lee’s outnumbered forces were gradually reduced in number and forced into defensive positions that did not allow him room to maneuver. When he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, it meant the war was virtually over.
Robert Edward Lee was the fifth child of Revolutionary War hero and governor of Virginia Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. Henry Lee, unfortunately, was fiscally irresponsible, which hurt the family financially, and he left for the West Indies when Robert was six, never to return. Robert’s mother, Ann Carter Lee, raised the boy with a strong sense of duty and responsibility.
Robert secured an appointment to West Point in 1825. Graduating second in his class in 1829, with no demerits, he entered the prestigious Engineer Corps. Throughout the peace of 1830s and early 1840s, he was assigned to posts from Georgia to New York and rose from second lieutenant to captain. In 1831 he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, great-granddaughter of George Washington’s wife Martha and her first husband, Daniel P. Custis. As a result of wedding Mary, Lee improved his financial position and his name became associated, however distantly, with the Revolutionary War commander and first president, something that added to his reputation during and after the Civil War.
Much of the design of the Confederate States Army was based on the structure and customs of the U.S. Army  when the Confederate Congress established their War Department on February 21, 1861.  The Confederate Army was composed of three parts the Army of the Confederate States of America (ACSA, intended to be the permanent, regular army), the Provisional Army of the Confederate States (PACS, or "volunteer" Army, to be disbanded after hostilities), and the various Southern state militias.
Graduates from West Point and Mexican War veterans were highly sought after by Jefferson Davis for military service, especially as general officers. Like their Federal counterparts, the Confederate Army had both professional and political generals within it. Ranks throughout the CSA were roughly based on the U.S. Army in design and seniority.  On February 27, 1861, a general staff for the army was authorized, consisting of four positions: an adjutant general, a quartermaster general, a commissary general, and a surgeon general. Initially the last of these was to be a staff officer only.  The post of adjutant general was filled by Samuel Cooper (the position he had held as a colonel in the U.S. Army from 1852 until resigning) and he held it throughout the Civil War, as well as the army's inspector general. 
Initially, the Confederate Army commissioned only brigadier generals in both the volunteer and regular services  however, the Congress quickly passed legislation allowing for the appointment of major generals as well as generals, thus providing clear and distinct seniority over the existing major generals in the various state militias.  On May 16, 1861, when there were only five officers at the grade of brigadier general, this legislation was passed, which stated in part:
That the five general officers provided by existing laws for the Confederate States shall have the rank and denomination of 'general', instead of 'brigadier-general', which shall be the highest military grade known to the Confederate States . 
As of September 18, 1862, when lieutenant generals were authorized, the Confederate Army had four grades of general officers they were (in order of increasing rank) brigadier general, major general, lieutenant general, and general.  As officers were appointed to the various grades of general by Jefferson Davis (and were confirmed), he would create the promotion lists himself. The dates of rank, as well as seniority of officers appointed to the same grade on the same day, were determined by Davis "usually following the guidelines established for the prewar U.S. Army." 
These generals were most often infantry or cavalry brigade commanders, aides to other higher ranking generals, and War Department staff officers. By war's end the Confederacy had at least 383 different men who held this rank in the PACS, and three in the ACSA: Samuel Cooper, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph E. Johnston.  The organization of regiments into brigades was authorized by the Congress on March 6, 1861. Brigadier generals would command them, and these generals were to be nominated by Davis and confirmed by the Confederate Senate. 
Though close to the Union Army in assignments, Confederate brigadiers mainly commanded brigades while Federal brigadiers sometimes led divisions as well as brigades, particularly in the first years of the war. These generals also often led sub-districts within military departments, with command over soldiers in their sub-district. These generals outranked Confederate Army colonels, who commonly led infantry regiments.
This rank is equivalent to brigadier general in the modern U.S. Army.
These generals were most commonly infantry division commanders, aides to other higher ranking generals, and War Department staff officers. They also led the districts that made up military departments and had command over the troops in their districts. Some Major generals also led smaller military departments. By war's end, the Confederacy had at least 88 different men who had held this rank, all in the PACS. 
Divisions were authorized by the Congress on March 6, 1861, and major generals would command them. These generals were to be nominated by Davis and confirmed by the Senate.  Major generals outranked brigadiers and all other lesser officers.
This rank was not synonymous with the Union's use of it, as Northern major generals led divisions, corps, and entire armies. This rank is equivalent in most respects to major general in the modern U.S. Army.
Major generals by seniority Edit
Evander Mclver Law was promoted to the rank of Major General on March 20, 1865 on the recommendation of Generals Johnston and Hampton just before the surrender. The promotion was too late to be confirmed by the Confederate Congress however.
There were 18 lieutenant generals in the Confederate Army, and these general officers were often corps commanders within armies or military department heads, in charge of geographic sections and all soldiers in those boundaries. All of the Confederacy's lieutenant generals were in the PACS.  The Confederate Congress legalized the creation of army corps on September 18, 1862, and directed that lieutenant generals lead them. These generals were to be nominated by President Davis and confirmed by the C.S. Senate.  Lieutenant generals outranked major generals and all other lesser officers.
This rank was not synonymous with the Federal use of it Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) was one of only two Federal lieutenant generals during the war, the other being Winfield Scott (1786–1866), General-in-Chief of the United States Army 1841–1861, at the beginning of the American Civil War who also served in the War of 1812 (1812–1815), and led an army in the field during the Mexican–American War (1846–1849), received a promotion to brevet lieutenant general by a special Act of Congress in 1855. Gen. Grant was by the time of his promotion, March 9, 1864, the only Federal lieutenant general in active service. Grant became General-in-Chief, commander of the United States Army and of all the Union armies, answering directly to President Abraham Lincoln and charged with the task of leading the Federal armies to victory over the southern Confederacy. The CSA lieutenant general rank is also roughly equivalent to lieutenant general in the modern U.S. Army.
The Congress passed legislation in May 1864 to allow for "temporary" general officers in the PACS, to be appointed by President Jefferson Davis and confirmed by the C.S. Senate and given a non-permanent command by Davis.  Under this law, Davis appointed several officers to fill open positions. Richard H. Anderson was appointed a "temporary" lieutenant general on May 31, 1864, and given command of the First Corps in the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Gen. Lee (following the wounding of Lee's second-in-command, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet on May 6 in the Battle of the Wilderness.) With Longstreet's return that October, Anderson reverted to a major general. Jubal Early was appointed a "temporary" lieutenant general on May 31, 1864, and given command of the Second Corps (following the reassignment of Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell to other duties) and led the Corps as an army into the third Southern invasion of the North in July 1864 with battles at the Monocacy near Frederick, Maryland and Fort Stevens outside the Federal capital city of Washington, D.C., until December 1864, when he too reverted to a major general. Likewise, both Stephen D. Lee and Alexander P. Stewart were appointed to fill vacancies in the Western Theater as "temporary" lieutenant generals and also reverted to their prior grades as major generals as those assignments ended. However, Lee was nominated a second time for lieutenant general on March 11, 1865. 
Lieutenant generals by seniority Edit
Originally five officers in the South were appointed to the rank of general, and only two more would follow. These generals occupied the senior posts in the Confederate Army, mostly entire army or military department commanders, and advisers to Jefferson Davis. This rank is equivalent to the general in the modern U.S. Army, and the grade is often referred to in modern writings as "full general" to help differentiate it from the generic term "general" meaning simply "general officer". 
All Confederate generals were enrolled in the ACSA to ensure that they outranked all militia officers,  except for Edmund Kirby Smith, who was appointed general late in the war and into the PACS. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, had also initially been appointed a PACS general but was elevated to ACSA two months later with the same date of rank.  These generals outranked all other grades of generals, as well as all lesser officers in the Confederate States Army.
The first group of officers appointed to general was Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, and Pierre G.T. Beauregard, with their seniority in that order. This ordering caused Cooper, a staff officer who would not see combat, to be the senior general officer in the CSA. That seniority strained the relationship between Joseph E. Johnston and Jefferson Davis. Johnston considered himself the senior officer in the Confederate States Army and resented the ranks that President Davis had authorized. However, his previous position in the U.S. Army was staff, not line, which was evidently a criterion for Davis regarding establishing seniority and rank in the subsequent Confederate States Army. 
On February 17, 1864, legislation was passed by Congress to allow President Davis to appoint an officer to command the Trans-Mississippi Department in the Far West, with the rank of general in the PACS. Edmund Kirby Smith was the only officer appointed to this position.  Braxton Bragg was appointed a general in the ACSA with a date of rank of April 6, 1862, the day his commanding officer Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston died in combat at Shiloh/Pittsburg Landing. 
The Congress passed legislation in May 1864 to allow for "temporary" general officers in the PACS, to be appointed by Davis and confirmed by the C.S. Senate and given a non-permanent command by Davis.  John Bell Hood was appointed a "temporary" general on July 18, 1864, the date he took command of the Army of Tennessee in the Atlanta Campaign, but this appointment was not later confirmed by the Congress, and he reverted to his rank of lieutenant general in January 1865.  Later in March 1865, shortly before the end of the war, Hood's status was spelled out by the Confederate States Senate, which stated:
Resolved, That General J. B. Hood, having been appointed General, with temporary rank and command, and having been relieved from duty as Commander of the Army of Tennessee, and not having been reappointed to any other command appropriate to the rank of General, he has lost the rank of General, and therefore cannot be confirmed as such. 
Generals by seniority Edit
Note that during 1863, Beauregard, Cooper, J. Johnston, and Lee all had their ranks re-nominated on February 20 and then re-confirmed on April 23 by the Confederate Congress.  This was in response to debates on February 17 about whether confirmations made by the provisional legislature needed re-confirmation by the permanent legislature, which was done by an Act of Congress issued two days later. 
The position of General in Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States was created on January 23, 1865. The only officer appointed to it was Gen. Robert E. Lee, who served from February 6 until April 12.
The Southern states had had militias in place since Revolutionary War times consistent with the U.S. Militia Act of 1792. They went by varied names such as State "Militia" or "Armies" or "Guard" and were activated and expanded when the Civil War began. These units were commanded by "Militia Generals" to defend their particular state and sometimes did not leave native soil to fight for the Confederacy. The Confederate militias used the general officer ranks of Brigadier General and Major General.
The regulations in the Act of 1792 provided for two classes of militia, divided by age. Class one was to include men from 22 to 30 years old, and class two would include men from 18 to 20 years as well as from 31 to 45 years old.  The various southern states were each using this system when the war began.
All Confederate generals wore the same uniform insignia regardless of which rank of general they were,  except for Robert E. Lee who wore the uniform of a Confederate colonel. The only visible difference was the button groupings on their uniforms groups of three buttons for lieutenant and major generals, and groups of two for brigadier generals. In either case, a general's buttons were also distinguished from other ranks by their eagle insignia.
|Rank||Collar insignia||Sleeve insignia||Buttons|
|Lieutenant General||Groups of three buttons|
|Major General||Groups of three buttons|
|Brigadier General||Groups of two buttons|
To the right is a picture of the CSA general's full uniform, in this case of Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Anderson of the Confederacy's Ordnance Department. All of the South's generals wore uniforms like this regardless of which grade of general they were, and all with gold-colored embroidering.
The general officers of the Confederate Army were paid for their services, and exactly how much (in Confederate dollars (CSD)) depended on their rank and whether they held a field command or not. On March 6, 1861, when the army only contained brigadier generals, their pay was $301 CSD monthly, and their aide-de-camp lieutenants would receive an additional $35 CSD per month beyond regular pay. As more grades of the general officer were added, the pay scale was adjusted. By June 10, 1864, a general received $500 CSD monthly, plus another $500 CSD if they led an army in the field. Also, by that date, lieutenant generals got $450 CSD and major generals $350 CSD, and brigadiers would receive $50 CSD in addition to regular pay if they served in combat. 
The CSA lost more general officers killed in combat than the Union Army did throughout the war, in the ratio of about 5-to-1 for the South compared to roughly 12-to-1 in the North.  The most famous of them is General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, probably the best known Confederate commander after General Robert E. Lee.  Jackson's death was the result of pneumonia which emerged subsequently after a friendly fire incident had occurred at Chancellorsville on the night of May 2, 1863. Replacing these fallen generals was an ongoing problem during the war, often having men promoted beyond their abilities (a common criticism of officers such as John Bell Hood  and George E. Pickett,  but an issue for both armies), or gravely wounded in combat but needed, such as Richard S. Ewell.  The problem was made more difficult by the South's depleting manpower, especially near the war's end.
The last Confederate general in the field, Stand Watie, surrendered on June 23, 1865, and the war's last surviving full general, Edmund Kirby Smith, died on March 28, 1893.  James Longstreet died on January 2, 1904, and was considered "the last of the high command of the Confederacy". 
Robert E Lee Promoted To Confederate General-in-Chief
Today on January 31, 1865, the Second Confederate States Congress appoints Robert E Lee to General-in-Chief of the Southern army.
Robert E Lee was the leading commander for the Confederate forces during the American Civil War. The majority of his time was spent commanding the Army of Northern Virginia. As a highly skilled military strategist and tactician, he experienced great successes during the initial years of the war. Throughout the Peninsula Campaign, Robert E Lee achieved impressive victories at the Battle of Second Bull Run, the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the Battle of Chancellorsville. But in July 1863, the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg turned out to be a significant turning point in the war. From that point on, Confederates forces were on the defensive. By 1864, it was clear that the bloody Civil War was finally reaching its inevitable end.
The Confederate army became increasingly short on manpower due to growing casualties, disease and desertion. Supplies and funding ran dangerously low, making it extremely difficult to maintain an effective fighting force. As the newly appointed General-in-Chief, Robert E Lee broke with tradition by flipping political positions. He immediately called for slaves to be enlisted and trained in the Confederate army. Lee emphasized, “We should employ slaves without delay, and provide gradual and general emancipation.” Although his orders were reluctantly enacted, the war came to an end a few short months later. These crucial African-American reinforcements never made it to the battlefield.
On April 9, 1865, Robert E Lee formally surrendered to General Ulysses Grant after failing to break through enemy lines at Appomattox Court House. Grant’s Union army outnumbered the southern forces by more than five times. Desertions were rapidly mounting, and the new General-in-Chief had run out of options. The two opposing commanders met at the home of Wilmer McLean shortly after lunchtime. Lee characteristically arrived in his full ceremonial uniform while Grant still had his muddied battlefield attire on. The next day, the Confederate General-in-Chief issued a final farewell address to his loyal soldiers. Some officers rejected the surrender and called for a guerrilla war to commence against the north. Lee denied all of these ideas and insisted the Civil War was definitively over. He subsequently played an important role in campaigning for reconciliation between the north and south. To this day, Southern States continue to venerate Robert E Lee as a brave and heroic figure.
Final Years and Death
Saved from being hanged as a traitor by a forgiving Lincoln and Grant, Lee returned to his family in April 1865. He eventually accepted a job as president of Washington College in western Virginia, and devoted his efforts toward boosting the institution&aposs enrollment and financial support.
In late September 1870, Lee suffered a massive stroke. He died at his home, surrounded by family, on October 12. Shortly afterward, Washingtonollege was renamed Washington and Lee University.
Military Service & Civil War
For full details on his extensive military career, please visit his Wikipedia page.
Before the Civil War, Lee and his wife had lived at his wife's family home, the Custis-Lee Mansion on Arlington Plantation. The plantation had been seized by Union forces during the war, and became part of Arlington National Cemetery immediately following the war, Lee spent two months in a rented house in Richmond, and then escaped the unwelcome city life by moving into the overseer's house of a friend's plantation near Cartersville, Virginia. (In December 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, returned the property to Custis Lee, stating that it had been confiscated without due process of law.On March 3, 1883, the Congress purchased the property from Lee for $150,000.)
While living in the country, Lee wrote his son that he hoped to retire to a farm of his own, but a few weeks later he received an offer to serve as the president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. Lee accepted, and remained president of the College from October 2, 1865 until his death. Over five years, he transformed Washington College from a small, undistinguished school into one of the first American colleges to offer courses in business, journalism, and Spanish. He also imposed a simple concept of honor—"We have but one rule here, and it is that every student be a gentleman" — that endures today at Washington and Lee and at a few other schools that continue to maintain "honor systems." Importantly, Lee focused the college on attracting male students from the North as well as the South.
Robert E. Lee (1-19-1807 - 10-12-1870)For some the man Robert E. Lee is an almost god like figure. For others he is a paradox. Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807 at Stratford, Virginia. Robert was the fourth child of a Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee and Ann Hill Carter Lee. Young Robert, the son, was raised mostly by his mother. From her he learned patience, control, and discipline. As a young man he was exposed to Christianity and accepted its faith. In contrast to the strong example of his mother Robert saw his father go from failed enterprise to failed enterprise. In part the young Robert was led to try harder and succeed.
Robert was accepted to the United States Military Academy and graduated 2nd in his class. But perhaps greater than his academic success was his record of no demerits while being a cadet which today has still not been equaled. Following his graduation Lee, like most top classmen, was given a commission as an engineer. Lt. Lee helped build the St. Louis waterfront and worked on coastal forts in Brunswick and Savannah. It was during this time he married Mary Custis the granddaughter of George Washington and Martha Custis Washington.
In 1845 the War between U.S. and Mexico erupted. General Winfield Scott, overall U.S. Army commander, attached Captain Robert E. Lee to his staff. Lee was intrusted with the vital duties of mapping out the terrain ahead, dividing the line of advance for the U.S. troops, and in one case leading troops into battle. Lee was learning skills he would need 16 years later. There in Mexico Lee also met, worked with, and got a chance to evaluate many of those he would later serve with and against James Longstreet, Thomas J. Jackson, George Pickett, and U.S. Grant.
Following the Mexican War Lee returned to service as an army engineer. He spent most of this time near Washington D.C. and moved into Custis mansion (now overlooking the Arlington Cemetery). Thus was Colonel Lee was available for duty to put down a believed rebellion at Harper Ferry, Virginia the site of a United States Arsenal. Colonel Lee, and a young aide Lt. JEB Stuart, and a detachment of U.S. marines, were rushed by train to Harper's Ferry where they were able to capture radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers.
Brown's attempt seemed to confirm all the worst fears of the deep south and when Abraham Lincoln was elected President South Carolina seceded and was quickly followed by 6 more deep southern states: Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. The old warrior General Winfield Scott asked Colonel Robert E. Lee to take command of the United States Army to put down the rebellion.
Lee, however, offered his services to the newly elected President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. Mr. Davis accepted them and Lee was made a general in CSA service. At first General Lee was more or less advisor to President Davis and the Secretary of War.
General Lee's first campaign in what was to become West Virginia was less than a success. Command of the Eastern Army was divided between the hero of Fort Sumpter, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Joe Johnston who together won the first big battle of the East -- Bull Run (Manassas). Thus Joe Johnston was in command when George B. McClellan started his march on Richmond. When Johnston went down with wounds it was easy for Davis to replace him with General R.E. Lee who immediately took charge and attacked, trying to make up for his numbers with his audacity. In a series of continuous battles known as the 7 Days Battle Lee forced McClellan to retreat.
Thus began the career of the Army of Northern Virginia which rose and fell with Lee's star. His boldness and grasp of strategy made him more than a match for every General President Lincoln sent against him until U.S. Grant defeated him through the Battle of Attrition.
Lee's greatest victory was the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863. Lee was faced with a larger army led by fighting Joe Hooker. Lee and his most trusted lieutenant, Gen. Stonewall Jackson, divided their forces and through a forced march around General Hooker fell on his exposed flank, rolling it up, and defeating the union forces yet again.
This victory led Lee and Davis to consider a second invasion of the North. Lee's army would hopefully bring the Federal forces to bay and destroy them. They would then march on Washington to hand Lincoln a letter asking for recognition of the CSA. So with desperate hopes, and while still mourning the loss of Stonewall Jackson, Lee and Davis crossed the river and invaded Pennsylvania.
The greatest land battle in the Western Hemisphere was fought at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1, 2, & 3. The Army of Northern Virginia led by Lee, and the Army of the Potomac led by newly appointed General George Meade, hammered each other. On the 3rd day of battle General Lee hoping to end the war ordered the great frontal assault popularly known as Pickett's Charge. After the failure of the attack General Lee blamed only himself, but Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia fought on for 2 more years. General Lee surrendered at Appomatox Court House on April 9, 1865. This effectively brought the American Civil War to an end as other Confederate field commanders followed Lee's example
Following the war Lee was almost tried as a traitor, but was only left with his civil rights suspended. Lee was offered the post of President of Washington University where he served until his death in 1870. The school was later renamed Washington and Lee. As a final note President Gerald Ford had Lee's citizenship restored.
Lee Considered : General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History
Of all the heroes produced by the Civil War, Robert E. Lee is the most revered and perhaps the most misunderstood. Lee is widely portrayed as an ardent antisecessionist who left the United States Army only because he would not draw his sword against his native Virginia, a Southern aristocrat who opposed slavery, and a brilliant military leader whose exploits sustained the Confederate cause.
Alan Nolan explodes these and other assumptions about Lee and the war through a rigorous reexamination of familiar and long-available historical sources, including Lee's personal and official correspondence and the large body of writings about Lee. Looking at this evidence in a critical way, Nolan concludes that there is little truth to the dogmas traditionally set forth about Lee and the war.
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Lee considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War history
Marching in the tracks of such historians as Bruce Catton, Thomas Connelly, and T. Harry Williams, Nolan tries to unhorse the mythic Lee. In pointing out the contradictions between the legend and the . Читать весь отзыв
Comparing Grant and Lee: A Study In Contrasts
From the earliest postwar days, Robert E. Lee was praised as a military genius. Typical is this statement by Lee’s Adjutant-General Walter H. Taylor: “It is well to bear in mind the great inequality between the two contending armies, in order that one may have a proper appreciation of the difficulties which beset General Lee in the task of thwarting the designs of so formidable an adversary, and realize the extent to which his brilliant genius made amends for paucity of numbers, and proved more than a match for brute force, as illustrated in the hammering policy of General Grant.” Taylor typified the denigration of Grant that accompanied the deification of Lee. The cult of Lee worshipers began with former Civil War generals who had fought ineffectively under him. They sought to polish their own tarnished reputations and restore Southern pride by deliberately distorting the historical record and creating the myth of the flawless Robert E. Lee.2 More recently, Richard McMurry wrote, “[Lee] stands as the colossus of Confederate military history—the only Southern army commander to enjoy any degree of success.”
Although Lee was generally worshipped for the first hundred years after the Civil War, there were exceptions. In 1929 and 1933, British Major General J. F. C. Fuller criticized Lee while praising Grant. He described Lee as “in several respects . . . one of the most incapable Generals-in-Chief in history,” and criticized him for his narrow Eastern perspective and his over-aggressiveness in several campaigns. The works of T. Harry Williams and Thomas L. Connelly (especially his The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society ) tied Lee to the Myth of the Lost Cause, explained deliberate pro-Lee distortions of the historical record, and further questioned Lee’s strategy and tactics. A classic reevaluation of Lee was Alan T. Nolan’s Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (1991). Currently, the reappraisal of Lee continues, and, as J. F. C. Fuller said, “The truth is, the more we inquire into the generalship of Lee, the more we discover that Lee, or rather the popular conception of him, is a myth. . . .”
On the other hand, Grant’s often-tarred reputation has ascended while Lee’s has declined. In his memoirs, Grant noted the impact of those Southern historians who were creating the Myth of “The Lost Cause”:
With us, now twenty years after the close of the most stupendous war ever known, we have writers—who profess devotion to the nation—engaged in trying to prove that the Union forces were not victorious practically, they say, we were slashed around from Donelson to Vicksburg and to Chattanooga and in the East from Gettysburg to Appomattox, when the physical rebellion gave out from sheer exhaustion.
In fact, several pro-Confederate writers attacked Grant as soon as the shooting stopped. One of those was Richmond newspaperman Edward Pollard, who, in The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (1866), said that Grant “contained no spark of military genius his idea of war was to the last degree rude— no strategy, the mere application of the vis inertia he had none of that quick perception on the field of action which decides it by sudden strokes he had no conception of battle beyond the momentum of numbers.”
Even Northern historians criticized Grant. In 1866, New York Times war correspondent William Swinton wrote in his Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac that Grant relied “exclusively on the application of brute masses, in rapid and remorseless blows.” John C. Ropes told the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts that
Grant suffered from a “burning, persistent desire to fight, to attack, in season and out of season, against intrenchments, natural obstacles, what not.”
Mediocre Confederate General Jubal Early led the way, along with incompetent Confederate General William Nelson Pendleton, in creating the Myth of the Lost Cause. In doing so, they felt compelled to belittle the accomplishments of Grant. In 1872, in a speech on Lee’s birthday, Early said, “Shall I compare General Lee to his successful antagonist? As well compare the great pyramid which rears it majestic proportions in the Valley of the Nile, to a pygmy perched on Mount Atlas.” At least, he admitted that Grant was successful.
Historian Gary Gallagher fairly recently criticized the selectiveness and merits of Early’s (and others’) criticisms of Grant:
Absent from Early’s work, as well as that of other writers who portrayed Grant as a butcher, was any detailed treatment of Grant’s brilliant campaign against Vicksburg, his decisive success at Chattanooga, or his other western operations. Moreover, critics failed to grasp that Grant’s tactics in 18 6 4 went against his preferred style of campaigning. He fought Lee at every turn primarily because he wished to deny Jefferson Davis the option of shifting Confederate troops from Virginia to Georgia where they might slow Sherman’s progress.
In 1881, Jefferson Davis joined the parade of Grant critics when he launched this criticism of Grierson’s effective 1863 raid (which barely affected civilians in Davis’s native Mississippi): “Among the expeditions for pillage and arson [Grierson’s raid] stands prominent for savage outrages against defenseless women and children, constituting a record alike unworthy a soldier and a gentleman.” The 1880s publication of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, containing the recollections of the war’s participants, provided former Confederates with an opportunity to impugn Grant. For example, Lieutenant General Evander M. Law wrote, “What a part at least of his own men thought about General Grant’s methods was shown by the fact that many of the prisoners taken during the [Overland] campaign complained bitterly of the ‘useless butchery’ to which they were subjected.”
Easterners, who controlled most of the newspapers and publishing houses, did not like Grant, “whom they saw as an uncouth westerner.” In the wake of the numerous scandals in which his presidential appointees were involved, Grant’s continuing support for the rights of African Americans and Native Americans during his years as president, and intellectuals’ revulsion at the materialism of the Industrial Age, many Northerners joined Southerners in glorifying Lee and his army and in attacking Grant as a butcher. It is difficult to overestimate the damage to Grant that these writings caused and the virtual indelibility of the image they created of Grant the Butcher.
In fact, it was another Richmond newspaper reporter-turned historian, Douglas Southall Freeman, who placed Lee on a pedestal at Grant’s expense. In his four-volume treatise, R. E. Lee, Freeman idolized Lee in describing all the details of his generalship. Freeman criticized Grant for hammering Lee’s forces instead of maneuvering more, but even Freeman did concede that Grant’s efforts had not been in vain: “Lee did not lose the battles but he did not win the campaign. He delayed the fulfillment of Grant’s mission, but he could not discharge his own. Lee found few opportunities of attacking the enemy in detail or on the march. . . . And in some subtle fashion General Grant infused into his well-seasoned troops a confidence they had never previously possessed.”
A pro-Lee disciple of Freeman’s, Clifford Dowdey, was harder on Grant than Freeman was. In his 1960 Lee’s Last Campaign: The Story of Lee and His Men Against Grant, Dowdey described Grant as a “boring-in type of attacker, who usually scorned finesse.” The anti- Grant tradition is not dead. It has been recently continued in Paul D. Casdorph’s 1992 Lee and Jackson: Confederate Chieftains and Ernest B. Furgurson’s 2000 Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864. Casdorph grossly overestimated Grant’s Cold Harbor casualties as including 13,000 killed (“dead or dying”) and referred to “union hordes” and the “Yankee Goliath.”
Grant and Lee: A Study In Contrasts-Praises to Grant
Significant praise for Grant, other than from his subordinates and fellow officers, first came from overseas. British military historian and Major-General J. F. C. Fuller strongly endorsed the greatness of Grant in “The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant in 1929” and then in “Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship” in 1932. Fuller concluded that Grant was a superior strategist, possessed common sense, recognized what needed to be done to win the war, and deserved the major credit for doing so. He compared Grant quite favorably to Lee, found that Lee consistently throughout the war lost a higher percentage of his troops than Grant or other adversaries he faced, and that Lee much more than Grant—and for no good reason—sacrificed his troops in frontal assaults and continued to do so until he had no more to sacrifice.
Another British military historian, John Keegan, also found cause to praise Grant. He did so in The Mask of Command (1987). There he discussed Grant in a chapter entitled “Grant and Unheroic Leadership.” He praised Grant’s fighting skills and concluded, “But in retrospect, great though Grant’s generalship is seen to be, it is his comprehension of the nature of the war, and of what could and could not be done by a general within its defining conditions, that seems the more remarkable.”
The most comprehensive sympathetic treatment of Grant came with the works of Bruce Catton. He first wrote of Grant in the second and third volumes of the famous Civil War trilogy, Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951), Glory Road (1952), and the Pulitzer Prizewinning A Stillness at Appomattox (1953). Having come to admire Grant above other Civil War generals, Catton then proceeded to write U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition (1954) (the bulk of which is entitled “The Great Commander”), This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side in the Civil War (1956), Grant Moves South (1960) (describing Grant’s Civil War career through Vicksburg in glowing terms), and Grant Takes Command (1968) (taking him through the end of the war). The prolific Catton also produced The Coming Fury: The Centennial History of the Civil War (1961), Terrible Swift Sword (1963), and Never Call Retreat (1965). Like Grant himself, said Stephen W. Sears, Catton was “quiet and unassuming and unpretentious and business-like.”
A contemporary of Catton’s, T. Harry Williams, was a renowned Civil War scholar and a strong proponent of Grant. Williams found him superior to Lee and others in Lincoln and His Generals (1952) and to his fellow Union generals in McClellan, Sherman, and Grant (1962). In the former book, Williams succinctly stated, “Grant was, by modern standards, the greatest general of the Civil War.”
In their exhaustive 1983 study of the war, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War, Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones concluded that Grant was responsible for recognizing the North’s need to effectively use its superiority. Although they disclaimed the significance of turning points, they concluded that Grant’s seizure of Fort s Henry and Donelson and his approval of Sherman’s March to the Sea were decisive events.
Although he relied on Bruce Catton’s work, William S. McFeely treated Grant with much less sympathy in his 1981 Grant: A Biography. McFeely’s Grant seemed uncaring about the death around him. This first “modern” biography of Grant reinforced earlier negative impressions with such characterizations of Grant as “a man of limited though by no means inconsequential talents to apply to whatever truly engaged his attention.” McFeely made it appear that Grant’s second-day offensive at Shiloh was a spur-of-the-moment idea conceived only that morning, and he then criticized Grant for failing to pursue the Rebels with his exhausted army. He claimed it was Grant’s rivalry with McClernand that got him focused on Vicksburg. McFeely asserted that “Grant’s strategy was to make sure more Southerners than Northerners were killed. It was a matter of simple arithmetic. . . .” Of the Overland Campaign, he said, “In May 1864 Ulysses Grant began a vast campaign that was a hideous disaster in every respect save one—it worked. He led his troops into the Wilderness and there produced a nightmare of inhumanity and inept military strategy that ranks with the worst such episodes in the history of warfare.” Jean Edward Smith later cited McFeely’s work as a biography written by an academic historian who was influenced by the Vietnam War and denigrated Grant’s critical role in Union victory.
A return to the Catton sympathetic approach marked the 1997 Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President written by Geoffrey Perret and the 2000 Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822–1865 by Brooks D. Simpson. Perret praised Grant’s “military genius” and credited him with creating two concepts that the U.S. Army has been using ever since: the use of converging columns (Grant’s 1864–5 national strategy) and the wide envelopment (Grant’s sweeping around Lee’s flank throughout 1864 and 1865). Simpson described a non-idealized Grant and praised his common sense, imagination, and perseverance. On the issue of Grant’s tactics,
He was less successful at shaking the perception that he was a ham-handed tactician who freely wasted the lives of his own men. This reputation was largely based on the pervasive impression of his generalship left by the 1864 campaign in Virginia. That during the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns combined, Grant’s forces suffered fewer losses than did Lee’s troops at Gettysburg escaped most people’s notice that he was far more frugal with human life than his leading Confederate counterpart .. . is recognized by only a few. He preferred to take prisoners than to slay foes he emphasized movement and logistics over slugging it out. Even his campaigns in
Virginia shows a general who . . . shifted units and probed for weaknesses, mixing assaults with marches, constantly seeking new approaches.
Jean Edward Smith’s 2001 book entitled simply Grant is an excellent, sympathetic biography of Grant. He pointed to Grant’s decisiveness at Fort Donelson, his Vicksburg campaign’s amphibious crossing, his moving forward after the Wilderness, and his surreptitious crossing of the James River as examples of Grant’s greatness. He contended that Grant was the strategic master of his Confederate counterparts, had a lower casualty rate than Lee, and demonstrated his strategic skills by focusing on enemy armies rather than on mere geographic goals. Smith not only described the greatness of Grant as a Civil War general but also the many overlooked positive aspects of his eight-year presidency. Smith detailed President Grant’s efforts to protect Negroes’ rights in the postwar South and Indians’ rights in the West and said that “mainstream historians, unsympathetic to black equality, brutalized Grant’s presidency.”
In the past several years, Grant’s conduct of the Overland Campaign has received exhaustive and generally positive treatment at the hands of Gordon C. Rhea. His four books were The Battle of the Wilderness (1994), The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern (1997), To the North Anna River (2000), and Cold Harbor (2002). In those volumes and a series of contemporaneous articles, Rhea contended that Grant had been unfairly labeled a “butcher,” that his casualties were proportionately less than Lee’s, and that Grant was an innovative and effective general who focused on and achieved his strategic objectives.
In summary, Ulysses Grant got off to a bad start among postwar historians, but his military accomplishments have received increasing, if erratic, recognition since about 1930. Serious historical reestablishment of his multi-theater, war-winning record continues. With this historical perspective as background, we can now undertake a comparative analysis of Grant and Lee.
Those two generals shared many characteristics, but in many ways, they were quite different. An examination of Grant and Lee’s general military skills, military management skills, and personal attributes reveals why Grant won and Lee lost the war.
Robert E. Lee and Slavery
As a biographer I am often asked which part of my subject’s story has been most difficult to explore. All historic figures have troubling aspects, of course, and the two with which I am most familiar, Clara Barton and Robert E. Lee, are no exception. In Lee’s case it is easily his lifelong interaction with slavery.
The “peculiar institution”—as slavery was known in the South—is itself a distressing topic. Its ugly details challenge us. So does the painful paradox of a nation rooted in liberty, yet exercising daily oppression. If you add Lee to this mix, more conflicting emotions are awakened. He is a controversial figure, seen by some as a shameless traitor and by others as a beloved hero. His association with slavery has been characterized with similar partisanship, sometimes painting an image that is more fabled than factual.
Some people may ask why we should delve into this difficult topic. There are several reasons we ought to be interested. First, as students of history, our job is to try to establish as clearly as possible what happened in the past and how those events and attitudes affected our national development. This is particularly important when we are talking about figures such as Lee, whose image has largely been shaped by oral tradition. Since we are historians rather than folklorists, part of our task is to separate reality from legend.
Lee’s views on slavery are also central to his story because they influenced decisions that would have profound consequences for the United States. Slavery shaped his resolution to fight for the South. Lee’s opinions also served as a beacon for generations of Southerners as they struggled to comprehend the tragedy of the war. Without an understanding of Lee’s racial attitudes, it is impossible to make sense of either his own actions or his strong impact on Southern society.
Finally there is the fact that Lee has been presented as more than a significant military leader. He has often been portrayed as a man of great personal virtue—a man to be emulated. When we set up a model like this, it not only invites us to examine his character, it virtually requires us to do so. Any com – munity that claims to be based on ideals must know who and what it reveres. If we are going to embrace heroes, it is important that we accept their human frailty as well as admire their achievements. If we do not, we create empty icons, whose hollowness undermines any ability to inspire.
The first thing we can say about Robert E. Lee’s interaction with the institution of slavery is that it is extremely well documented. This may surprise some people. One biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, claimed that Lee said “nothing of any consequence” about slavery. Statements like this have left many people with the impression that Lee was somehow outside the messiness of human bondage. Actually, he wrote hundreds of letters that show he fully participated in the institution and held strong opinions about it. Interestingly, this rich cache of information was in plain sight and had been available for decades. I was privileged to read a large number of recently discovered Lee family documents, but the most illuminating materials were already in well-known archives and courthouses, easily accessible to anyone. Because of this abundance of information no one has to interpret Lee’s attitudes or actions. He is very open in telling us about them himself.
To understand Lee’s viewpoint we have first to appreciate his day-to-day interaction with slavery. His earliest knowledge of the institution was gleaned on his father’s plantation. “Light-Horse Harry” Lee had been a bold Revolutionary War hero—and an equally bold financial speculator. By the time Robert was 14 months old, Harry Lee had lost most of his property and was thrown into debtor’s prison. Slaves were included on his “schedule” of debt payments alongside horses, dogs and hogs. Sometimes servants were snatched in the night by creditors trying to recover their losses. Others were hired away to bring in income, apparently with little attention to maintaining their family connections. Among the first lessons young Robert learned about slavery, therefore, was that when all was said and done, African Americans were simply property.
This view was reinforced when his family moved to Alexandria, Va., an important center of the slave trade. The Lees lived only a few blocks from some of the country’s major dealers in human flesh, and coffles of manacled slaves were a daily sight. Though some were sickened by these scenes, most people became inured to them and simply acquiesced. And that was what Robert E. Lee did: He acquiesced.
Lee’s other significant experience with slavery was at Arlington, his parents-in-law’s estate. George Washington Parke Custis, Lee’s father-in-law, had inherited hundreds of slaves from his grandmother, Martha Custis Washington. Custis had pretty standard ideas about slavery: He denounced the institution as a “vulture” that was preying on the society, but did nothing to overturn it. He was not really interested in managing his large labor force and left it to a series of uneven overseers. Some of these men “oversaw” reprehensible operations, and Custis was accused of “cruel, inhuman and barbarous treatment of slaves,” including at least one murder.
But Mary Fitzhugh “Molly” Custis, Lee’s mother-in-law, held different views. She liberated the slaves she inherited and ultimately persuaded her husband to free his own in his will. While working for slavery’s demise, she tried to soften conditions at Arlington as much as possible. She taught the bondsmen to read and write, and provided religious meetings—much of which was illegal. She took a personal interest in the slave families, which were never broken up during her lifetime.
Molly Custis also supported the American Colonization Society, which proposed emancipating slaves and returning them to Africa. Today this is sometimes seen as a halfway measure that only substituted one tyranny— deportation—for another. But Mrs. Custis considered it a practical step to get around the stringent laws of Virginia, which prohibited freedmen from staying in the state, and as a result discouraged manumission. The Colonization Society also opened the first real de bate about the future of slavery in America. Amazingly, Molly Custis had an active voice in that debate, advocating the elimination of slavery more than a decade before the abolitionists began to organize.
Molly Custis was by all accounts a superior woman, and she had great influence on her son-in-law. He considered her a surrogate mother and adopted her religious principles and many of her social precepts. But on the issue of slavery he failed to follow her lead. Indeed when Lee ran the Arlington estate, after the death of his parents-in-law, his style as a master was in striking contrast to the traditions Mrs. Custis had established.
And what about Lee’s own slaves? He inherited 10 or 12 from his mother, but it is difficult to determine whether he freed any of them. Before the Mexican War he wrote a will that would have liberated one family however, since he was not killed, those provisions never went into effect. There is no evidence of Lee’s slaves being emancipated—no courthouse records, no mention of it in his massive letter books. One of his sons later said that he had freed all his slaves before the war, but had taken no legal action so they would not have to move out of Virginia. That seems questionable, however. A freed African American really could not exist in Virginia without papers the law would put him right back into slavery.
In fact, we have an example of a freed couple without documents being thrown into jail in 1853 by Lee’s father-in-law, a justice of the peace. We also know that Lee was aware of the need to provide free papers, since he went to considerable trouble to get proper documents for the Custis slaves who were freed during the Civil War. In any case, his own papers show that he owned slaves well into the 1850s and considered buying another in 1860. He also used his wife’s slaves as personal servants throughout the Civil War.
Lee’s letters tell us much about his racial attitudes. He seemed to dislike the bondsmen’s presence and generally avoided dealing with them. (“Do not trouble yourself about them, as they are not worth it,” he counseled his wife.) He had a low opinion of blacks as workers and complained continually about their habits. (“It would be accidental to fall in with a good one,” he ultimately concluded.) He found the constant need to provide for the slaves burdensome, and as a result frequently rented them out.
As late as 1865 he was still asserting that “the relation of master and slave…is the best that can exist between the white & black races.” He had equally dismissive views of other groups who threatened white aspirations, including Mexicans and American Indians, whom he several times described as “hideous” and whom he believed to be culturally inferior. It is important to note that these are not random comments, written on a bad day, but a constant pattern in Lee’s writing.
Of course, Lee was not the only person to hold these views in his day. This kind of thinking led not only to the justification of slavery, but also to the Mexican War and aggressive actions against American Indians. Indeed, most Americans, North and South, were unable to envision a multiracial society based on equality. Even those opposed to slavery had trouble doing so. Abraham Lincoln, for example, never considered African Americans his equal and only reluctantly relinquished his plans to deport freed blacks to Central America or Haiti.
What is striking about Lee’s writings is the consistency of his disdain for black people. We see no attempt at all by Lee to wrestle with the morality of these views. Washington, Jefferson, George Mason and Henry Clay—just to name a few—all struggled with the ethical consequences of their racial beliefs. Many never took action to free their slaves or to right legal wrongs, but they did agonize over the contradictions they perceived. So did several of Lee’s Army friends, who sympathized with the Indians and ultimately opposed slavery. By contrast Lee never seems to have suffered any spiritual pain over the inequitable society surrounding him.
In 1856 Lee summarized his beliefs in a telling letter to his wife. “In this enlightened age,” he wrote,
there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country. It is useless to expiate on its disadvantages. I think it, however, a greater evil to the white than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly interested in…the latter, my sympathies are stronger for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and, I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise and merciful Providence.
On first reading, this letter seems confusing and contradictory. Lee acknowledges that slavery is evil, but then says the evil is greater for whites than for blacks, without giving an explanation of how this could possibly be. He says he assumes that the institution will fade away, but offers no prescription for hastening that day. Instead he takes a complicated middle ground in which he regrets the existence of slavery but claims it is necessary, and then sidesteps any responsibility for the slaves’ condition by saying that that is up to God, not man.
In fact, what seems like a convoluted assessment is actually an unusually clear statement of the proslavery views of Lee’s era. Apologists admitted that slavery was regrettable but concocted elaborate justifications for its continuation. The belief that slaves were better off than blacks living in Africa that their character needed somehow to be elevated by whites that it was necessary to prolong slavery into an unpredictable future—even a Divine Sanction for it all—were themes of sermons, pamphlets and newspaper articles. Proslavery advocates such as James Henry Hammond, George Fitzhugh and Thomas Dew underscored that they were not responsible—God had created the institution, and some sort of providential action would make it disappear.
Amazingly, this letter has sometimes been used to point to Lee as an abolitionist. This view is particularly hard to understand because in the same letter Lee slams those who opposed slavery. “The abolitionists,” he wrote, “have neither the right nor the power to interfere in what he has no concern. Still I fear he will persevere in his evil course.” So the question arises: How could anyone turn this letter into proof of Lee’s antislavery views? Is this wishful thinking, or possibly part of the “Lost Cause” propaganda?
To demonstrate how facts can become veiled by popular tradition, let’s look at a story that is often told to illustrate Lee’s kindness to slaves. Soon after the end of the war, one of his friends wrote: “You must remember Nat, who was Aunt Lee’s dining-room servant: after her death his health became very bad [Robert] took him to the South, had the best medical advice, comfortable room, and everything that could be done to restore him and attended to him himself.” This story was repeated—sometimes with embellishments—by many historians over the years. One has Lee nursing Nat “with the tenderness of a son” and personally laying him in his grave another says he cared for the slave “tenderly and faithfully until death delivered the poor fellow.” The story as Lee himself tells it, however, is quite different.
It is true that Nat joined Lee on his first Army assignment, near Savannah, Ga., and that he died of consumption there within a few months. Lee was concerned about Nat’s health but confided that “I know not what to do with him.” He got the old man a room, consulted a doctor, and asked a boatman to look in on him occasionally, but did not personally follow Nat’s progress closely. Indeed, Lee admitted that his posting, 15 miles away, often kept him away from Nat for weeks. When the slave died, far from attending to his burial, Robert was astonished to be told the news. “I had not the least idea he was so low….I was perfectly shocked to hear of his death when I had been flattering myself that he was recovering,” he told his fiancée. Actually the mother of one of his friends had taken responsibility for Nat. “Mrs. Mackay in some of her visits of Benevolence had found him out,” Lee wrote, “…and unbeknowing to me, visited him regularly & sent him all the delicacies from her own table.”
Now, this is not a terrible story. It is not a story of brutality or crass neglect. But neither is it the saga of nursing Nat “with the tenderness of a son” that Lee’s admirers liked to tell. If anything it is a story of a distracted young man who was more or less oblivious to his old servant’s condition. If the tale has a ministering angel, it is Eliza Mackay, not Robert E. Lee.
But it is an excellent illustration of the way historical incidents become bloated when they start to be used as parables. Those who believed the prettier versions of this tale repeated it until it became a kind of “common knowledge” about Lee’s concern for his slaves. Some writers then took real liberties with the story’s meaning. Freeman cited it as proof that Lee could not possibly have fought to uphold the system of slavery! Another writer saw it as an example of Lee’s “solicitude” for his servants, concluding that “none had a kinder or more faithful master.”
Which leads us to ask another question: Would his own servants have been likely to agree with the statement that Lee was a kind master?
Our best information about the slaves’ thinking comes from the time when Lee was executor of his father-in-law’s estate. George Washington Parke Custis died in 1857, leaving a messy will. To sort out matters, Lee got temporary leave from the Army. As executor he had legal authority over the slaves, as well as day-to-day responsibilities for their supervision.
And what did the slaves say about Robert E. Lee? One called him “the meanest man I ever saw.” “He was a hard taskmaster,” confided another. “He tried to keep us slaves, when we was as free as he,” was another comment. In addition, the slaves showed their feelings by their actions. During the time Lee was master at Arlington he had a chronic problem with runaways. They also frequently refused to recognize his authority, ignoring his orders or trying to undermine his plans. On one occasion they even physically threatened Lee. “Only the merciful hand of Kind Providence and their own ineptness prevented a general outbreak,” wrote Lee’s wife.
A slave rebellion at Arlington? How did such chaos come about? As previously mentioned, Lee’s father-in-law had written a complicated will. He freed all his slaves, but with the vague provision that it should be done sometime within five years. He also bequeathed extravagant legacies to his granddaughters that proved difficult to pay from the estate’s earnings. As executor, Lee interpreted this to mean that he could keep the African Americans enslaved until he had paid the legacies. Actually the will stipulated that he should sell land to pay the bequests, but Lee did not want to do this, even though the Custis estates contained thousands of acres.
The slaves, however, who had excellent lines of communication, believed they had been freed. Despite Lee’s efforts to make their lives more comfortable (repairing long-neglected houses, for example), they were angry at being kept in bondage and increasingly tested their new master. “Reuben Parks & Edward, in the beginning of the previous week, rebelled against my authority—refused to obey my orders, & said they were as free as I was, &c, &c,” Lee told a son. “I succeeded in capturing them however, tied them and lodged them in jail.” To increase the estate’s earnings, Lee relied on his old habit of hiring out the slaves to other masters. Many of them were sent hundreds of miles away and were extremely unhappy. The slaves who were hired out had no idea where they were going or when—if ever—they might return no way of contacting their relations, and no guarantee of a sympathetic master. In addition, by hiring all the strong males away, Lee broke up every family at Arlington, something the Washingtons and Custises had taken great pains not to do.
When Lee realized he could not pay the legacies by the end of five years, things took a turn for the worse. Rather than sell land, he petitioned the local court to keep the slaves in bondage as long as needed to fulfill his daughters’ inheritance. He also sued for permission to send the slaves out of the state, which was not common practice. The local magistrate recognized this and ruled against Lee, who responded by appealing the case to a higher court.
The slaves, as usual, caught the drift of events and became actively alarmed. They may have thought that Lee would never give them their freedom. They must have feared that once sent out of the state, they would never again see their families. I should add that these two measures—sending the slaves south and breaking up their families—were against the socially accepted practices of Lee’s neighbors and relatives. It is this set of actions, which were considered harsh in his own time, and which jeopardized the future of people who had been legally liberated, that most clearly put Lee on the darker side of slavery.
This was when the slaves began to protest openly—verbally, as we have seen, as well as by running away, and even through physical violence. The situation at Arlington became so bad that several newspapers seized on the story. One of the things they reported was that after recapturing three of the runaways—one of whom was a woman—Lee had them brutally whipped. That story is corroborated by five eyewitness accounts, all of which agree in substantial detail.
Those accounts state that Lee was infuriated and wanted to set an example for other slaves who were rebelling against him. One newspaper maintained that Lee viciously whipped the woman himself, but the more sober witnesses state that he called in the county sheriff, Dick Williams, to serve out her punishment. Lee’s own account books show him paying an extraordinary sum of money to that very man “for capturing, &c, the fugitives.” At the time Lee told his son, “The New York Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather’s slaves, but I shall not reply.” Many years later he maintained that there was “not a word of truth” in the story. But there was more than a word of truth in it—all of the details can be verified by Lee’s own writings.
Not only do Lee’s papers uphold the story, there is nothing improbable or out of character about this incident. We know there was a whipping post at Arlington and that Lee had a strong temper. Moreover, Lee was not only within his rights to lash the fugitives, it was actually the penalty prescribed by law. Sheriffs were routinely called in to do just that kind of demeaning work. As one Virginia constable de – scribed it: “It was part of my business to arrest all fugitive slaves….Next day they are examined and punished. The punishment is flogging. I am one of the men who flog them.”
In addition, we know Lee had little objection to this kind of chastisement. In one letter, for example, he argued with his wife about a slave who had been mistreated by a neighbor. Mary Lee thought they should buy the man to rescue him from his unkind owner. But Lee protested, asking: “Is everything to be yielded to the servant and nothing left to the master?” He then declared that buying the slave would set a bad precedent, undermining “the instruction and example that was intended for the others.” One of the men who was later punished for running away recalled that Lee said the whipping was meant to “teach us a lesson we would never forget.” Interestingly, using punishment to set an example was a disciplinary measure Lee also used while superintendent of West Point.
The lawsuit dragged on until 1862. While the court deliberated, Lee told his son he might ignore the five-year deadline for freeing the slaves and “just leave them as they are.” Ultimately the appeals court ruled against Lee, directing him to liberate the slaves by January 1, 1863. Only then did he free the bondsmen as his father-in-law had desired. In the end he sold property—just as the will had proposed— to pay the legacies to his daughters.
Remarkably, some biographers have labeled Lee an “emancipator” despite the clear record of his actions and beliefs. How can this be? I think the answer is rooted in the longing people have for their idols to be great in every way, rather than ordinary or imperfect. As heroes become iconic figures, people also want to attach their aspirations to them, in a process sociologists call “transference.” In their zeal, they hope their leaders will represent not only what they are as a society, but what they would like to be. It is fascinating and telling that what Southerners have wanted Lee to represent—the better self they want him to be—is an antislavery leader.
Lee’s experiences at Arlington and his role in capturing abolitionist John Brown in 1859 radicalized his feelings on slavery. He feared the increasingly powerful Northern majority, which he had been complaining about since the 1830s. It enraged him to feel defenseless in the face of what he saw as mounting Yankee humiliations. As the nation lurched toward crisis, his carefully crafted middle ground on slavery began to give way. He backed the Crittenden Compromise, which would have prohibited slavery from ever being abolished in the United States, saying that it “deserves the support of every patriot.” Though he denounced secession, and his own kin were sharply divided (a nephew and many close cousins fought for the Union), in 1861 Lee decided to defend the South’s way of life, of which slavery was the distinguishing feature.
After the war, Lee continued to hold attitudes about class and race that were chained to the old order. A few weeks after Appomattox he expounded to a newspaperman on the need to “dispose” of the freedmen. He not only advocated the deportation of African Americans, he backed a plan to replace them with destitute whites from Ireland, who would form a new servant class. He also signed a petition that proposed a political system precluding all blacks, and many poor whites, from voting.
His public pronouncements were sometimes at odds with his private actions. Despite the fact that Lee told the Joint Committee on Reconstruction that everyone wished the former slaves well, for example, the records of the Freedman’s Bureau show that students under Lee’s direction at Washington College were heavily involved in their harassment. The situation turned serious on several occasions. Some of “General Lee’s boys” shot an African American for not stepping into the gutter when they passed. Incidents of rape were common. It appears that an organization similar to the Ku Klux Klan was founded by the students during Lee’s presidency. Lee sent out some orders forbidding participation in any public antiblack rallies, but Washington College documents show that he did not strictly enforce that policy. Certainly he never used the near imperial control he had at the college to stop those activities.
For a biographer who comes to have a close, admiring relation- ship with the person being studied, finding such information is painful. I can recall sitting in the Alexandria courthouse, holding the legal documents Lee had filed, shaking my head and thinking: “Oh, I hope this is not going where I think it is!” Many readers will undoubtedly also find this aspect of Lee distressing. And I think that we are right to be troubled by it. That is the appropriate response, whether out of sorrow for the callousness in our past, or simple disappointment that someone we revere held attitudes that even in his day were on the sorry end of humanity’s scale.
But where then does this leave us? Should we conclude that Robert E. Lee was an immoral man, unworthy of historical interest? Throw him on the trash heap of history? Or should we apologize for him, and portray him as merely representative of his era?
In my judgment, we should take care not to go too far in either direction. We do have to recognize the intellectual and cultural norms of Lee’s time. We also have to recognize that as much as we might like to have principles that never vary, this is actually not the way societies behave. Values change over time, and human beings are often slow to catch up. We have to understand Lee within the context of his standards, not our own.
That being said, we cannot use this as a reason to absolve Lee from responsibility for his own attitudes. While we might be able to say, “Well, he wasn’t any worse than anybody else,” by the same token we also have to say that he wasn’t any better than anyone else. And there is the rub, because generations have been led to believe that Robert E. Lee was better than everybody else—even on this difficult issue of slavery. Yet all of the evidence shows he lacked the vision or the humanity that would have allowed him to transcend the petty opinions of his day. Nor did his racial attitudes ever grow or evolve as, for example, did Washington’s. While we can understand the reasons for that, we cannot award him the greatness that comes from being able to see beyond the commonplace and take actions that would raise him above the ordinary.
What I would propose is that all of us who admire Lee embrace him for the complex, contradictory, fabulous but flawed person that he was. If we try to make him more, we actually insult him. Every time someone maintains that he never used the word “enemy,” or that he never lost a battle (he just ran out of ammunition), or that he was opposed to slavery—any time we make these mistaken assertions, we are implying that the person he really was, is not good enough.
I would say simply: If you want to do Robert E. Lee justice, embrace the fine qualities that he truly has to offer us— and they are considerable—but also recognize his limitations and the injustices perpetrated at his hands. Then lend him your respect. It is the greatest compliment you can give him.
Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s book Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters won both the Lincoln Prize and the Jefferson Davis Award. Her list of sources for this article is in “Resources,” on P. 71.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.