Today is Robert E. Lee’s birthday. I find him to be an extremely interesting figure and a compelling biographical subject.
Much is said about how Lee viewed slavery and secession and how he came to resign his commission and join first the Virginia forces and then the Confederate army. Much of that commentary in the past has been preoccupied either with crafting a Lee in terms to make him an admirable hero worthy of worship, a fine and fitting representative of “the South,” or in undermining that quest. In the latter endeavor the intensity I have seen displayed should in my estimation be directed at people other than Lee himself. Too often the debate over Lee is really a debate between Lee’s admirers and critics that is at least as much about themselves as it is about Lee … I’d say more so.
What’s odd about all this is Lee’s own thinking on these matters is rather accessible, especially through his correspondence. Take his views on slavery. Lee’s views were not terribly unusual for his time. They were a mixture of the “necessary evil” argument (which tended to emphasize the burdens slavery placed on white people) and the “positive good” argument (which tended to suggest that being enslaved benefited the enslaved). He did not believe in black equality, but he was not a passionate defender of the peculiar institution. He did not develop an elaborate philosophy to support his position. He had no qualms about owning slaves or disciplining them, but neither did he develop some detailed justification for enslavement based upon black inferiority: however, he obviously found bothersome acting as the executor of his father-in-law’s will, especially in its provisions concerning the emancipation of his slaves (“an unpleasant legacy,” as he once said). As he observed in an oft-quoted letter:
“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”
Yet it is also important to recall what he wrote in 1865:
“Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would depreciate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.”
These words are carefully chosen. To make Lee into some sort of antislavery advocate does violence to the historical record, as does an argument that reduces him to Arlington’s Simon Legree.
Lee in his correspondence held abolitionists and antislavery critics primarily responsible for the troubling debate over slavery and the escalation of the sectional crisis. He reserved his harshest words for them, and had relatively little to say about the role of fire-eaters or proslavery forces, although he complained about the behavior of Deep South secessionists in 1860-61, including their “selfish, dictatorial bearing.” On the other hand, he had little patience with the elaborate intellectual schemes hatched by secessionists, simply acknowledging that “secession is nothing but revolution.” That said, however, he laid primary responsibility of the troubles upon the North, observing: “The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North.”
If he dismissed the theory of secession as nonsense, however, Lee took the sectional crisis quite seriously. As much as he might dread the disruption of the republic, however, he admitted that “a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.” That statement is essential to understanding what some folks don’t understand: Robert E. Lee never would have worn a blue uniform in a war against the South, regardless of what Virginia did. As he put it, “If the Union is dissolved, and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and save in defence will draw my sword on none” (emphasis added).
Lee would never have fought against Virginia: that much is clear. But Lee also made it clear that he would not fight in a war of coercion against the South. He was willing to stay in the service (and in fact accept his colonel’s commission) in the absence of war, at a time when Virginia remained in the Union. According to his account of his meeting with Francis P. Blair, Sr., in Washington on April 18 (the day after Virginia’s convention voted for secession; it is not clear whether Lee knew that as of the time of the meeting) he said (as he later recalled) that “though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.” Much had been made of the alacrity with which Lee moved to cast his lot with Virginia once he had penned his resignation (and before it was accepted); much more has been made (with justice) of his less than candid recollection of the sequence of events and his state of mind in an 1868 letter describing the events of mid-April (although his statement about not drawing his sword against the South is consistent with what he said at the time). I make less of his making a mess of the actual process of resignation and more of his lack of candor in 1868 than do others.
What this means, of course, is that the notion of Lee riding southward at the head of a United States military force to quell the rebellion in 1861 is simple fantasy. Lee had already rejected that option long before the events of April 1861. Lee seems to have been a Virginian first, but being a southerner came in a close second. It may not have been the answer Lee was born to make, but it was the choice he was bound to make.
Alan Nolan made many of these points in his 1991 book, Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History, but many readers found Nolan’s aggressive argument (just like the lawyer he was, arguing a brief for the prosecution) off-putting. However, if one simply sets forth these propositions and turns to Lee’s correspondence for support, one discovers a Lee whose thoughts and actions should be as understandable to us as they apparently were to him. That doesn’t mean that acting upon his decision came easily to him–it did not–but it does suggest that he had already thought through his options.
It’s time to try to understand Lee as he was and to gain some insight into how he understood himself and the world around him. That would be the best way to honor him, by viewing him as the man he was rather than the icon some need him to be.