Robert E. Lee: Slavery, Secession, and the Choice He Made

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 has 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.

93 thoughts on “Robert E. Lee: Slavery, Secession, and the Choice He Made

  1. Mark January 19, 2011 / 3:43 pm

    This is what you call “scholarship”?

    Even the parts of Lee’s letter to his wife that you quote, show a fantastic defense of the PAIN inflicted upon slaves. The pain and suffering is “necessary for their instruction”. Hitler could not a more sinister sentence.

    Yet idiotically, you use that to suggest Lee was AGAINST slavery.
    You do not even have to know who wrote that letter, or why, to know that this pain and suffering Lee writes about is an evil thing.

    You do not have to know that Lee had his slaves tortured — including slave girls as young as 14. You don’t need to know that Lee personally taunted his slave girls, then screamed at them during their torture.

    You don’t have to know that Lee’s own handwritten account books, show he personally orchestrated an obessive hunt by his bounty hunters, to capture one young girl, who he paid SIX TIMES his normal bounty, to capture. When they finallly caught her, he personally attended her whipping, screaming to whip her harder.
    He then sold her white looking infant – -for extra cash or more punishment, we don’t know.

    See the book “Reading the Man” by Elizabeth Pryor. Herself an ardent admirerer of Lee, she nevertheless shows amazing facts from Lee’s own papers, that show him a cruel violent man at times.

    Pryor swims in an ocean of euphemisms, mimicing Lee’s own euphamisms for pain and suffering. She calls Lee torture of slave girls the product “of poor cross cultural communication” which reminds me of Cool Hand Look, where the warden whips Paul Newman, after saying “What we have here, is a failure to communicate”.

    She hints at Lee’s habit of regularly selling the babies born to his slave girls as “separating every family unit, but one”

    While she almost drowns in euphamisms, she shows more than anyone else has.

    Lee’s letter goes on to say that in 2000 years, God MIGHT free the slaves, but only God can. Meanwhile, it’s evil even to upset a slave owner. When you know about Lee’s torture of slave girls, this becomes more ominous.

    In another letter to his wife, Lee claims that abolitionist are out to “destroy the American Chruch”. Lee’s reliance on God and the Bible to justify his torture of slaves was absolute.

    And you don’t even have to know that Lee’s letter is almost a carbon copy of a letter Webster wrote four years earlier. Lee was so focused to pacify his wife — who apparently wanted some explanation of his abuse of the slave girls — that he copied Webster’s letter, in part, nearly word for word.

    Lee’s own handwritten account books don’t show everything, but they give us a glimpse of a cruel man, who artfully and passionately justified his torture of slave girls.

    It is not so stunning that slave owners, steeped in religious insanity of that period, would torture slave girls, or would sell slave infants.
    What is more amazing that now, 150 years later, “scholars” like you would read Lee’s letter, which says pain and suffering is NECESSARY for their instruction, and you would be so totally clueless. you would think that was a noble feature of Lee.

    I can understand Lee. He got his power, prestige, and passion from slaves, he had to justify that nonsense. He had to justify it, or stop it. Give up the riches, and fame, and social standing.

    It’s the lunatics today who honor Lee, who can read his writings, crouched as it is in artful language, and not get sick to your stomach.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 19, 2011 / 4:22 pm

      I think I’ll highlight this comment as evidence that some people think I’m a Lee apologist. 🙂

      Anyone who reads what I actually said would wonder how anyone could conclude that I think that Lee’s views on slavery are a noble feature of his character or that I thought that Lee was against slavery. I’ll leave it at that.

      Readers can check the critic’s website, which consists of a single post, very much in the style of his remarks here:

      Or one can check Kevin Levin’s blog, where an entry he made drew a similar response:

      The critic, one Mark Douglas, is also the author of another single-post blog:

      Check that blog’s right margin and you’ll see links to several more single-post blogs, each with something to say about the South.

      If you go on Google and search as follows: [“hunting list” Lee] … you find that Mr. Douglas has been on several blogs, each time with a variation of the same message. The same is true if you go to Google’s blog search function, and insert Mr. Douglas’s name and well as a few likely terms associated with these discussions.

      The above will help put Mr. Douglas’s comments on this blog in context.

      Helga Ross, are you listening? 🙂

      • Brooks D. Simpson January 21, 2011 / 1:48 pm

        A sidebar: somehow Ms. Ross thinks that I’m pairing her with the author of this comment.

        I’m not. People at cwh2 had speculated that I would not let dissenting views appear on this blog, and I understand this was used as an excuse for not replying here. Read an exchange in:

        Now, this blog is moderated … lightly. So far only spam has been deleted, and that was already set aside. One duplicate comment made it to the trash, as did a tourist ad pretending to be a comment. That’s it.

        Ms. Ross is welcome to come here to explain/defend/reply/discuss. All anyone asks for is a certain level of civility towards other commenters and the discussion at large (and a perusal of her comments on cwh2 suggests that she does not come close to violating those expectations, unless someone mistakes her wit for something else). My comments here are not about her (I’m sure she’s a pleasant, intelligent person who would be most engaging in conversation; she seems quite creative and is a poet) but about some of what’s she’s written. She can’t really take offense at that, given that she’s raised questions about my scholarship in the past.


        I gather she’s also commented on an article of mine about Gettysburg that she doesn’t seem to have read. She’s quite fond of Robert E. Lee, and goes so far as to say that she understands him.

        In light of her posts on cwh2, Ms. Ross has no grounds for complaint. Indeed, I’m glad to count her as a frequent reader. I welcome her insight.

        By the way, this blog’s fairly popular at cwh2. 🙂

      • sallieparker December 10, 2012 / 2:48 am

        Thank you for bothering to reply to these anti-Lee wackos. They have no photographs, no evidence of their claims that R E Lee abducted and whipped “light-skinned mulattas” for his personal enjoyment, but this does not stop them from spreading their filth across the inter webs.

        • Andy Hall December 10, 2012 / 9:19 am

          Mark routinely trolls blog posts about Robert E. Lee, looking for an opportunity to spew forth. His polemics are so over-the-top that he seriously undermines his own credibility.

          That said, the Wesley Norris story isn’t going away, nor should it.

          • rcocean December 10, 2012 / 12:35 pm

            It should go away since its only support is an article from a newspaper that was no friend of Lee’s to say the least. As for Morris he had reason to dislike Lee and obviously didn’t. I don’t doubt he was whipped after trying to run away, I believe it was standard punishment for run-away slaves. However, his characterization of Lee’s personal involvement runs against everything we know of the man.

          • Andy Hall December 10, 2012 / 1:31 pm

            There’s ample corroborative documentation, as outlined by Pryor; it’s not just a single newspaper article. As for the argument that the Norris story — as distinct from Mark’s unhinged screed above — in incompatible with “everything we know of the man,” that’s a weak argument in the face of a direct, firsthand allegation. A year ago I could’ve lined up a hundred people who’d sign an affidavit attesting to the good character of Ron Wilson, and yet they’d be wrong in the most fundamental way. Even author Tom Forehand, who is as much an unabashed admirer of Lee’s character as they come, includes a note that Lee had “a fierce and violent temper prone to intense expression” against those he found unworthy of his consideration, which is exactly the situation Norris found himself in.

        • Mark DC (@FilmCriticOne) August 27, 2013 / 12:45 pm

          No evidence? Really? Ask Elizabeth Pryor about the evidence, including slave ledgers (She calls them account books) She wrote a flattering narrative of Lee, but read it closely, for the “details” she carefully inserts.

          SLave ledgers = evidence. Even if she calls them account books, they exists, Lee wrote them, she studied them, that’s evidence.

          Lee’s letters about cruelty to slaves = evidence. Lee’s records of bounty payments = evidence. Letters TO Lee from woman at Arlington about the very light skinned slave children = evidence. Lee’s orders, written, to his troops (later rescinded) to shoot fellow soldiers who ran during battle = evidence.

          Lee’s slave reports for US Census, 1860 = evidence. Lee’s payments to bounty hunters = evidence.

          Lee’s bounty payments = evidence. REmember, Pryor is using LEE’s personal papers, not some guy 50 years later who remembered this or that. Lee wrote this, at the time.

          Newspaper accounts, from before Civil War, detailing the extreme cruelty involving Lee personally, then verified by his own details in his own slave ledgers = evidence.

          Lee’s son’s letter about Lee owning family of slaves on his own = evidence.

          All this evidence, and much more, is what Ms Pryor had in her hands, and wrote a book about. SHe is very careful how she relates the information, and she is clearly on Lee’s side. She blames the slaves for their whippings, saying they tested Lee, and Virginia laws required escaped slaves be whipped. She further tries to give him cover by saying the whippings were “result of poor cross cultural communication skills”.

          Yes, Pryor should have shown the actual ledgers and letters. But remember, it took 150 years for the Lee family to let ANYONE see them, apparently, much less study them. It’s doubtful she would have been allowed to take any copies of the slave ledgers or other documents, but that’s conjecture.

          Point is, Lee was a cruel man — his slaves hated him, according to Pryor, and he hated them. Go read her book, it’s very open to interpretation, you don’t have to fear seeing bluntly the horrors, Pryor uses euphemisms, and when dealing with the most vile things, Orwellian double speak. But she did what no one else dared.

          Denial is not history. It’s not even close.

    • Tom Forehand, Jr. August 27, 2013 / 4:07 pm

      Although Ms. Pryor does bring out some interesting points, in my opinion, she failed to present some very important historical evidence which shows that Norris and his family had important reasons to distort the runaway slave incident. I did not find these documents mentioned or noted in her massive book. (Did I overlook them?)
      Remember, Wesley Norris was the ONLY PERSON who spoke publically about any whipping taking place at the behest of Robert E. Lee. And I repeat, Ms. Pryor, though a good scholar, seems to have “overlooked” important historical documents which show that the Norris family (as a whole and the other slaves at Arlington) had reasons to distort the runaway slave incident (especially after the war). I repeat, unfortunately, as thorough as her book is on this incident, she does not mention these extremely important documents. In my opinion, these documents show that when she (Ms. Pryor) made the statement, in her book, that after the war Norris had nothing TO GAIN, she made a big mistake. Norris and his family had a lot to gain by exaggerating the runaway incident and blaming Lee for any whipping whatsoever. Thanks, Tom Forehand, Jr.

      • Brooks D. Simpson August 27, 2013 / 4:17 pm

        Hi– Let’s stipulate that you’re right. Do you believe that there’s anything to Norris’s story?

        • Tom Forehand, Jr. August 28, 2013 / 3:45 pm

          There is proof for: 1 The absconding 2. The capture and return of slaves to Lee. There is no proof for a whipping or use of salt. However, the whipping, if it took place, can be explained other ways than blaming it on Lee.

      • Bob Huddleston August 29, 2013 / 8:56 am

        Robert E. Lee was an officer in the US (and CS) Army where the whipping of enlisted soldiers was used as a disciplinary measure. Indeed, the opposition to abolishing corporal punishment of soldiers was led by slave state legislators — a bad precedent in their minds! So Lee ordering a slave whipped would have been natural. I doubt he would have thought twice about it.

        • Tom Forehand, Jr. August 29, 2013 / 6:09 pm

          Well, since Lee was so used to whippings in the military and it surely continued outside of the military, give me a few of the examples before and after the Norris incident of Lee’s having slaves whipped. After all, he wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Also, give me one example that any slave being whipped by anyone after the Lees married and moved to Arlington.

    • Robert January 18, 2014 / 6:47 pm

      Wow. You’re a little biased in your scholarship as well. I’ve found people who speak with such unbalanced speech typically have a biased agenda as well. The author of this post was attempting to offer clarity while stripping both the apotheosis of Lee and the demonization as well. He did not in any way make it seem that Lee was an abolitionist but also didn’t make him out to be the monster you are trying to portray him as. I personally think the author did a good job with accuracy.

    • Alex Colvin July 3, 2015 / 11:08 pm

      I’ve read several of your commentaries invoking the Pryor monograph which, if true, does help shed new light. However, I find it extremely troubling that any scholar would make use of primary source documents — which is the prevailing claim — under such surreptitious agreements. That being from what I read, that said documents not be released publically nor that she explicitly be be able to copy them. Seems that is an extremely tenuous position for a scholar to place himself in if he expects his finding to receive the respect they deserve. How does it help advance our understanding of Lee for a researcher to say, in effect: “yes, he did these awful things to slaves, but I can’t show you the ledgers because I have this “special” agreement with the family?” Really?
      I’ve worked quite a bit in 19th century primary records and yes, they can be quite illuminating,
      However, to my mind, Pryer had a duty to preserve the integrity of her reputation by insisting that she be allowed to at the very least make legible digitized scans of the offending documents as evidence of their existence.

      Perhaps when and if these alleged horrifying ledgers are ever released, researchers and historians will have a better opportunity to re-assess Lee. Until then, we may need more than Pryers word for it. IMHO.

    • John December 21, 2015 / 9:29 pm

      Let me guess. You are an atheist

  2. Lyle Smith January 19, 2011 / 7:03 pm

    Professor, I think you’re dead on about the Lee discussions these days. I’m so glad one of the latter showed up to help make your point. 🙂

  3. Al Mackey January 19, 2011 / 7:42 pm

    Regarding the “unpleasant legacy” comment, my reading of its context is that he was talking about how unpleasant it was for Lee to deal with slaves who argued with him, protested that they should be free, and generally resisted his authority. I don’t think he liked conflict with other people and found it distasteful.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 19, 2011 / 7:47 pm

      I think he had no patience with the whole business, which is why he had no problem disciplining slaves. The Custis obligation forced him into that situation, especially at a time when he was in Virginia. It was unpleasant all the way around. Clearly it was not an expression of antislavery sentiments.

      • Al Mackey January 19, 2011 / 7:57 pm

        He had written that he was interested in settling down and becoming a farmer, so it seems to me that he may have looked on it as an opportunity to test how good farmer he’d be. His previous experience with slaves had been primarily with domestic slaves. I don’t think he was ready for rebellious field hands. I agree with you completely that it was not an expression of antislavery sentiments.

  4. Becca January 20, 2011 / 12:23 pm

    All I have to say about this blog and its comments can be summed in the fact that people will see what they want to see in a blog, rather than what is actually there. If they can find a way to turn an explanation into a vicious defense of someone, then so be it. I didn’t see the so called “Lee Apologist” comments that Mark seems to insinuate that were made, but rather an explanation of a man that has been the topic of many historians’ questions. But I suppose that in a sense, we see in Mark’s comments that there are illogical people on every side of an issue (although I don’t think this has anything to do with two sides of an issue, but rather one person’s attempt to spout their opinion NO MATTER what the other person may be saying).

    In direct response to Mark, I would just like to point out one quote: “You do not have to know that Lee had his slaves tortured — including slave girls as young as 14. You don’t need to know that Lee personally taunted his slave girls, then screamed at them during their torture.” To prove your “point,” you would need to point out these instances. You would have to know how Lee treated his slaves in order to follow any argument you are trying to make, while I am having quite a hard time discerning what exactly that argument is. Of course, Lee did things that were reprehensible and horrid. As a human rights advocate, I completely agree that the way he treated them is not okay, in any sense of the word. But make that argument when someone makes a claim that contradicts it. It’s time you learn to pick and choose your fights as it is evident that very few people are taking anything you say seriously.

  5. Al Mackey January 21, 2011 / 9:41 pm

    “Read an exchange in:

    Convoluted thinking and convoluted writing.


    “Ms. Ross thinks that I’m pairing her with the author of this comment.

    And arrogantly claiming that it’s others’ fault convoluted writing can be misunderstood.


    Combined with a lack of understanding of clear writing.

    “I wish Brooks Simpson could say what he’s saying without muddying the waters, by inserting what he’s not saying, which the reader has to weed out, for self, according to propensity?/what criteria?

    How be, you edit and synthesize the ‘real’ message for me, since you say “it’s as if Brooks Simpson has gone through all of my previous comments here and elsewhere and distilled them into their essence! (Just kidding)”

    Good grief, what poor writing.

    She’s quite fond of Robert E. Lee, and goes so far as to say that she understands him.

    Met and talked with him at length, has she? : )

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 21, 2011 / 9:48 pm

      Oh, well. Maybe she wants to remain the mistress of her own domain.

      • Al Mackey January 22, 2011 / 1:03 pm

        Not that there’s anything wrong with that. ; )

  6. Fred April 2, 2011 / 3:46 pm

    Southerners romanticizing Lee could be compared to Germans romanticizing Hitler. I’m sorry if some people don’t like this statement but how is it not true. There were many issues leading up to the civil war but the bottom line the “Liberty” and “state’s rights” that the south was fighting for was the protection the institution of slavery and the continuation of the control of an upper-class entitled patriarchy. It is a further insult that the majority of the people who fought and died to support this evil institution were poor men who never owned slaves.

    Trying to preserve the “honor” of the south in this period is twisted and sick. The Germans were forced to come to terms with Nazism and have changed quite a bit as a result. A large portion of southerners never went through this catharsis (at least until the civil rights movement) and as a result we still have to argue over the merits this shameful part of American history. Instead we could be celebrating the positive parts of our history and moving forward in cultural progress.

    • Steve Musgrave March 22, 2012 / 1:43 pm

      The two highest generals killed in World War II related Bedford Forrest the third of and Simon Bolivar Buckner ii. Nathan Bedford Forrest was the great-grandson of a Confederate general and Simon Bolivar Buckner was the son of a Confederate general. My father in five of his brothers fought in World War II against the Germans how do you slander them in the South with being Nazis.
      I will remind you that Abraham Lincoln authorized the deaths of dozens of Mankato Sioux., Afterwards they did the same thing the Plains Indians Sherman and Sheridan’s troops burned and looted the South and blockaded medicine and food, even Sherman admitted that from what he was taught at West Point he could be hanged.

      Plenty of Union soldiers on slaves during the war and did not release them until the Emancipation Proclamation. The savage attacks on Southerners is nothing more than a ploy to whitewash the North for its war crimes, and its own slavery. The large amount of Negroes killed during the Civil War and just afterwards were injured New York draft riots by Yankees in the detention camps so callously set up this thousands of Friedman died of typhoid yellow fever and such.

      It wasn’t for the sacrifices and the sons of dixie many of which honor the memory of Robert E Lee we all would be speaking German and there would be no black people in America. No one has been more romanticized than Abraham Lincoln to is nothing more than LBJ on steroids. In 1848 he said a state should be allowed to secede they changed his mind when he became president. He made it plainly clear the favor colonization of blacks and even signed a 13th amendment that would have given the rights of the southern states to slavery in perpetuity.

      Like a good politician when he saw that sign was changing he grudgingly stated that the black matter and should be given about this is considered some major turn of consciousness what a joke. It is interesting to note that the Chinese Communists have said that seizing Taiwan is nothing more than what Lincoln did to the SOUTH.

      • Fred March 22, 2012 / 3:18 pm

        So everything you say may be and probably is true. How does this exonerate Lee and glorify the antebellum south?

      • DonM April 15, 2014 / 5:24 pm

        I will remind that Gen. McNair also died in WWII, during battle of St. Lo. My understanding is that he was highest ranking US general killed. Maj Gen Roosevelt died of heart failure.

  7. KWSterling January 19, 2012 / 3:03 pm

    Lee’s attitudes toward blacks do not differ materially from those of Lincoln. Lincoln was anti-slavery, yet believed that blacks and whites could not, and should not, ever live together, and he was very clear in his belief that blacks were inferior to whites. He didn’t want blacks in America and therefore sought to re-patriate them somewhere else – which resulted in the failed Liberia colony experiment, a sordid little episode that gets zero press among the Lincoln lovers but resulted in the deaths of several hundred blacks and was largely Lincoln’s fault.

    It is important to put people’s attitudes in the context of the time in which they lived and not judge them by 21st century standards, as this post tries to do. Of course it might be useful if the post mentioned that although Lee is reviled for simply inheriting slaves, which he freed in less than 5 years, General Grant kept slaves for many years both before and during the War, and if you know anything about the man, you know he treated his slaves much as any other slaveholder.

    Lee’s slaves were inherited from his father-in-law, and he was bound by his father-in-law’s will to keep the slaves on the plantation, growing and selling the crops, until the plantation’s debts were paid, or a period of 5 years had elapsed, whichever came first. Lee did as the law required. He never purchased slaves for himself. His wife was an ardent abolitionist.

    It is also important to recognize that when Lee resigned, he had been told he would be leading the attack on Arlington House – where his wife and children resided. This was an effort by Winfield Scott to test Lee’s loyalty; but who among us would open fire on their own flesh and blood? It was not simply an issue of attacking Virginia, though that was part of it; Lee resigned b/c he did not want to fire upon his own home. That home was taken over by Federal soldiers, everything in it ransacked and stolen, and bodies deliberately buried in the yard to poison the water – making it impossible for the Lees to ever return. They were never compensated by the Federal government for what the government stole from them. Arlington is a beautiful cemetery, but the property was taken from Lee illegally.

    • Andy Hall January 19, 2012 / 3:39 pm

      You’re depicting Lincoln’s views on African Americans as fixed, while it’s clear that they changed considerably over time, especially during the course of the war. This is the same man who, just a couple of days before his death, publicly suggested suffrage for some African Americans, particularly former Union soldiers.

      You also write:

      Lee’s slaves were inherited from his father-in-law. . . . He never purchased slaves for himself.

      This is just wrong. Lee owned slaves, in his own right, for most of his adult life up to 1865. He first inherited slaves from his mother’s estate soon after he graduated from West Point, and owned slaves at least until 1847 (Freeman) or 1852 (Pryor), and possibly longer. He considered buying more shortly before the war began, and throughout the war itself used slaves — either his own or others’, the record is not clear — as personal servants.

      Finally, since it’s all the rage in some quarters these days to argue that Lincoln “wanted” to forcibly colonize African Americans back to Africa, one should note that after the war, Lee testified to Congress that, in his view, newly-freed slaves should be relocated out of Virginia altogether to the cotton-growing states further south.

      • Fred January 19, 2012 / 4:15 pm

        All of this is irrelevant anyway. Lee was/is one of the main icons of the civil war south. This alone makes him a person of history who should be despised. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study him and try understand him as a human being. But there is no reason to deify him or try to portray him as a hero.

        • Andy Hall January 20, 2012 / 7:31 am

          Yeah, I don’t get this. I’m all for taking a cold, hard look at historical figures, and critiquing them accordingly. But actively “despise” someone who’s been dead and buried for nearly 150 years, really? That doesn’t seem to be any more rational than deifying him.

        • Steve Musgrave March 22, 2012 / 1:24 pm

          LIncolns turn around about blacks was pure politics he saw thew mood and went with it he was a war criminal plain and simple.

    • Bob Pollock January 20, 2012 / 7:00 am

      “General Grant kept slaves for many years both before and during the War, and if you know anything about the man, you know he treated his slaves much as any other slaveholder.”

      Could you provide a source for this please?

      • Noma February 29, 2012 / 8:49 am

        Still waiting for any documentation on that allegation. Any proof at all…

      • southron_98 September 2, 2012 / 6:13 am

        The Grants did not hold on to their slaves until they got into the White House much less selling them in 1908. Grant freed his slave William Jones, in 1859 , so he would never have and did not respond to others who asked why he had not freed his slaves “because good help is hard to find”. Mrs. Grant originally had 18 slaves several of which simply walked away and were never pursued; the remainder freed upon the ratification of the 13th amendment.

        • Brooks D. Simpson December 10, 2012 / 10:16 am

          Julia Grant did not own 18 slaves (it’s a good question as to whether she owned any slaves, or if her father retained title to them), and, as the Dents lived in Missouri, and as Missouri abolished slavery at the beginning of 1865, that would be when those slaves would have been recognized as free under Missouri law.

          • southron_98 December 10, 2012 / 10:55 am

            I guess it is whose truth you want to believe, myself I am seldom right and my wife will vouch for that, I find conflicting information on almost any subject in this case mine came from NPS.
            Thank you for the information.


          • Brooks D. Simpson December 10, 2012 / 11:31 am

            Let’s check what your source says about the Dent slaves:

            During the Civil War, some slaves at White Haven simply walked off, as they did on many plantations in both Union and Confederate states. Missouri’s constitutional convention abolished slavery in the state in January 1865, freeing any slaves still living at White Haven.

            Nothing there about the Thirteenth Amendment, Gary. So what you’re telling us is that you can’t understand the sources you cite, right? Or is it that you intentionally misrepresent them? It has to be one or the other.

            Is your information on the Hampton Roads Conference (and your claim that the Corwin Amendment was the Thirteenth Amendment being discussed) also from the NPS? Citation please.

            I’ve cited several of your other mistaken forays into the realm of history. Are you now arguing that truth is so relative that we can all make up what we want to believe? Sounds strange coming from an advocate of heritage … unless you want to argue that heritage is self-serving fantasy that has little to do with history. If it is “to each his/her own,” then heritage folks deprive themselves of any right to complain when other people do what they want to do, whether it be in St. George, Utah, or Lexington, Virginia. If you are entitled to your “truth,” then so are they.

            Remember to share your view about your “take it or leave it” attitude toward truth when it comes to inflicting your views onto school boards.

          • Al Mackey December 10, 2012 / 12:02 pm

            The NPS link does not support your claim that Julia Grant owned 18 slaves, nor does it support your claim about the EP.

          • Brooks D. Simpson December 10, 2012 / 12:12 pm

            I’m waiting for Gary Adams to explain why this is so. He can explain here … or maybe it’s time for one of those “confrontational” posts that I’ve heard so much about recently. You think that even “content” bloggers would want to counter misrepresentation of content.

          • Al Mackey December 10, 2012 / 2:52 pm

            I’m still trying to figure out why we care if a blog is content, whatever that is, or confrontational, whatever that is. What if the blog’s content is confrontational? Does the world stop turning? 🙂

          • southron_98 December 10, 2012 / 12:50 pm

            Ah, one of these, you know what my mother told me? If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all”. I don’t have the time for this “Third para: “Early Farm Residents and Slavery

            “Each of the farm’s early residents owned slaves during their tenure on the Gravois property. When Theodore and Anne Lucas Hunt purchased William Lindsay Long’s home in 1818, there existed “several good log cabins” on the property—potential quarters for the five slaves purchased earlier by Hunt. The work of Walace, Andrew, Lydia, Loutette, and Adie would be an important part of the Hunts’ farming venture. The Hunts sold the Gravois property to Frederick Dent in 1820, for the sum of $6,000. Naming the property “White Haven” after his family home in Maryland, Colonel Dent considered himself a Southern gentleman with slaves to do the manual labor of caring for the plantation. By the 1850s, EIGHTEEN slaves lived and worked at White Haven”.

            “In Mary Robinson’s July 24, 1885, recollections, during an interview for the St. Louis Republican memorial to Grant following his death, she noted that “he always said he wanted to give his wife’s slaves their freedom as soon as he was able.” In 1859, Grant freed William Jones, the only slave he is known to have owned. During the Civil War, SOME SLAVES at White Haven simply walked off, as they did on many plantations in both Union and Confederate states. Missouri’s CONSTITUTIONAL convention abolished slavery in the state in January 1865, FREEING ANY SLAVES still living at White Haven”.

            “In Mary Robinson’s July 24, 1885, recollections, during an interview for the St. Louis Republican memorial to Grant following his death, she noted that “he always said he wanted to give HIS WIFE’S their freedom as soon as he was able.” In 1859, Grant freed William Jones, the only slave he is known to have owned. During the Civil War, some slaves at White Haven simply walked off, as they did on many plantations in both Union and Confederate states. Missouri’s constitutional convention abolished slavery in the state in January 1865, freeing any slaves still living at White Haven”.

            Thanks for the enlighten show of manners, politeness.

          • Brooks D. Simpson December 10, 2012 / 1:38 pm

            You don’t have the time to be accurate? You had the time to misrepresent what the site said, and then you said truth was relative.

            This is all useful information. We now have a better idea of what to expect when the members of the SHPG come here to talk about history. Thanks much, and keep on giving.

          • Al Mackey December 10, 2012 / 2:50 pm

            Once again, the site doesn’t support your claim that Julia Grant owned 18 slaves. Eighteen slaves lived there, but who owned them? Not Julia.

            And it says nothing about the Emancipation Proclamation as you claimed. It says that anyone who might still have been enslaved was freed by Missouri’s constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, not the Emancipation Proclamation as you claimed.

            Do you see the difference between what is written and what you claimed?

          • Brooks D. Simpson December 10, 2012 / 2:34 pm

            Funny that you say that about the truth, Gary. You’ve also said this:

            As, you know by now, at least concerning history my main contention is to research to the best of ones’ ability and learn the truth; the hard pill for some to follow is while the truth can set you free it can also bite you. I argue regardless, you are better off with the truth than a lie.

            Now, we’ve demonstrated that you misrepresented the contents of a website. Want to come clean? After all, didn’t you say:

            You have heard my argument the truth is all that is important and it can open doors. Like shined shoes at a job interview, making a misquote , supporting a tale you have always enjoyed only to find out it is a myth makes you, us look like a idol.

            Or should we assume that your notion of truthiness resembles this statement of yours:

            There is no shame in admitting to the truth as long as one stays faithful; to the cause. Gary.

            Care to explain what you meant by that? Tell the truth.

    • Carl Schenker January 20, 2012 / 9:13 am


      I believe you are in error in stating: “They [the Lees] were never compensated by the Federal government for what the government stole from them. Arlington is a beautiful cemetery, but the property was taken from Lee illegally.”

      There is a new (and very worthwhile) book on this very topic. General Custis Lee prosecuted a takings case successfully after the war and received $150,000 as just compensation for the Arlington property. Here’s a link to a review:


    • Brooks D. Simpson January 20, 2012 / 9:57 am

      You do know that Lee himself was at Arlington when he wrote his letter of resignation … so it was not occupied by Confederate/Virginia forces, and thus he could not be leading an attack on it. Scott said no such thing.

      And you do know that eventually the federal government did compensate the Lee family for Arlington.

      I’m curious as to where you learned such (mis)information.

    • Andy Hall January 20, 2012 / 10:03 am

      “Lee’s attitudes toward blacks do not differ materially from those of Lincoln.”

      Well, except for that whole slavery business, which Lincoln always opposed personally, and which Lee accepted as beneficial to those enslaved, and “ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

      So there’s that.

      • Alex Colvin July 3, 2015 / 10:32 pm

        Lincoln DID oppose some slavery — on moral grounds. but let’s not confuse that with his clear sense of white superiority, owing not only to his to his belief in Craniometry, but a stance he makes abundantly clear in the 4th Lincoln-Douglas debate held in 1858 in Charleston, Illinois. Also, its worth noting that the fire-breathing abolitionists, John Seward (Gov, of New York) was NOT nominated in the Republican Convention precisely because he was TOO abolitionists, and Lincoln being anti-slavery, was more moderate. When I was studying this period at school for my undergraduate History degree, I recall our professor discussing the Emancipation Proclamation and asks us, “where is Lincoln’s usual flowery and eloquent prose?” which marked everything it seemed he ever said publicly on the topic. Needless to said, we came away with a very different view of that document and Lincoln’s views on slavery and his abilities as an astute politician and war strategist.

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 3, 2015 / 10:41 pm

          One should not mistake the prose of an official proclamation with the Gettysburg Address.

          • John Foskett July 4, 2015 / 7:47 am

            Precisely. It was a legal document, the executive version of legislation.

          • Brooks D. Simpson July 4, 2015 / 7:50 am

            Not to mention that the professor in question was basically channeling Richard Hofstadter.

          • Alex Colvin July 28, 2015 / 4:50 am

            One should read about Lincoln’s dealing with the British just after Sumter. What was his strategy with them? Vs. the three commissioners Davis sent abroad? Why did the British declare neutrality and why was it important to Lincoln to make his case (via Sewart, his SOS ) about keeping the Union together vs. one of destroying a slavocracy — to the point of threatening warfare with Victoria if they recognized Confederate sovereignty? . How would a policy of destroying slavery have affected recruitment efforts? If he was the Great Emancipator, why not use that to his advantage from the beginning to raise troops?
            Or was it something else?
            I maintain, as noted previously, he was an astute tactician. Not an emancipator.

          • Al Mackey July 28, 2015 / 8:22 am

            First off, Mr. Colvin, it’s Seward, not Sewart. You seem to be arguing against a straw man of your own construction. That Lincoln’s primary goal was preservation of the Union has never been contested. So what? It doesn’t negate the fact that at the time of the Trent Affair to which you allude, the Lincoln Administration had already been freeing slaves for three months. It doesn’t negate the fact that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and did more than any other single person to gain the passage of the 13th Amendment. Lincoln wasn’t the only person involved in freeing the slaves, but he did more than any other person to free the slaves.

          • John Foskett July 28, 2015 / 10:03 am

            When did those two words become mutually exclusive?

        • Christopher Shelley July 28, 2015 / 10:54 am

          No. You are wrong. You would freeze Lincoln in one place, and ignore his evolution on ideas of race, both as a political issue and a social issue. This evolution has been thoroughly covered by Eric Foner and most of the bloggers here, including me (if Brooks doesn’t mind me blowing my own horn.

          In short, Lincoln’s notions on race in American politics and society must be taken en toto, and not carved into artificially discrete segments in order to offer a distorted narrative.

          • Alex Colvin September 10, 2015 / 6:40 pm

            You’re eloquent, but also wrong. Besides being anti-slavery, (not an abolitionist,) Lincoln was also anti-miscegenation which his debates with Douglas make clear, which accorded with his agreement with then-prevailing pseudo science of Craniometry. Also, the very reason he used the concept of keeping the Union together as a rallying cry was because his recruitment efforts at the beginning of the war would have been difficult had he used abolitionist rhetoric as a rallying cry. Lincoln was more astute politician than humanitarian. Also, this is also evident in his Anglo-American dealings with the British early on as the Confederacy sought but failed to obtain sovereign recognition from Britain. This is also exposed in some new work recently published. See Howard Jones, “Blue and Gray Diplomacy” (U. North Carolina Press, 2010)

          • Christopher Shelley September 11, 2015 / 1:41 pm

            You’ve made my point for me by selecting a single period in Lincoln’s life — the Lincoln-Douglas debates — and using that one exchange to characterize Lincoln’s views over his entire life. In fact, Foner shows that Lincoln’s position on equality changed over time. He was always in favor of economic equality for blacks; he understood that most blacks had civic equality (citizenship); the EP forced him to conclude that most blacks deserved political equality. But he makes no real mention that I know of on miscegenation after the debates. (If I’m wrong, please help me out, someone.) So it’s not really possible to know how his views changed by the time of his assassination.

            To say “Lincoln opposed miscegenation” based on the debates is akin to me saying “I have a full head of hair” based on a photo taken in 1994. Things change.

    • DonM April 15, 2014 / 5:26 pm

      Certainly Lee’s will shows he owned slaves personally, one Nancy, and 4 boys. So here is the question: What happened to Nancy’s female children? Answer: Sold to brothels.

    • bob carey June 28, 2015 / 5:24 am

      I always thought that it was Monroe who was the driving force behind the formation of Liberia.

      • Tom Forehand, Jr. June 29, 2015 / 3:46 pm

        Many of the early president back some colonization. However, Lincoln, in my opinion did more that any one. He wanted to basically empty the nation of certainly most of the slaves (on a voluntary basis. His plan to have most of the out of the nation by 1900 is most of his December address to Congress in Dec. 1862. — at the end of that address he called it all “the last best hope” (that is where the title of William Bennett’s two books come from.)

        • Christopher Shelley July 28, 2015 / 11:10 am

          Ok, two things:

          First, sure, Lincoln did advocate colonization–until the Emancipation Proclamation. But you ignore the fact that after the EP took effect on Jan. 1 1863, Lincoln never again publicly pursued colonization. On the contrary, his policy of recruiting blacks into the armed forces of the US demonstrate that he knew colonization to be a dead idea, and that the country was obligated to make blacks full citizens–and, eventually, voting citizens at that.

          Second, you totally, hopelessly misread his “last best hope of earth” comment. That was clearly aimed at the notion of democracy itself–popular sovereignty, self-government–which the existence of the Confederacy directly threatened. If democracy failed in the United States, it was certainly toast in Europe.

          Why would you misrepresent the facts this way?

  8. Mark February 26, 2012 / 10:18 pm

    Who on EARTH said Lee’s view of blacks didn’t differ? Honest, our education system has failed.

    Take a look at Lee’s attitude — first, he had young black girls (actually light skinned black girls) hung up and whipped. He also separated every mother (every family unit) from her child, but one, according to the book using Lee’s papers — “Reading the Man”

    Plus, Lee said blacks were “ordained” by God to be slaves as punishment. Oh, you didn’t know that? God ordered and intended blacks not only to be slaves — but to receive “painful discipline” — aka torture — for their “instruction”.

    Plus, you can find quotes from Lincoln which SEEM to validate prejudices of the day — but does anyone bother to read the rest of the speech? Astonishing, you read Lee’s letter where he said slavery was a moral evil — and that proves Lee hated slavery. Never mind that the rest of the letter is a monumental and tenacious defense of slavery and of “painful discipline” Lee gave to slaves. You ignore everything Lee did, and focus on a few self serving words he wrote to his wife to placate her, because he was whipping the slave girls she grew up with.

    Lincoln would often — in fact, almost always — validate the prejudice of the day, and then in the NEXT SENTENCE — or before the end of the speech, completely undermine, if not repudiate, that prejudice. Over and over and over he did this. Did I mention over?

    Does everyone NOT read his full speeches?

    And look at what Lincoln did! He had to speak of Union. I bet 10,000 Romney dollars that no one who reads this blog ever heard that Northern Congress men, according to the Congressional record, called for the arrest and possible execution of anyone who SAID — just SAID — that slavery had to end for the war to end. That’s right, a Northern Congressmen was voicing the sentiment that ending slavery was the wrong thing to do. Remember, many of these Northerners profited, or were related to people who profited, from slavery. They were at best indifferent to slaves being tortured, sold, etc.

    It’s disgusting that we have to be politically correct — or to say it more plainly, continue the lies — about the Confederate leaders being noble men, kind to slaves, and heroic. And then we have to trash Lincoln, to one degree or another, because if we don’t,, Southern apologist will feel slighted.

    How about tellilng the truth. The truth about Lee’s torture of slave girls. The truth about Lee’s nearly sociopathic defense of slavery and the torture of slaves. The truth about what Lincoln was up against.

    If you want the truth about Lincoln, I suggest you read Frederick Douglass, and what he wrote and said about Lincoln. He was there. You werent. Foner wasn’t. People who sit at their desks, and cherry pick LIncoln quotes out of context, and without much knowledge of what Lincoln was up against (see above) should at least read Douglass. And before you trash Lincoln to be PC, you better be able to dispute what Frederick Douglass said. Know what Douglass said, and why, before you spout off

    • Noma February 29, 2012 / 8:44 am

      Thanks, Mark. I’m always looking for a good response for the “Lee-was-opposed-to-slavery” crowd. Can you give me some links or sources for the info on how Lee separated mothers from children and beat women slaves. It would be useful to read more. Thanks!

      • Andy Hall March 1, 2012 / 12:15 pm

        I believe Mark is referring to the Wesley Norris case. Freeman mentioned this event but decided the allegations against Lee were “libel,” but Pryor looked and found other corroborating sources. She devotes, IIRC, and entire chapter in Reading the Man to this incident.

    • Tom Forehand, Jr. August 31, 2013 / 10:33 am

      Other than the statement by a disgruntled ex-slave, who was out to “get gain” from Lee’s family, there is NO proof or firsthand testimony (that I have ever found) that Lee had anyone whipped. People just keep repeating Mrs. Pryors loose “evidence.” Yes, I have thoroughly read Mrs. Pryor’s chapters (and footnotes). Please name any other person who made an accusation that Lee whipped anyone. Also, what part of Mrs. Pryor’s “evidence” do you think directly supports a whipping? (Not indirectly, but directly?).

  9. Michael April 6, 2012 / 12:00 pm

    could you tell me specific reasons why Robert E. Lee chose to command in the Confederate Army please?

  10. southron_98 July 2, 2012 / 8:15 am

    I am afraid there are many, many mistakes in this article. Grant had free his slave before the war, his wife when the 13th amendment was signed. Lee fought to retain his slaves but the court overruled him! Lee like many in the era believed in slavery and that blacks were inferior.

    The one reader is famous for getting nothing right and his hatred of Southerners in which he claims ““Lee’s attitudes toward blacks do not differ materially from those of Lincoln.”

    Well, except for that whole slavery business, which Lincoln always opposed personally…”. Take a look at “Forced Into Glory” by Bennett,
    Yes, like anyone else of the times had his slaves disclipined but he was not present it would have been considered beneath him and in bad taste, just had to lie to make a worthless point.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 10, 2012 / 12:06 pm

      You are incorrect about the fate of the Dent slaves and there’s nothing to show that Julia Grant had ownership of them.

      • Tom Forehand, Jr. August 29, 2013 / 6:04 pm

        When Julia’s father died…who participated in executing the will? Were the slaves sold and if so, did the Lincoln family receive any of the money from this sale?

        • Brooks D. Simpson August 29, 2013 / 7:37 pm

          Colonel Dent died on December 15, 1873. That fact should answer the remainder of your questions, although I have no idea how you conclude that the Lincoln family was involved.

          • Tom Forehand, Jr. August 31, 2013 / 10:22 am

            You are correct. That was my error; I misread what you wrote. I thought you were referring to Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary. I was referring to her. However, you were referring to Julia Grant’s family.

  11. Tom Forehand, jr. July 4, 2012 / 10:25 am

    “When they finallly caught her, he personally attended her whipping, screaming to whip her harder.”
    Mark keeps repeating the “accusation” that Lee had someone whipped. However, he does not present proof that Lee ever had anyone whipped. Repeating an accusation does not make it factual. If Mark cannot present proof that Lee had anyone whipped, I think he should retract this carnard which has been hurled at Lee since 1859 by those who surely had a bias to alter the truth.
    Tom Forehand, Jr.

  12. southron_98 September 2, 2012 / 6:17 am

    What racist like Mark fail to understand this was a different era,look at what Sherman said of blacks for that matter Lincoln. There is more to a man than being on the wrong side of a insitution that every American from the begining at Jamestown to the 13th Amendment followed. I wondered what he feels about black slave owners? Thank you

    • DonM April 15, 2014 / 5:32 pm

      Rather a lot of the black slave owners bought their family members, to free them practically from slavery. They often remained legal slaves because of state laws that required freed slaves to leave the state. Corporations were formed by slaves to buy slaves, and then the bought slaves would work for the corporation until they reimbursed the corporation, which would use the proceeds to buy more slaves. Corporations were held to have no color, and hence corporate slaves could not be forced to leave the state.

  13. Nelson October 26, 2012 / 1:30 am

    I was just looking up what made Lee such a great Christian man? Lot of sentiments in that direction here in Georgia. Nothing against Lee, but Ezekiel 22 spells out the demise of any society even though Jerusalem is being examined in that particular chapter. Ez 22 spells the case of the South falling as well, (shedding innocent blood, exploiting poor, mistreating aliens, preachers whitewashing God’s word to keep peace with society, extortion, and other things to name a few) The same things that go on today. Just recently found that Southern Baptist didn’t exist until the issue of slavery separated them from their counterpart Northern religious group. I think the Civil War should have been called the “Rich Man’s War.” Who else would oppose getting rid of high profit margins? To fall in line with Ezekiel 22, the religious stamp or God’s approval made it difficult for people to see the real truth. Go figure, the North and the South thought God was on their side. Lincoln himself even quoted Jesus, “A house divided cannot stand.” In conclusion, it is possible Lee was not a biblical scholar, but he was a religious man. Religion doesn’t count for nothing without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. How could God let him down? Well, God didn’t. My question still lingers though.

  14. southron_98 December 10, 2012 / 9:48 am

    I agree thank you, I don’t know Mr. A. Hall but I hear nothing but good things about him. I think everyone thinks themselves right or they would not open their mouths, myself all I want to know is the truth regardless of where the guilt lies. Personally I love Lee but I also recognize he was in favor of slavery and I don’t understand the need to lie about it. It would and does not change a thing about his character. Gary.

  15. authorbengarrido February 25, 2014 / 7:33 am

    I’d like to adapt this article for use in a textbook I’m writing for Korean college students. Would that be okay with you?

  16. Sherree June 13, 2015 / 6:41 am

    Thanks for posting this essay again, Brooks. Some of the comments highlight what you have said. At that time, you had cannon to the right of you and cannon to the left. Now it appears that resistance to you, and to sound scholarship in general, is primarily coming from the right. That leaves a very narrow entry point into the conversation for a white southerner who is not a rabid reactionary. By that I mean, who wants to side with a neo Nazi white supremacist? I will certainly pass on that. But what that leaves us with (in popular discourse outside of the academy) is either an apotheosis of Lee and the South, or a demonization of both, as one commenter above astutely observed, and as you, in essence, argue, if I understand you correctly. That does, indeed, do violence to our history.

    The war that took place in this nation from 1861-1865 was neither the War of the Rebellion nor the War Between the States; it was the Civil War –our civil war–war writ large –and it was swift and terrible. If the Sherman family allowed Joseph E. Johnston to be a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral, who are we to call each other “Yankee” or “traitor”? They are the men who fought the war. The suffering was their suffering, not our suffering. Now we must deal with the legacy and history of others who suffered, and who suffered greatly–African Americans and the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Navajo. Lee’s argument that slavery was a civilizing influence for men and women whose ancestors were forcibly brought to this land from Africa is very similar to arguments that indigenous populations benefited from America’s commitment to manifest destiny. Neither proposition was true. Obviously. To most of us, at least……

  17. karl June 27, 2015 / 7:23 pm

    I think Lee understood his slaves better than anyone writing about this topic today.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 27, 2015 / 8:55 pm

      On what do you base that statement, and what does it mean? Tell us about Lee’s understanding of his slaves, and about your reading of the literature on slavery that leads you to make your statement. Might we then also say that Lee’s slaves knew him better than any historian, and that we must privilege Wesley Morris’s understanding of him? So you would seem to be arguing.

  18. Chunk July 28, 2015 / 1:43 pm

    @Brooks D. Simpson: Do you recommend these books?

    Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History, by Alan Nolan
    Reading the Man, by Elizabeth Pryor

    And as I said in my first comment, you really do have a fine blog.


    • Brooks D. Simpson July 28, 2015 / 2:07 pm

      Yes. I think they offer good balance. But people will point out that there’s more to Lee than in these two books, and they are correct. Nolan is as much about Lee’s biographers as it is about Lee; Pryor’s thoughtful discussions have drawn some critics.

    • Tom Forehand, Jr. August 2, 2015 / 4:03 pm

      Read both Nolan’s and Pryor’s books.

      A problem I found in Nolan’s book!

      It has been many years since I have read it, however, I do remember that Nolan took some of Lee’s words out of context and repeatedly used them to misrepresent Lee. Lee wrote:

      “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 deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.”

      Nolan repeatedly claims that Lee is affirming that the “master and slave” relationship is the “best” situation that the two races could have with one another all the time (as though Lee wants this master/slave relationship to continue in perpetuity).
      However, Nolan overlooks Lee’s key words (which I have highlighted): “while INTERMINGLED AS AT PRESENT in this country.” Lee was referring to the present situation with the nation at war – a period of chaos! Lee was not claiming, as Nolan repeatedly states, that Lee wanted this master/slave relationship to continue forever. Lee, himself, was for liberating minorities that fought for the Confederacy and allowing them to live in the South (the land of their birth)!

      A Problem I found in Ms. Pryor’s Book!

      Ms. Pryor’s book is a classic and any serious Lee student must read it. However, though some people think she has proven that Lee had slaves whipped, she has not! Ms. Pryor only substantiates that several slaves escaped, were captured and returned to Lee who put them in jail before shipping them South.
      Wesley Norris is the only person, that I know of, who ever came forward (by name) to publicly claim Lee had someone whipped. And, I have never found any proof that Lee had anyone whipped at any time. If you have such proof, please post it so that we can evaluate it and evaluate the person who made this allegation.
      Ms. Pryor’s book implies that Lee paid a larger than normal amount of money to a county official so that he would whip these returned slaves (Norris and the others). However, when I checked some of the prices for recovering slaves in the state of Maryland (where the slaves were caught), these advertised prices were very similar to what Lee paid the county official. This could have been indicative that it cost more money to recover slaves in Maryland (where the slaves were almost to freedom — just across the state line in Pennsylvania).
      Ms. Pryor’s book claims that Wesley Norris had nothing to “gain” by telling this story after the war; IMO, this is wrong! At the very time Norris came out with his story, his father was trying to get 10 acres of land from congress — Norris’s father and others wanted this land from “Arlington” (which legally still belonged to Lee’s family and was illegally being held by the federal government)! Because the Norris family (and others) stood to gain a lot of land by getting it from Arlington, there was great pressure for Norris to exaggerate his runaway slave story by blaming Lee for an alleged slave whipping. Blaming Lee for a slave whipping, and doing it with a newspaper campaign, could have aroused enough public pressure to force congress to give this land to these former slaves.

  19. frank england August 16, 2015 / 4:52 am

    its seems to me that there are many who would define lee by the standards of our modern times.but they do not it fairly.i know i know,lee fought for the south and the south had slaves and the slavery is wrong,but when we as a part of western history and indeed world history must try to be fair in inturpreting who historical figures truely vilify lee but say nothing of julius ceasar who any way you cut it was a world shaking conquorer who butchered and enslaved millions,you never here alot about napolean being a murderer on a mass never hear of the inhuman deeds commited by the union director of prison camps who purposely starved tortured and even allowed rebel prisoners to be put in rooms at chicago university to watch and see how and what happens to themwhen they slowly die of typhoid.throwing thier bodies in lake michigan when they did.the fellow even bragged that he killed more rebs than any man alive.he was a mengela of knew of it and said nothing.sheridan,sherman,custer,buckner,are guilty of far more crimes,real crimes against thier own people that they were trying to keep in the union.ceaser,and napolean are remembered for thier brilliants and glory on the battlefield.sherman to his credit was atleast honest about what he did. he waged war against a people he admired to preserve the union.ceaser fought wars for power and glory.napolean fought to bring europe under one flag.killing in this argument of the historical reputation of robert e lee,i myself am a descendant of a soldier who died at andersonville prison in georgia and rebels who perished in camp douglas in chicago.i live in tn as the line of my whole family has since before it was a state can say to you and all those who hold general lee in contemp,that you have a right to your opinion,you have the right to smear one of the finest men ever born on this can hurl and heap vile insults upon his name ,god bless him but in doing so you turn against bravery,duty,honour,valor and military genious.he could have beaten the south quickly if he accepted command of union forces,and in doing so could very likely been president.but the price would,ve been the loss of his sacred honour,he wouldve had to draw the blood of his own family his friends and sacred virginia.he gave away power when setting at the crucible of power.he threw away everything in the defense of our people.and didnt want to but did even though it was hopeless from the a hundred and fifty years later he still pays for doing what any man would do.i say this to you defiler of bravery,as a southern man that you can have and the right to smear him.but you have that right because men like lee defended and sacrificed so that you may do so.and cannot speak for anyone but myself,i say that if i was the only one left on planet earth to defend him i still do a southern man i know what this war my family it ended just yesterday.i love america but i would take up arms and follow the sacred bones of general robert e lee should they rise from his desicrated tomb.lee is head and shoulders above 99.9%of all the people born in american history.he is and will always be the shineing knight on the hill,
    the great defender of our people forever covered in eternal glory.yes glory damn you glory,earned glory.he will be remembered as a genious who with nothing took a ragged starving bloody footed brave few and stood against many.who defended mightily his people.and when you and your ugly and unfair opinion have faded to dust he will still endure.because exellence is never forgotten by honest people who admire brave and mighty deeds.your obviously part of the wave of idiocy that is destroying everything this country has bled for.and in denying lee and the confederates thier just and earned due you diminish the great victory of the union.for they are only great when matched with the rebels greatness.your kind repeats a lie simply hoping in doing so long enough maybe decent honest people will believe the lie.your one of those flag burners.those who would alter history to suit your agenda.which is plainly biased against the south and the achievements of her people.sorry jerko its not going to work.everyone who reads your post knows your either an outrite idiot or a second or third generation american who thinks he has the moral rite to slander a real american hero and gain some glory that your family is not intittled shame yourself.your notqualified.yours did not bleed for george washington, your probably didnt bleed for grant neither.simply put your not worthy to speak the sacred name of robert e fact your a traitor to our country as a tair down american heroes when our republic desperately needs them.yes sir lee is and always be the hero of all true men who believe in the glory of brave and noble put that on you la raza news letter burn pictures of linsey graham,bob corker,obama,eric holder,hillary bin laden,and that damned foriegn ass wart nicki haley then roll it all up nice and tite and cram it all up your god damn yankee ass.the grunts of pleasure you utter will be better than the commy propaganda that is pouring from you suck and all who smear humble goodness can kiss my rebel spit snake! and if you dont like it come find me im in morgan county tn im not hard to find.ill fight you and all the yankee coward you can put in your gay pride van.ill kick you so hard you,ll go so high in the air you,ll come down with moon rocks in your are filth.i wonder what all them yankees would say if they could see what people like you have done to this nation.i bet they,d puke.

    • Jimmy Dick August 16, 2015 / 10:06 am

      Glad I don’t have to be the English teacher that tries to correct all those grammatical errors. As for history this one is easy to grade.

      I think you are on the wrong blog. The racist rants of Jerry Dunford are on another website. You might want to go there to be part of the fellowship of ignorance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s