Opinion: U.S. Racists Dishonor Robert E. Lee by Association

Edward C. Smith
September 7, 2001
Historian Edward C. Smith contends that General Robert E. Lee,
commander of the Confederate forces in the Civil War, is being
dishonored by racists who claim to revere him while also harboring
racist sentiments towards blacks. Lee, says Smith, "would not want
them, of all people, serving as the self-annointed guardians of his

The American Civil War—the single most significant event in all of U.S. history—began on April 12, 1861 with the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina's Charleston Harbor.

The war ended exactly four years later to the day on April 12, 1865 with the formal "stacking of arms" by the defeated confederate soldiers at Appomattox Courthouse.

Three days earlier General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant on Palm Sunday April 9.

Appomattox Courthouse is a simple little village in central Virginia nearly a hundred miles (160 kilometers) west of Richmond. Visiting the site is a very moving experience. One can almost see the ghosts of the men who were present at the surrender ceremony, knowing that never again in their lives would they witness such a momentous event.

For the South, the central figure in the great conflict was none other than Robert E. Lee.

Two of Lee's ancestors signed the declaration of Independence. His father, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, was George Washington's Chief of Staff during the Revolutionary War. And his wife, Mary Custis, was George Washington's foster great-granddaughter.

Suffice it to say there was no American family for whom The Union meant more to than the Lees. Nonetheless, like so many others throughout the country (especially in the South), Lee's loyalty went first and foremost to his state. Consequently, when Virginia left the Union he felt compelled to resign his commission in the United States army—where he had served for more than 30 years—and offered his services to the new army of the Confederate States of America.

Abraham Lincoln was elected on November 4, 1860 and was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. Between his election and inauguration 117 days had elapsed, and during that time in the South a whole new nation had come into existence. The Constitution was entirely silent on the subject of secession. The seceding states earnestly believed that since each one had voluntarily entered into the Union, they reserved for themselves their right—as sovereign political entities—to voluntarily exit from the Union.

Lest we forget, South Carolina left alone and could only hope that other states would follow her lead—and of course ten additional states eventually did, most notably among them was Virginia.

General Lee only fought twice outside of Virginia (where 60 percent of all Civil War battles were waged) and those battles were at Antietam in Maryland (the single bloodiest day in American history) on September 17, 1862, and at the three-day battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, July 1 through July 3, which produced more than 50,000 casualties.

While the North gloriously celebrated July 4, 1863, the South deeply mourned. Not only had it been decisively defeated at Gettysburg, but after a siege of several months, General Grant finally captured—on that same day—the vital town of Vicksburg. The capitulation of Vicksburg literally cut the Confederacy in half. Thus, Union forces controlled the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana.

Lee "Was Deeply Religious"

Robert E. Lee was a deeply religious man, believing that the hand of God was present in all human affairs. He and General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson had achieved a splendid victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. Chancellorsville is approximately 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Richmond.

Unfortunately, General Jackson was mortally wounded at night after the battle, mistakenly by his own men. When Lee learned of this he was understandably crushed. They were both West Point graduates, veterans of the Mexican War, and proud Virginians who had evolved into intimate soul mates.

As an aside, I remember reading many years ago that when General George S. Patton (whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy) was reinstated as commander of the American Third Army in Europe, he wrote a letter of gratitude to General Eisenhower in which he said, "Ike, from now on over here you are Lee and I am your Jackson."

Lee Pleaded with God to spare Jackson's life and when he died on May 10, Lee was devastated. Could it possibly be that Jackson's death, only weeks before the Gettysburg campaign, was a divine message to him that he was fighting for the wrong cause?

Interestingly, on May 11, 1864, the day after the first anniversary of Jackson's death, General Jeb Stuart, who in Lee's hierarchy was second only to Jackson, was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern and died the following day. For Lee these terrible losses were hardly coincidental. He believed that the Almighty had spoken, and clearly not in his favor.

Thus, General Lee entered into the final months of the war without his two most important subordinate commanders. Most of the soldiers continued to bravely fight on, no longer for "country," however, but for Lee. For so many of them he was "the country."

Nonetheless, the Army of Northern Virginia was becoming unglued through desertion because so many in the ranks were losing a soldier's greatest weapon, the will to win, and so many began to sense the inevitability of imminent defeat.

Lee, the epitome of the image of the noble, chivalric cavalier, accepted the loss of the quest for Southern independence with extraordinary grace. With so much of the South wantonly destroyed, he, more so than the vast majority of embittered and vengeful Southerners, knew that the war ended with much more than Northern victory and reunification.

Through victory an entirely new social order was to be established that would alter the relationship between the races forever. Unlike so many other Southerners, Lee embraced the new order. After peace had been achieved through unconditional surrender, the South became a vast, heavily occupied military zone with black Union soldiers seemingly everywhere.

One Sunday at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, a well-dressed, lone black man, whom no one in the community—white or black—had ever seen before, had attended the service, sitting unnoticed in the last pew.

Just before communion was to be distributed, he rose and proudly walked down the center aisle through the middle of the church where all could see him and approached the communion rail, where he knelt. The priest and the congregation were completely aghast and in total shock.

No one knew what to do…except General Lee. He went to the communion rail and knelt beside the black man and they received communion together—and then a steady flow of other church members followed the example he had set.

After the service was over, the black man was never to be seen in Richmond again. It was as if he had been sent down from a higher place purposefully for that particular occasion.

Today, and deservingly so, Lee is honored throughout the country. Only Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln exceed him in monuments and memorials.

Unfortunately there are many Southerners who claim to cherish Lee and revere the flag for which he so nobly fought but still harbor rabidly racist sentiments towards blacks and their long delayed social progress. Such people do not honor Lee, instead they disgrace him.

Lee absolutely never felt what these modern Southerners continue to feel—and certainly he would not want them, of all people, serving as the self-annointed guardians of his memory. His lasting legacy, in his own words, is, "Before and during the War Between the States I was a Virginian. After the war I became an American."

To be an American, at least for Lee, meant to embrace the new social order that the war had established and that the Constitution had codified through the addition of three new amendments which abolished slavery (13th) in 1865, made blacks citizens (14th) in 1868, and awarded black males the right to vote (15th) in 1870.

The last five years of Lee's life were happily spent as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. He died on October 12, 1870, having witnessed before his death the passing of the past and the birth of a whole new and more equitable America. For the first time Jefferson's soaring rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence, written nearly a century before, had finally become reality.

Professor Edward C. Smith is the director of American Studies at American University, Washington, D.C., and co-director of The Civil War Institute. He is a regular columnist for National Geographic News and speaker in the National Geographic Society lecture program. He also leads interpretative tours of Civil War sites and other historic locations.

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