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 memory." 

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.

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