By Michael S. Kogan

As I write this essay on Robert E. Lee, I am aware that the subject of this article is under attack by fanatical forces attempting to wipe all those who fought for the Southland from the American story. Their hostility against all things Southern has led to the desecration of monuments and statues, even on the hallowed ground of cemeteries, dedicated to the men and boys “who wore the gray.” These are not monuments to the Confederacy, but to men who went to war because their homes were threatened with invasion.

What was said of Robert Emmet may be said of the Confederate soldier, “His crime was the love of the land he was born in.” Yet today he is demonized and considered by some to be unworthy of remembrance. The same is said of the South’s great captain. And so it is more important than ever to consider once more the story of this remarkable man so that we, his people, can respond knowledgeably to the unjust attacks on his character and conduct.

I want to address three issues here: Did Lee betray his country? Did Lee fight for slavery? What was Lee’s conduct on the battlefield?

During his presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower kept a portrait of Robert E. Lee on the wall of the Oval Office. When challenged by a letter writer to answer why the president would hang a picture of a “traitor” in the White House, Ike responded:

“We need to understand that at the time of the War Between the States the issue of secession had remained unresolved for more than 70 years. Men of probity, character, public standing and unquestioned loyalty, both north and south, had disagreed over this issue as a matter of principle from the day our Constitution was adopted.

“General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation one of the supremely gifted men produced by our nation.”

So to speak of Lee as a “traitor” is to speak a lie. Doing so ignores the fact that until the Union victory in the War, people were torn between ultimate loyalty to their State or to the Union. To choose one’s state was no more a betrayal of the Union, than to choose the Union was a betrayal of one’s state. This great question was finally settled by the War, but in antebellum days, it was an open issue over which thoughtful people disagreed. Lee struggled mightily with it, wrestling in prayer all night before making his fateful decision.

In resigning from the United States Army and accepting command of the forces of Virginia, did Lee betray his soldier’s oath? Absolutely not. He took an oath to the Constitution and he kept it. The Tenth Amendment states that all powers not given to the central government are reserved to the states and to the people. Many read that amendment to permit voluntary withdrawal of a state from a voluntary association known as the Union. The colonial 13 states, including Virginia, pre-existed the Union. They created the Union for their mutual help and protection. When some of them decided that the Union they had brought into being had become hostile to their interests, they exercised their Tenth Amendment right to secede.

Long before President Lincoln had his representative offer him command of the federal army, Lee had decided that, under no circumstances, would he lead an invading army into the Southland. That would have been and, in the event, was unconstitutional. Yet Lee had called secession “silly” and nothing short of “revolution.”

He wrote: “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union … I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation … [Yet] A Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets has no charms for me … If the Union is dissolved, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people, and save in defense, will draw my sword on none.”

Had Virginia not seceded, Lee would have retired to a farmer’s life at Arlington. But Virginia did secede, much to Lee’s displeasure. But believing that his first loyalty was to his home state, he accepted the Richmond government’s offer of command of Virginia’s armed forces.

Shortly before going to the capital, Lee wrote in sorrow of his great role model, George Washington. “How his great spirit would have grieved if he could see the wreck of his mighty labors.” Both Lee and Lincoln yearned to preserve the Union. But Lincoln was willing to go to war to accomplish this. Lee was not.

Lee made his position clear more than once. “If Virginia stands by the Union, so will I. But if she secedes, then I will follow my native state with my sword, and if need be, my life.” Clearly he loved the Union, but he loved Virginia more. These are sentiments few Americans would share today, but we must make a mighty effort to try to understand such views, widespread at the time, within their proper historical context. This man of absolute integrity was opposed to secession, but believed that the decisions of Virginia were binding on him.

It is significant that he never at any time mentioned the defense of slavery as motivating his decision. We will now examine his views on this subject.

“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes.”

The above is not a quotation of Robert E. Lee, but of Abraham Lincoln in 1858. Lee would have agreed with much of it, but not with its categorical language.

Here is Lee on the same topic in 1866: “The negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications to make them safe depositories of political power … At this time, they cannot vote intelligently … What the future may prove, how intelligent they may become … I cannot say.

Lee is careful to say that, while people who had been slaves a year before did not, “at this time” have sufficient familiarity with the world to participate with understanding in the political process, there may come a day when all that will change: Lincoln’s statement holds out no such hope.

Almost all white Americans of Lee’s day could be called “racist” by today’s standard, and that included most who championed emancipation. They opposed racial equality with the same vigor with which they opposed slavery. So what was to be done with the freedmen? In 1820 the Liberia project was founded to create an American sponsored home for freed slaves in Africa. Both Lee and Lincoln favored the plan. Of course, nobody thought to consult the freedmen, most of whom had no desire to go “home.”

The recent spate of anti-Lee magazine articles single him out for having racial views typical of the period. Such unfair and tendentious attacks are part of a long history in some quarters of making the Southland the whipping boy for all the nation’s ills of the past and present.

In 1851 Lee expressed himself on the subject of slavery.

“In this enlightened age, there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country … I hope it will prepare and lead them (the slaves) to better things.” He goes on to say that slavery is more corrupting to the master than to the slave, who is blameless for his condition. He suggests that the slaves are better off here than in Africa. Does he say this because he sees emancipation as inevitable?

For Lee slavery was a temporary condition for people headed for “better things,” In that spirit, Lee had written, “We see [that] the course of the final abolition of human slavery is onward.” Lee never purchased a slave and he never referred to them as slaves but as “servants” or “people.”

In 1857 his military career was interrupted by the death of his father-in-law, Mr. Custis. Suddenly Lee, the soldier found himself in possession of three plantations and 196 slaves. He took a leave of absence from the army and returned to Arlington to try to impose some order on the tangled affairs of his late father-in-law. Mr. Custis had specified in his will that his slaves were to be freed five years after his death. The delay was probably to give his heir time to organize a neglected estate. But somehow the slaves got the idea that they were to be freed immediately upon Mr. Custis’ death. Lee was determined to carry out the terns of the will exactly. So he found himself with a slave population who resented him. One story circulated by a runaway slave was that Lee personally stripped and flogged a runaway female slave.

Can we imagine a man of Lee’s character and delicacy doing such a thing? The mendacious nature of the tale was made clear when in retelling related stories the teller omitted this account. Yet the story has been resurrected and included in recent anti-Lee articles.

During the period between 1858 and 1862, Lee did something usually quite foreign to his nature. He knowingly broke Virginia law. Three decades earlier, in response to Nat Turner's slave uprising, legislation had been passed forbidding the teaching of reading and writing to slaves. But knowing that he would free them in 1862, Lee was determined to give “his people” the basic tools needed for them to live on their own out in the world. He and Mrs. Lee established a school at Arlington to give a basic education to the servants.

Five years later, after freeing his people, he took the time, in the midst of war, to write to his son about how to help the newly freed.

“I hope we will be able to do something for the servants. I executed a deed of manumission embracing the names sent me by your mother. [He goes on to express his fear that the list is not complete.] It was my desire to manumit all the people of your grandfather … I wish to liberate all.” His solicitude for his former servants is evident as he continues the letter with suggestions of how to obtain employment for them. 

To remove this good man’s statues from our cities and towns deprives our youth of one of the greatest role models in American history.

Third: All are familiar with the swath of destruction cut through Georgia and South Carolina by Sherman’s terrorists in uniform. They spared nothing and nobody. They made war on old folks, women and children, non-combatants all. They gleefully tormented and deprived of food whole populations and left a smoking ruin behind them. Sheridan did the same in the valley of Virginia, burning and looting his way through a once verdant countryside until it was an utter ruin. And all this was done with the approval and encouragement of the Union’s highest authorities. As Sherman was preparing to march from Savannah to Charleston, he received a letter from Secretary of War Halleck.

“I hope that by accident the place (Charleston) might be destroyed.” Sherman agreed to do so, but later changed his route and went to Columbia, which he burned in a fire storm. Contrast this hatred and cruelty with the conduct of Lee as he led his army into Pennsylvania. Some suggested to him that this was the moment to do to Northern civilians and private property what Union soldier did as a matter of course as they ravaged the Southland. Lee was horrified and issued his famous General Order 72 to the troops.

“The commanding General considers that no greater disgrace would befall the army, and through it, our whole people, than the perpetuation of the barbarous outrages upon the innocent and defenseless and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country … It must be remembered that we make war only on armed men and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrong our people have suffered without … offending Him to whom vengeance belongeth.”

No Yankee general could possibly issue such an order. Lee conducted himself according to rules totally foreign to his opponents. His reference to the Almighty points to the deep religious faith that motivated him and informed his consciousness.

After the War he became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He said he now wanted to help educate the young men he had led in battle. In every public statement he urged the students to put aside sectional feelings and become Americans, citizens of the re-united nation. This message was hard for some students to accept. The long years of war and the oppression of the Yankee occupation forces, led to four incidents in which some of Lee’s students were charged with clashing with freedmen or Northern occupiers. Lee investigated each incident and, if his students were guilty, meted out punishment. He wanted no clashes with the occupying army.

As we examine this man, we find that his living faith was the rock upon which he took his stand and the source of his great goodness. He wrote: “We are all in the hands of a kind God who will do for us what is best … and we have only … to do our duty to Him and to ourselves.” 

Duty, always duty. He called it “the sublimest word in our language.” In this, his birthday season, we give thanks for this great and good man, and for his life of duty, faithfully performed. 

Dr. Michael S. Kogan is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Montclair State University where he taught for 42 years, serving as department chairman for 24 years. He is the author of “Opening the Covenant: A Jewish Theology of Christianity” published by Oxford University Press, and many articles and book chapters on Jewish-Christian theological dialogue His family roots in Charleston go back to the 18th century. He serves as chairman of the board of The Colour of Music Festival and on the boards of Spoleto Festival, U.S.A. and The Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina. He is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Fort Sumter Camp and the Palmetto Guards.

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