Saving General Lee

From the Imaginative Conservative, a defense of Robert E. Lee by Stephen M. Klugewicz:

“Despising revolutionary social change and the rhetoric of the abolitionists, he hoped for gradual emancipation and shared with Abraham Lincoln a sympathy for the idea of colonizing freed African Americans in Central America or Africa.

Lee never purchased a slave in his life. The slaves over whom he had control, some 200, came to him through his marriage to Mary Custis, a descendant of George Washington. Lee became the executor of his father-in-law’s will. Though permitted by the will to free the slaves upon the elder Custis’ death in 1857, Lee deemed the slaves necessary to the financial recovery of the Arlington estate. He thus kept them enslaved as long as he could—the will stipulated a maximum of five years—freeing them in December 1862 on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation’s going into effect. Again, Lee believed that his highest duty was to his family, in this case to their economic well-being, and this trumped his concern for the freedom of the particular slaves under his control.

In this, as in his paternalistic attitude toward blacks, Lee fell short of heroism. Of the bondsmen Lee once opined that “the painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race,” and he told a congressional committee after the war that it was his view blacks “at this time, cannot vote intelligently,” though he added, “what the future may prove, how intelligent they may become…I cannot say more than you can.” As Lee’s great biographer Douglas Southall Freeman writes, his “was the prevailing view among most religious people of Lee’s class in the border states. Lee shared these convictions of his neighbors without ever having come in contact with the worst evils of African bondage.”

is conservative views precluded him from, say, taking the extreme step taken by his relation, Robert Carter III, who because of his radical religious convictions freed all 500 of his slaves in 1800. It should be recalled that George Washington only provided for his slaves’ freedom in his will, and only after his wife Martha’s death (though she freed her slaves during her lifetime, as she feared they might kill her.) Lee thought enough of the prowess of African Americans that he was a proponent of enlisting slaves to fight for the Confederacy and thereby earn their freedom. This is also additional evidence that Lee did not consider the war a crusade to preserve slavery, as he was willing to give up the institution in order to secure the greater goal of Southern independence. In the post-war years, numerous incidents were reported in which Lee flouted the conventions of his class and daringly treated a black man as his equal in social situations.

Despite his flaws when it came to his views on race, Lee should be honored as a hero by all Americans and especially by conservatives. His classical devotion to the idea of duty has been mentioned. His resistance to the temptations of power also demands our acclaim. Much is rightly made of George Washington’s laying down of his sword at the end of the American Revolution to resume his status as a private citizen. Lee similarly passed this Tolkienian test when Abraham Lincoln, on the advice of General Winfield Scott, offered him command of all United States forces in April 1861 after South Carolina forces fired on Fort Sumter. Lee declined the offer, which would have gained for him the ultimate career goal sought by every West Point-trained military man.

We must remember that the alternative for Lee was NOT the command of the Confederate armies. He was not foregoing one offer of power in order to pursue another. Indeed, his home state of Virginia had not yet seceded, and at the moment he rejected Lincoln’s offer the most he could have reasonably hoped for was command of Virginia’s troops (an honor that he did eventually receive.) It ought to be kept in mind also that Lee was aware of the superior manpower number of the North and the superior resources of Northern industrialism; the prospects of Southern independence were far from certain. As with the American Revolutionaries, the noose seemed the most likely end for the leaders of Southern independence.

Even when Virginia seceded and war began, Lee did not immediately receive a high command within Confederate ranks. He was relegated to a desk job, serving as an advisor to President Jefferson Davis. He did not receive a field command until May of 1862, when General Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded during the Seven Days’ Battles on the Virginia Peninsula. Lee then took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, but he would not be appointed commander of all Confederate forces until January 1865. This was a series of events that he could hardly have expected when he refused Lincoln’s immediate offer of power in 1861.

In addition to duty, Lee valued humility. He did not angle for promotion as he chafed at his desk job in Richmond. Rather, he humbly served President Davis, and even after being assigned command of the Army of Northern Virginia, his letters reveal that he always deferred to the prickly Davis. Just as Lee eschewed ambition, so he avoided avarice, turning down several offers in the post-war years to lend his name to companies in return for lucrative compensation. The idea of profiting from the selling of his name was anathema to Lee.

Lee embodied the Aristotelian ideal of moderation. As the deep South seceded in the winter of 1860-1861, Lee, stationed in Texas, was shocked when Texas voted for secession in February 1861; one witness recalled that Lee’s “lips trembled and his eyes [became] full of tears” when he heard the news. Lee voiced his resolve not to take up arms against the Union, “but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in defense of my native state.” When Virginia reversed its initial vote against secession in May 1861—in the light of Lincoln’s decision to make war upon the South—Lee made the anguished decision to resign his commission in the United States Army, concluding that despite his love for the Union, he “could not take part in an invasion of the southern states.”

Lee indeed despised war. Surveying the slaughter of Union troops charging his lines at Fredericksburg in December 1862, Lee commented to an aide: “It is good that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we would enjoy it too much.” As Richard Weaver has argued, this profound statement, “richer than a Delphic saying,” shows Lee to be a true philosopher. In the days after the smashing Confederate victory, Lee wrote to his wife: “What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbours, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!” This is far from the tone of a bloodthirsty martinet drunk on the intoxication of his repeated victories.

Twenty-eight months later, as mentioned above, at Appomattox Lee turned aside the suggestions of aides to continue the fight as a guerilla war. The social anarchy and protracted bloodshed that would result were anathema to the conservative Lee, and he prudently judged that Southern independence was not worth the price. Guerilla war horrified Lee because it would bring down the wrath of Mars more harshly on civilians. Indeed, Lee rejected the idea of total war that was developed by Union Generals Grant, William T. Sherman, and Phillip Sheridan, and embraced by President Lincoln. Lee was always careful to avoid civilian casualties. On the first campaign into Maryland in 1862, Lee issued General Order No. 72, which prohibited the plundering of civilian property and reminded his soldiers “that we make war only upon armed men.”

Robert E. LeeLee’s action in issuing this order can be contrasted with that of Union General John Pope, whom Lee had just soundly defeated prior to his foray into Maryland. Only weeks prior to Lee’s Order No. 72, Pope had issued his own order authorizing in Virginia the burning of private homes and the levying of fines upon civilians as retribution for guerilla actions taken against Union troops. More egregiously, in May of 1862, Union General Benjamin Butler, presiding over conquered New Orleans, had issued his infamous General Order No. 28, stipulating that “when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.” In practice, this meant that a female civilian who dared merely to display a Confederate symbol on her dress was liable to be raped by Union troops. Such atrocities did occur.

Lee’s dogged adherence to the traditional, Christian principles of limited war is even more impressive in light of the many atrocities that were authorized and indeed perpetrated against his own people by his enemy. Lee considered the protection of civilian life so important that, as the head of the detachment sent to capture abolitionist John Brown on the eve of the Civil War, Lee ordered his Marines to unload their rifles during their assault on the building where Brown had holed up, lest the hostages that Brown held be injured or killed.

Lee’s amazing self-restraint reflected the advice he had given to a young mother about raising her infant son: “Teach him he must deny himself.” The Christian Lee valued self-control as essential to proper behavior and indeed to personal and public liberty. “I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself,” he said in evaluating his military subordinates. Lee practiced what he preached. He had the rare distinction of being a cadet who did not earn a single demerit at West Point. He expected the same gentlemanly behavior from the young men in his care at Lexington, Virginia’s Washington College, of which he became president after Appomattox. There he reduced the college’s many rules to one simple rule: “Every student must be a gentleman.”

As his name and image, and those of his fellow Confederate officers, are removed from shops, schools, and museums across the country, it is ever more important, especially for conservatives, to speak up for Robert E. Lee. A man of military genius and personal honor, a defender of civilians and civilization, a champion of duty and truth, a model of humility and prudence, Lee was perhaps the last defender of the ideals of the Old Republic, whose greying glory was ground under the wheels of the New Order of the centralized, industrialized state that triumphed in 1865. Though he wore the racial blinders of his class and time, Robert E. Lee was a man of exemplary character and remains an excellent role model for all Americans and is indeed a worthy contender for the title of “Greatest American.”’

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