No figures in American history earn universal admiration. As years—and generations—pass, legacies change. As morals, priorities, and political issues evolve, so do understandings of those people in the past who brought change—good, bad, or otherwise—to the country. For some figures, like Abraham Lincoln, whose authentic genius is admired generation after generation, their merit is questioned only by those who unreasonably say the great should have been greater. For others, it becomes much more varied and nuanced, and for Robert E. Lee, his legacy has always differed depending on the part of the country where his legacy is measured and the tenor of the moment. This is because, perhaps more than even Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Lee became a symbol of the Confederacy—with all its ills but also its potential for what might have been.
And Southerners widely and largely believed in that potential. For them, Lee was an embodiment of the South’s hope for a leader, and he lived up to that hope. He exuded the dignity and integrity that his people needed to give credibility to their fledgling government and its underlying cause. Perhaps part of this was due to his not degrading or demonizing his opponents but rather his refusal to do so: he only called his opponents “those people.” He claimed to fight for the Confederacy solely on the basis that his home state—Virginia—chose to secede, and while generations of southerners would sympathize with this decision, it was Lee’s generation that agreed most given that it was a time when one’s state, rather than one’s country, was his or her home. In any event, it was not his approach to life but his approach to military tactics and strategy that won him acclaim. His military style was not defensive, despite the discrepancy in resources, but was incisive and piercing, intended to confound, to puzzle, and to outmaneuver. During the Peninsula Campaign, when Union General George McClellan brought his men down into Virginia in the opening stages of the Civil War and made a move to take Richmond, and when Lee so easily predicted McClellan’s moves and repelled that army, Lee cemented his reputation for military prowess. Then, facing a more able opponent, the ablest opponent of his life—Ulysses S. Grant—in the closing stages of the war, such as the Battle of the Wilderness, Lee ensured that his legacy would be one of valor in the face of the longest odds—when his army and government’s resources, and hope, had dried up. In supporting the Confederacy and its military, he did not resort to hyperbole or grandstanding and therefore garnered respect and maintained integrity. Like his main rival by the end of the war, Grant, Lee possessed “a certain passivity of temperament and mildness of manner.”[i] He was also a man who, when resigning from the United States military to join with the Confederates, wrote a letter of resignation stating: “Save in defense of my native State I never desire again to draw my sword.”[ii] He wrote to his sister that he was unable to make up his mind “to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.”[iii]
Indeed, despite his role as Confederate General, Lee’s “personal generosity and kindliness, and the modesty of his retirement, had greatly softened public feeling, and he has been regarded with the pity that always attends sincere self-sophistication.”[iv] But the fact remained that he had participated in a war that brought about great destruction and was based on the most divisive political issue of the era, and he had been on the losing side. To Harper’s Weekly, he may have been a man who was “amiable, courteous, and refined, a brave and skillful soldier, unselfish, and modest, but if in the crucial moment of his life he consents to fight in a war of which he sees no necessity, and the malign purpose of which is but too plain, he consents to cloud his name forever as that of an amiable man whose weakness is virtual crime.”[v] Northerners shared this opinion from the time of the war to the time of Lee’s death and even to a century and a half later—despite the fact that this characterization painted the man’s life and actions into a caricature that his contemporaries scarcely would have recognized.
Then there is the fact that Lee was born an American and died an American. His participation in the war did not mean that he would be executed, lose his citizenship, or that he would face exile in another land; but that was not immediately clear when the dust settled. In different circumstances, in a different part of the world, there could have been not only execution of the leaders of the rebellion but widespread imprisonment and execution of those who had any involvement, any support, or even perceptions of involvement or support, for the rebellion. After this war, scarcely anything of the sort occurred: although a grand jury indicted Lee for treason—as became popular with respect to the top Confederates for a short period following the war and politically motivated as that empaneled grand jury may have been—there would be no trial, no conviction. As with other former Confederates, in the months following the war, Lee applied for a pardon and received it. Many former Confederates not only took an oath to protect the federal Constitution upon their pardoning but would also maintain the legality of secession, finding justification in the Constitution as it was then written, which not only served to redeem their actions but also gave support to future generations which may find their own reasons for pushing secession over political issues and rationalizing that most drastic step of secession. In this way, Lee had the luxury of betraying his country of which he was a beneficiary—even being educated at one of the world’s elite military institutes, in New York’s West Point, living through the ensuing war and its aftermath to tell his side of the story not to a grand jury or judge or cellmate but to the people of the newly reconstituted country, and even to enjoy a measure of reverence that spanned not just the South but even into the North as his military exploits became not a threat to the country but analyzed for their prudence and cleverness. To a degree, Grant permitted this result in the agreement reached at Appomattox, as it implied that Lee could not be prosecuted for his actions during the war, and perhaps this was the best progression the circumstances could have brought about for it fostered the spirit of reconciliation that the country needed to move past the war and into a new era. And regardless of what Grant or any northerner did, the myth of Lee—and the lost cause of the Confederacy—would persist. At a time when politicians and others had learned to deftly use pretext to cover their aims—such as states’ rights perhaps disingenuously justifying the perpetuation of slavery—Lee’s claim that he fought merely to protect his home (just like many other Confederates said) rang truer and more honorable. Even if he had not such dignified intentions, he could not have controlled his legacy and how others would use it for their benefit: his position as the Confederate General would always have made him a figurehead—a symbol—for movements and ideas born from those of the Confederacy; movements and ideas with which he had little or no association and some of which he could not have imagined. And, predictably, those came to fruition.
Lee likely would not have participated in or tolerated those movements and ideas. In fact, he did not trumpet some of the views that many contemporaries on his side espoused with regard to white supremacy. Some, like Confederate General Jubal Early, would ensure that public discourse contained white supremacy for the remainder of the century and give fodder to that ideology which has persisted in various forms throughout American history, even continuing into the Twenty-First Century. In a sense, Lee’s silence on these issues made his merit grounded in his example of valor and his military service. Some would write that Lee was “in no sense a great man, but he may be called truly unfortunate.”[vi] They would go on to write that his “name will be remembered as that of a chief leader of one of the worst causes in history, yet a weak man, called to deal with events which he could neither clearly comprehend nor control.”[vii]
Upon his death in 1870, due to a stroke and just five years following Appomattox, Harper’s Weekly was not charitable in eulogizing him. To the New York City-based newspaper, he “was an illustration of an apparently fatal weakness of character.”[viii] He had a military skill that his “ablest opponents” conceded, but “he kept himself carefully aloof from politics, confining himself closely to his military duties.”[ix] He saw no necessity to the war, but he “continued to conduct the operations of a war which seemed to him needless.”[x] It was not a war arising from an “intolerable oppression,” however, but “a war to destroy a nation, and instead of a rising against oppression, it was an effort to overthrow a great government, solely because it seemed to favor lawful liberty.”[xi] The newspaper concluded:
“It is in vain that we say General Lee thought that he ought to go with his State, for no man whom history can respect thinks that he ought to go with his State or with his country for an ignoble purpose. If he did not see that purpose to be ignoble, his confusion is only the more evident; for he was then ignorant of what was known to every man, and of what had been loudly and widely declared by the second officer of the Government which he obeyed.”[xii]
[i] Harper’s Weekly, April 14, 1866, 237.
[iv] Harper’s Weekly, October 29, 1870, 691.
[vi] Harper’s Weekly, April 14, 1866, 237.
[viii] Harper’s Weekly, October 29, 1870, 691.