General Robert E. Lee’s Treason Case

Photo Credit: National Archives

Photo Credit: National Archives

I wrote this essay a couple of days ago for work. You can read more about General Lee’s Parole and Citizenship status here.

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On June 13, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee wrote an important letter to General Ulysses S. Grant. Six days earlier a U.S. District Judge in Virginia named John C. Underwood had handed down a treason indictment against Lee for his role as a Confederate military leader during the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson supported Underwood’s prosecution of Lee, who could have been tried for treason because he was not included in the president’s amnesty proclamation for the majority of former Confederates. “I came to Richmond to ascertain what was proper or required of me to do,” Lee wrote to Grant. “I am ready to meet any charges that may be preferred against me, & do not wish to avoid trial.”

General Grant opposed the idea of prosecuting Lee for treason. He argued that the terms agreed upon at Appomattox granted parole to the surrendering forces. They exempted Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia from further prosecution since they promised that the defeated Confederates would “not be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.” To turn back on these terms and indict Lee for treason would damage the reputations of both the U.S. government and General Grant personally, hindering future efforts to reunify the country. Johnson and Grant argued over the matter for four days until Grant threatened to resign his generalship. Johnson relented and on June 20 his Attorney General James Speed ordered that no paroled officers or soldiers be arrested. General Lee would be granted amnesty and not tried for treason. His citizenship, however, would not be restored until a posthumous ceremony featuring President Gerald Ford in 1975.

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3 responses

  1. Duplicitous motives and reasoning have always reigned in the peoples and government of this country. He and other confederates should have been indicted and hanged as any others of the time surely would have been.

  2. Lee commanded the armies of a separate country. The Confederate States of America began as the United States of America did. They voted in each State Legislature to secede and created their own nation. Lee could NOT be tried for treason because he was no longer a citizen of the USA. He may have been tried for war crimes but I believe the agreements barred even that. Sherman and Johnston met at Bennett Place, and the following day an armistice was arranged, when terms were discussed and agreed upon. The terms were amnesty to all who surrendered and pledged loyalty. Truly it would have been easier to charge Sherman with war crimes as he burned Atlanta to the ground for no military purpose.

    1. Your contention that the CSA was a separate nation is debatable. Certainly President Lincoln, his administration, Congress, and the U.S. military did not view it that way, and the various state declarations of secession were of dubious legality. There is no clause in the Constitution conferring a right to secede in any form, much less through a state declaration. I don’t have the time to further debate the issue, but there’s a wide range of scholarship for you to consult. I’d start with Daniel Farber’s fine legal analysis “Lincoln’s Constitution.”

      Your point about Sherman and war crimes is irrelevant to the topic at hand but is also debatable. Sherman’s March through Atlanta was certainly horrible, but John Bell Hood’s troops also deserve blame for burning down much of the city.

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