Tag Archives: Robert E. Lee

“He Was a Man of His Time”

From journalist Adam Serwer’s two essays (here and here) on the now-removed statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans:

[Robert E.] Lee was a man of his time. So was George Henry Thomas, a son of Virginia who chose to fight for the Union over fighting for slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a man of his time, as was Frederick Douglass. Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln were men of their time. Wesley Norris, whom Lee had tortured for escaping his plantation, was a man of his time. The hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Union, including the black soldiers murdered and humiliated by Lee’s lieutenants, were men of their time. We do not, in the main, build statues to people about whom the best that can be said is that they were of their time. We build them to people who rise above their times, and like many other men of his time, as a farmer, a general, a statesman, and an educator, Lee failed this test in every respect.

Food for thought.

Cheers

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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.

***

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.

Geographic Mobility and State Allegiance in the Nineteenth Century

I am currently working my way through The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by historian Stephanie Coontz. It’s a very provocative book that challenges a lot of our preconceived notions about family structures in U.S. history, and Coontz convincingly argues that the concept of “traditional family values” is really an invention of contemporary politics rather than anything rooted in historical fact.

Coontz points out that a common and persistent myth in current political discourse is that families today are suffering from the effects of modern “rootlessness”: this belief suggests that families today are more mobile and transient than they used to be, children generally have more fractured relationships with their parents and grandparents, and that children are being raised less by their parents and more by surrounding influences such as television, the internet, popular media, friends, and other community members. Coontz challenges this interpretation with a stunning fact that I have never seen before:

Families are not more mobile and transient than they used to be. In most nineteenth-century cities, both large and small, more than 50 percent–and often 75 percent–of the residents in any given year were no longer there ten years later. People born in the twentieth century are much more likely to live near their birthplace than were people in the nineteenth century (14).

She goes on to suggest that families today actually have stronger bonds than those of the nineteenth century. Grandparents are living longer and forging stronger relationships with their children, visits with relatives have increased, and only four percent of children today do not live with either parent, as compared to ten percent in 1940 and perhaps even higher in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, enslaved people in the nineteenth century often saw their families broken up and torn apart while family struggles and employment structures like apprenticeships for white families also demonstrate how communities and outside factors have always played an integral role in raising children.

This discussion got me thinking about the sorts of identities and allegiances nineteenth century Americans would have forged for themselves.

There is a school of thought that argues that more people identified with and considered themselves citizens of a state before aligning with the United States as a whole, especially before the Civil War. Confederate General Robert E. Lee is seen as the archetype figure for this line of thinking. At the outbreak of war and with Virginia choosing to side with the Confederacy, Lee asserted that “I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relations, my children & my home . . . & never desire again to draw my sword save in defence of my State.” Despite his years of service to the U.S. Army, Lee’s first allegiance was to Virginia and, by extension, his family. In his mind he had little agency in the matter since a choice to fight for the Union would be the ultimate form of betrayal to his primary allegiance. The novelist Shelby Foote infamously crystallized this state allegiance theory to millions of viewers on Ken Burns’s documentary of the Civil War:

Before the war, it was said ‘the United States are’—grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always ‘the United States is,’ as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an ‘is.’

While this theory is compelling, I think there is room to question its accuracy.

Lee’s life experiences before the war represent an aberration from those of most nineteenth century Americans. He grew up in a prosperous, stable family with deep roots in his native state, and those roots were solidified even more when he married into the Custis family. Most families had neither the wealth nor the state roots of Lee’s family in the years before the Civil War. While it’s true that Lee’s army career took him to places far away from Virginia such as St. Louis and Texas, those travels initially strengthened his allegiance to the Union, not his state. As the late historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor pointed out, Lee commented in 1857 that his patriotism extended to the whole country and that it “contained no North, no South, no East no West, but embraced the broad Union, in all its might & strength, present & future.” That argument clearly contradicts his later statements at the outbreak of war. Moreover, there were a number of Lee relatives that felt differently about their allegiances and eagerly signed up to fight for the United States against secession, and other notable Virginians like George Thomas and Winfield Scott had no qualms about maintaining their commissions in the U.S. army and their allegiance to the Union.

Shelby Foote’s assertion is also questionable. Andy Hall analyzed nineteenth century publications using Google Ngram and discovered that while “United States are” and “United States is” were used interchangeably during the early years of the Republic, the 1840s witnessed a sharp spike in the use of the term “United States is,” which may be indicative of wartime passions and calls for unity during the Mexican-American War. These calls were often led by nationalists North and South like Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, and Daniel Webster. But beyond the written word we may also question how nineteenth-century Americans could have developed such strong allegiances to a state if they were so geographically mobile. And what about the millions of immigrants who came to the United States in the years before the Civil War? Did they emigrate out of an allegiance and identification with a particular city or state within the country, or did they come because of a belief in American ideals and a love of the whole Union?

Nineteenth century Americans were a mobile people. In an age of cheap, federally subsidized land, ever-developing transportation and communication technology, and rapid westward expansion, many Americans moved from place-to-place in search of communities and infrastructures that gave them the best chance at maintaining a stable family and economic life. It’s not evident to me that they would have automatically identified with a state more so than a local community, a city, or the whole Union. Their allegiances may have been multiple and endearing, but for many Americans their love of Union was paramount.

Cheers

Appomattox

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

150 years ago today on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant and the United States military at Appomattox. Today does not mark the anniversary of the official end of the Civil War, as there were several other Confederate armies still in the field at that time, but the end of General Lee’s war signified the beginning of the Confederate States of America’s eventual demise.

Fifty years after the Appomattox Surrender an Indiana veteran put pen to paper and wrote a moving poem about the meaning of the Civil War and how the future of republican governance could have been imperiled had Grant surrendered to Lee. “Corporal” Bob Patterson was a veteran of the 19th and 20th Indiana Infantry Regiments and an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana after the war. He served as the Indiana GAR’s Senior Vice-Commander in 1895-1896 and dedicated this 1915 poem to his friend and fellow Indiana veteran Adelbert B. Crampton. I found this poem during my master’s thesis research on the Indiana GAR and publish it in full here.

                        “Appomattox”

On the great April day when the weak lines of gray
Were confronted by blue in battle array;
When the heart of the nation was throbbing with pain
For its dead and its dying, and the blood of its slain
Was flowing in crimson to the home and the hearth,
And vigils were kept by the nations of earth,
Could Sages then see what the future would be
When the great Grant and Lee met in the shade of the tree
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?

So steadfast and true when these strong lines of blue
Stood in solid phalanx and resplendent review
Confronting the gray, and in matchless might
Was forcing the struggle for freedom and right,
When the hope of the nation in the balance lay
And hearts beat fast ‘neath the blue and gray;
Could prophets then see what the future would be
As these leaders strove the master to be
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?

In that hour sublime could we know of the time
When slavery would blacken the brightest clime?
Could we tell of the flow of the nation’s blood
In the oncoming rush of secession’s red flood–
Of our own country unknown and unworthy to own
By subject or serf or monarch or throne?
Could philosophers see what the future would be
For the flag of the free on the land and the sea
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?

O, the evils entailed had that moment failed
And the flag of the Union at Appomattox trailed!
If the shafts of chivalry had shattered the shield
Of the great Union chief on this hallowed field
And that proud Southern son had there made the terms
To emplant the Union with soul-eating germs,
God could only then see what the future would be
For the land of the free and the home of the brave
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?

But the victory then sealed on that hallowed field
And the halo of glory that moment revealed
As the flag of the bold was seen to unfold
With the plaudits of nations in the gaze of the world;
Be it in shelter of house or shade of a tree;
The sages, prophets and philosophers could see
The guards of the Nation were there in avant
When angels in chorus all joined in the chant
While Robert E. Lee made surrender to Grant.