Fighting the Lee Mythology

There has been such a fortress of mythology built up around confederate general Robert E. Lee by the various cults of writers that deified him after the Civil War that it’s difficult to find where the myth ends and the man begins. A number of folks have tried to penetrate this fortress. We’ve considered a couple of articles by Thomas Connelly, a Tennessean, already [see here and here]. The eminent British military historian J. F. C. Fuller wrote a critique in his Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship. T. Harry Williams and the great American military historian Russel Weigley took their turns at Lee critiques. Alan Nolan, a lawyer from Indianapolis, Indiana considered Lee in his “brief for the prosecution” titled Lee Considered. More recently, Edward Bonekemper III, Bevin Alexander, Michael Palmer, John D. McKenzie, and Thomas B. Buell all published critiques of Lee of varying quality. We’ll consider most, if not all, of these in upcoming posts, but for now I’d like to look at a recent article in The Atlantic that has many of the lay Lee cultists in a tizzy this weekend. In “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee” [You can access the article here], writer Adam Serwer, a senior editor at The Atlantic who covers politics, attempts to take Lee down a few notches, even as the General’s statue in New Orleans came down recently.

Serwer makes some very good points in the article, but unfortunately he displays not a deep understanding of the nuances of Lee’s history but rather a superficial reading and cherry picking of a number of writers. He starts with, “The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together. There is little truth in this. Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.” This is generally correct, though as we’ve seen, the view of the North as being industrialized is itself mostly a myth. It’s true many historians have considered Lee’s use of the offensive to be a mistake. Whether it was or not is something we’ll consider later in a future post.

Serwer’s next statement is one most historians today will recognize as essentially true. “But even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black. Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. That ideology is known as the Lost Cause, and as historian David Blight writes, it provided a ‘foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system.’ There are unwitting victims of this campaign—those who lack the knowledge to separate history from sentiment. Then there are those whose reverence for Lee relies on replacing the actual Lee with a mythical figure who never truly existed.” Following this, he provides some examples of journalists who venerated Lee in various columns, which Serwer calls “historical illiteracy.”

Serwer goes on to consider Lee’s views on slavery, quoting from his famous December 27, 1856 letter to his wife, Mary Custis Lee, from his post at Fort Brown in Texas:

“Lee was a slaveowner—his own views on slavery were explicated in an 1856 letter that it often misquoted to give the impression that Lee was some kind of an abolitionist. In the letter, he describes slavery as ‘a moral & political evil,’ but goes on to explain that:

I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.

The argument here is that slavery is bad for white people, good for black people, and most importantly, it is better than abolitionism; emancipation must wait for divine intervention. That black people might not want to be slaves does not enter into the equation; their opinion on the subject of their own bondage is not even an afterthought to Lee.”

Serwer is, of course, correct here in his analysis as well. I also point out Lee’s view that it wasn’t up to men to free slaves, but rather Lee assigns that task to God, no matter how long it would take, whether it would take ten years, a hundred years, or a thousand years. In that same letter, immediately following the portion quoted by Serwer, Lee wrote, “This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day.”

Indeed, to Lee, abolitionists who sought to see the enslaved freed were fundamentally wrong: “Although the Abolitionist must know this, & must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct; Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course. Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?” Earlier in the same letter, Lee had written, “The views of the Pres: of the Systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South, are truthfully & faithfully expressed. The Consequences of their plans & purposes are also clearly set forth, & they must also be aware, that their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign to them & their duty; for which they are irresponsible & unaccountable; & Can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a Civil & Servile war.”

So to Lee, slavery was good for blacks in their “instruction as a race,” bad for whites for what it did to them, but anyone agitating to free the slaves was fundamentally in the wrong for trying to interfere with southern institutions and making slave owners angry. He calls the actions of abolitionists trying to end slavery “evil.” He says that men shouldn’t try to free slaves; instead, the freedom of slaves will come when God frees them, not when men free them.

After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Lee wrote bitterly to the confederate Secretary of War, “In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leave us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence.” [Robert E. Lee to Secretary of War James Seddon, 10 Jan 1863] Notice how he views emancipation as a “savage and brutal policy,” leaving the confederacy “no alternative but success or degradation worse than death.” To Lee, emancipation threatened “the honor of our families” due to “pollution.” This is the standard fear of free blacks marrying white women.

Mr. Serwer could also have used Lee’s January 11, 1865 letter to confederate senator Andrew Hunter of Virginia, in which Lee expressed his views on slavery as well: “Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.” Lee was responding to a letter from Hunter asking his views on enlisting slaves as soldiers for the confederacy. Lee was in favor of it, but he also realized the confederacy needed to give the enslaved men something for which they would fight. Here, Lee shows his ability to see with a clear eye what needed to be done to win the war: “I should therefore prefer to rely upon our white population to preserve the ratio between our forces and those of the enemy, which experience has shown to be safe.  But in view of the preparations of our enemies, it is our duty to provide for continued war and not for a battle or a campaign, and I fear that we cannot accomplish this without overtaxing the capacity of our white population. Should the war continue under the existing circumstances, the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population.  It is his avowed policy to convert the able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to emancipate all.  The success of the Federal arms in the South was followed by a proclamation of President Lincoln for 280,000 men, the effect of which will be to stimulate the Northern States to procure as substitutes for their own people negroes thus brought within their reach.  Many have already been obtained in Virginia, and should the fortune of war expose more of her territory, the enemy would gain a large accession to his strength.  His progress will thus add to his numbers, and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people.  Their negroes will be used to hold them in subjection, leaving the remaining force of the enemy free to extend his conquest.  Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this.  If it end in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races.  I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which must be produced upon our social institutions.  My opinion is that we should employ them without delay.  I believe that with proper regulations they can be made efficient soldiers.  They possess the physical qualifications in an eminent degree.  Long habits of obedience and subordination, coupled with the moral influence which in our country the white man possesses over the black, furnish an excellent foundation for that discipline which is the best guaranty of military efficiency.  Our chief aim should be to secure their fidelity.” Lee continues, “There have been formidable armies composed of men having no interest in the cause for which they fought beyond their pay or the hope of plunder.  But it is certain that the surest foundation upon which the fidelity of an army can rest, especially in a service which imposes peculiar hardships and privations, is the personal interest of the soldier in the issue of the contest.  Such an interest we can give our negroes by giving immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully (whether they survive or not), together with the privilege of residing at the South.  To this might be added a bounty for faithful service. We should not expect slaves to fight for prospective freedom when they can secure it at once by going to the enemy, in whose service they will incur no greater risk than in ours.  The reasons that induce me to recommend the employment of negro troops at all render the effect of the measures I have suggested upon slavery immaterial, and in my opinion the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.  As that will be the result of the continuance of the war, and will certainly occur if the enemy succeed, it seems to me most advisable to adopt it at once, and thereby obtain all the benefits that will accrue to our cause.” [OR, Series IV, Vol. 3, pp. 1012-1013]

Notice how Lee’s view of emancipation has altered a bit. While he was not in favor of it previously, by January of 1865 he was desperate enough for manpower to fill the trenches that he was willing to see it happen, and he was clear-eyed enough to realize it needed to be offered in order to entice black men into confederate gray. This bit of nuance is missing from Serwer’s article. Lee was no abolitionist, but he was a realist and a military professional with a job to do.

Serwer next brings in a reference to the late Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s excellent book on Lee, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. “Lee’s cruelty as a slavemaster was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading The Man, historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that ‘Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,’ by hiring them off to other plantations, and that ‘by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.’ The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as ‘the worst man I ever see.’ ” Indeed, Pryor says, “During the brief time that Lee had authority over the Arlington slaves, he proved to be an unsympathetic and demanding master.” [Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, p. 145]  But Serwer misstates conditions at Arlington before Lee took over as executor of his father-in-law’s will. As Pryor writes, “Custis could be generous to Arlington’s black people, however, particularly on some large issues of identify and self-respect. Slaves at Arlington lived in family groups, with acknowledged lineages and recorded surnames, apparently of their own choosing. As Robert Lee’s letter to A. E. L. Keese shows, whites at Arlington clearly saw the slaves as individuals and were well aware of their relationships and habits. This seemingly commonplace recognition of a family’s name or kinship ties was not something that people in bondage could take for granted. Perceiving how names highlighted the distinction between the ruling caste and those it subjugated, many owners called their slaves only by first names, or imposed identities on them, rather than accept those preferred by the servants. Masters frequently took a casual attitude toward familial relations, guarding the flexibility to relocate or dispose of slaves at will. Marriage between slaves had no legal basis in any southern state, and family unity generally lost out to economic considerations, even when a master was placed under intense emotional pressure. Simply put, if one did not recognize the legitimacy of a family, one need feel no remorse at breaking it apart. At Arlington the situation was better than the norm. Slaves were sold to pay for the construction of the mansion, and into the 1850s Mary Custis Lee saw the auction block as a way to rid the family of recalcitrant blacks. ‘I wish indeed I could find a purchaser for her for I think she would be much better with an owner who could keep her in order & she deserves no favors,’ she wrote of one erring servant. On the whole, however, slave sales were a rare occurrence, and there is evidence that the Custises took some pains to hold families together and even to foster ‘marriage’ among their slaves. In the 1840s Mary Custis and her daughter went to elaborate lengths to arrange the wedding of their servant Rose, buying her a bonnet and dress and making it an occasion for the entire estate. They also allowed those ‘married’ outside the property to visit regularly with their partners. The exception to this generally sympathetic approach came during the hiring process, when slave families were often broken up for years at a time. The Custises and Lees, as well as their overseers, appear to have been oblivious of the trauma this caused.” [Ibid., pp. 126-127] So while the Custis slaves enjoyed some better treatment when it came to allowing families to stay together, it was not something that happened in all cases, and the Custis slaves had been hired away from their families long before Lee became their master.

Serwer makes it seem as though Lee broke families apart by sale. He did some of that, especially with his own slaves, but by far the most prevalent way was through rental, which is what Custis had done before him. Lee was used to that because he had done so with the slaves he owned in his own right, inherited from his mother. “It is clear,” wrote Pryor, “that from the outset Lee saw his servants as an uncomfortable stewardship. He declined to attend the meeting called to allocate his mother’s servants, sending Smith as proxy. Once given his share, he did not know how to employ this new property. Social pressure and family ties did not allow him to sell them, and Lee resented the care and ‘useless trouble’ that the blacks required. ‘I do not know what to do with our Georgetonians,’ he wrote to Mary in 1831, referring to the servants that had been living with his mother when she moved to Georgetown. … He tried to keep the number of servants with them to a minimum and chose to hire out most of them.” [Ibid., p. 148] Pryor says, “He did hire them out with great regularity. This gave him the double advantage of getting some return–‘rent’–for his property and lightening the duties of oversight. … Sometimes Lee hired slaves to his brothers or cousins–others he gave to slave dealers to be auctioned off. He particularly chose the latter course [Pryor’s context shows Lee used slave dealers to auction the rental of slaves, not the sale of slaves] after he took over the management of his father-in-law’s estate in 1857, finding the hiring system a good source of revenue, but also a way of getting troublemakers out of the way. This was the fate of Ruben–‘a great rogue and rascal’–who along with several others had had the temerity to rebel against the system. Three women were also rented away from the area: ‘I could not recommend them for honesty,’ Lee noted sourly. Sending the men away from Arlington served as a cautionary lesson for the other slaves, who considered it a fairly severe punishment. It also helped Lee maintain a distance from the unsavory duties of being master.” [Ibid., p. 149]

More support for Lee hiring out Arlington slaves is the fuller context of the portion Serwer quoted. “Already disgruntled with the taxing new demands, the slaves were further dismayed when Lee began hiring hands to other plantations. With no means of communication, they had no idea where they were being sent, how long they would be there, or what the conditions would be. In addition, Lee rented out so many hands that the black community at Arlington was badly fragmented. The youngest and strongest were chosen to be hired away because they brought in the greatest revenue. By 1859 old men and little boys were the only workers left at Arlington. Worst of all, Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families [as we’ve seen, this tradition was not so well observed prior to Lee]. By 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” [Ibid., pp. 263-264]

Serwer characterizes this as Lee being a cruel slave master; yet, Lee was acting as typical slave masters acted. While the Arlington slaves may have regarded him as a cruel task master, the objective facts indicate he was no more cruel than the average slave master. Serwer does not give us the context for Lee being called “the worst man I ever see.” First we have to understand Lee’s exposure to slavery. “From childhood Robert Lee had been surrounded by the moral irrationality of such a society. Though his father had sometimes used his artful rhetoric to denounce slavery as an evil, he gained a reputation for cruelty as governor of Virginia when he chose to uphold a law that allowed a heavily pregnant slave woman to be hung for knocking down an overseer who was trying to brutally beat her. His brother Carter described Stratford as a paternalistic haven of solicitous masters and smiling servants, but by the time of Robert’s boyhood, financial problems had led to complete chaos in the handling of the family’s human chattel. Some slaves were summarily sold alongside land, horses, and furniture. Others were transferred to distant owners or seized for debts, and in one startling instance Henry Lee took an armed band into the house of a creditor and enticed his repossessed servants to escape. The fear and instability caused to black people by such procedures was a sorrowful part of the institution. At a very young age Robert Lee witnessed the confusion and pain it caused for both whites, whose assets and prestige were devastated, and blacks, who suffered personal humiliation, broken families, and the trauma of an uncertain future.” [Ibid., pp. 146-147] By the time he was an adult and a U.S. Army officer, Lee valued the performance of duty. He demanded it of himself, and he demanded it of others. When his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, died, Lee was named one of the executors of the will. The will provided for certain legacies that needed to be paid out of the estate:

[begin quote] I give and bequeath to my dearly beloved daughter and only child, Mary Ann Randolph Lee, my Arlington House estate, in the county of Alexandria and State of Virginia, eleven hundred acres, more or less, and my mill on Four-Mile Run, in the county of Alexandria, and the lands of mine adjacent to said mill, in the counties of Alexandria and Fairfax, in the State of Virginia, the use and benefit of all just mentioned during the term of her natural life, together with my horses and carriages, furniture, pictures, and plate, during the term of her natural life.

On the death of my daughter, Mary Ann Randolph Lee, all the property left to her during the term of her natural life I give and bequeath to my eldest grandson, George Washington Custis Lee, to him and his heirs forever, he, my said eldest grandson, taking my name and arms.

I leave and bequeath to my four granddaughters, Mary, Ann, Agnes, and Mildred Lee, to each ten thousand dollars. I give and bequeath to my second grandson, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, when he shall be of age, my estate, called the White House, in the county of New Kent and State of Virginia, containing four thousand acres, more or less, to him and his heirs forever.

I give and bequeath to my third and youngest grandson, Robert Edward Lee, when he is of age, my estate in the bounty of King William and State of Virginia, called Romancock, containing four thousand acres, more or less, to him and his heirs forever.

My estate of Smith Island, at the Capes of Virginia, and in the county of Northampton, I leave to be sold to assist in paying my granddaughter’s legacies, to be sold in such manner as will be deemed by my executors most expedient.

And and all lands that I may possess in the counties of Stafford, Richmond, and Westmoreland, I leave to be sold to aid in paying my granddaughter’s legacies.

I give and bequeath my lot and square No. 21, Washington City to my son-in law, Lieut. Col. Robert E. Lee, to him and his heirs forever. My daughter, Mary A.R. Lee, has the privilege, by this will, of dividing my family plate among my grandchildren, but the Mt. Vernon altogether, and every article I possess relating to Washington and that came from Mt. Vernon is to remain with my granddaughter at Arlington House during said daughter’s life, and at her death to go to my eldest grandson, George Washington Custis Lee, and to descend from him entire and unchanged to my last posterity.

My estate of the White House, in the county of New Kent, and Romancock, in the county of King William, both being in the state of Virginia, together with Smith’s Island, and the lands I may possess in the counties of Stafford, Richmond, and the Westmoreland counties are charged with the payment of the legacies of my granddaughters.

And upon the legacies to my four granddaughters being paid, and my estates that are required to pay the said legacies, being clear of debts, then I give freedom to my slaves, the said slaves to be emancipated by my executors in such manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease.[end quote]

Unfortunately, the estate was broke at the time. Lee had to raise the money to pay the legacies and to put Arlington and the other properties into a profitable state. This had not been done in a long time. As Pryor writes, “Custis had meant to be generous, his scanty understanding of the state of his properties and a naïveté about the human reactions such a will would cause made it extremely difficult to fulfill. ‘He has left me an unpleasant legacy,’ Lee would write. Lee arrived to find that ‘everything is in ruins and will have to be rebuilt.’ Mills, slave dwellings, and mansion houses were leaky and dilapidated. Long-neglected lands were producing little, if any, cash crops. Some of the properties that Custis noted ‘I may own’ did not have deeds or other legal certificates. To pay off the will’s provisions would encumber Arlington, a property valued at $90,000, with a $50,000 debt. In addition, the instructions of the will were contradictory, and Lee thought they would require legal interpretation. Virginia law stipulated that freed slaves had to move out of the state, and that the former master must support any who were underage, old, or infirm, but no allowance for the newly freed blacks was specified in Custis’s instructions. ‘There is no such provision nor indeed any for their maintenance which proceeded from his usual want of care in matters of business & I presume a belief that we should take care of them,’ wrote Mary Lee in exasperation.” [Pryor, op. cit., pp. 261-262] So Lee had a big job ahead of him, and as he saw the problem, he had to use the enslaved people at Arlington and the other Custis properties to perform that job. Therein lay the second part of the problem. “Over the years George Washington Parke Custis had grown more and more lax with his servants, particularly at Arlington. Finally he had asked little of them but to cultivate their gardens and raise the food they would eat. Now they encountered a master who believed that it was their duty to work and, moreover, was accustomed to the disciplined structure of the army. From his arrival at Arlington, Lee found himself ‘endeavoring to urge unwilling hands to work’ and trying to reorganize his human resources in a rational fashion.” [Ibid., p. 263] To top it off, the enslaved people at Arlington had heard of Custis’ will, but had an imperfect understanding of its terms. All they knew of it was that it promised them freedom, and they expected it meant freedom immediately. Hence by far the major part of Lee’s being viewed as “the worst man I ever see” was not of his own making but rather reflected the circumstances in which Lee found himself. Serwer’s account takes Pryor’s writing completely out of context and whereas her account considers Lee’s circumstances and provides understanding for those circumstances, Serwer tries to create the impression of Lee the cruel master wantonly selling off slaves to break up families at a whim and being among the worst of men. That is a distorted view of Lee at best.

Serwer next says, “Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington plantation, Pryor writes, nearly lead to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property, one that lasted until a Virginia court forced him to free them.” Here he takes Pryor’s words out of context once again and mischaracterizes what she wrote. Pryor does say the enslaved people at Arlington were disgruntled, saying, “Their response was to withhold cooperation, and finally to protest openly. Many of the slaves Lee hired away were extremely unhappy. They felt exiled from their friends and families at Arlington and thought the measure a degrading punishment.” [Ibid., p. 264] She doesn’t claim Lee had a particularly “heavy hand.” As to Lee’s “dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property,” Pryor wrote, “From the outset Lee had interpreted the Custis will to mean that all the bequests must be paid before manumission. The will itself, however, actually called for land to be sold to pay the debts and legacies, and never states that these obligations should take precedence over freeing the slaves. Soon after he arrived at Arlington, Lee petitioned the courts to give him a ruling on the competing demands of the Custis will. In it he not only asked that ‘the emancipation of the slaves should be postponed till the said legacies are raised, and the debts of the estate are paid off,’ but hoped for a decision that would justify ‘removing the property of the testator, beyond the limits of the State.’ This petition was the servants’ worst fear, and may have been the origin of newspaper gossip about the slaves being sold South. This request would not have actually allowed the slaves to be sold, but it would have permitted Lee to send them out of Virginia, far from their families and the benevolent oversight they had traditionally enjoyed at Arlington. When the court denied Lee’s petition, he applied to the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia to have it overturned.” [Ibid., pp. 265-266] As we can see, Lee properly wanted the court to straighten out the contradictory nature of the will and tell him what he needed to do. Lee had one idea of what he should do to responsibly pay off the debts and the legacies before emancipating the enslaved people. Instead of being, as Serwer claimed, “a dubious legal interpretation,” it was a reasonable interpretation, at least from Lee’s viewpoint.

Serwer next writes, “When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to ‘lay it on well.’ Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that ‘not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.'” Actually, there were three enslaved people who escaped and were recaptured. Wesley Norris doesn’t claim Lee beat them himself, nor does he claim the overseer beat them, but rather tells us Lee had the county constable, Dick Williams, apply the whip. Pryor confirms many of the details of Norris’ account, and as a result, we can take it as a substantially true statement. Serwer’s fumbling of the facts of the case is indicative of his less than full grasp of what he’s trying to deal with in the article.

He writes, “Every state that seceded mentioned slavery as the cause in their declarations of secession. Lee’s beloved Virginia was no different, accusing the federal government of ‘perverting’ its powers ‘not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.’ Lee’s decision to fight for the South can only be described as a choice to fight for the continued existence of human bondage in America—even though for the Union, it was not at first a war for emancipation.” Only five states wrote declarations of causes. They all mentioned slavery as the reason for secession. All the seceding states had ordinances of secession, but only one of them, Alabama, specifically identified slavery as the reason for secession. Serwer quotes from Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession, which says what he quoted, but doesn’t say specifically that they were seceding to protect slavery [They were for the most part, but they didn’t say so. They also seceded due to “coercion,” but protection of slavery was the most important factor. See here.]

Next, Serwer tells us, “During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that ‘evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army’ with the abduction of free black Americans, ‘with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.’ ” This is true, but missing from both here and Pryor’s account is the fact that this was confederate national policy Lee, as an officer of the confederacy, was bound to carry out. The confederate Adjutant General published General Orders No. 25, Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, 6 March 1863, which can be seen in OR, Ser. 2, vol. 5, pp. 844-45. Here’s the order:
It implemented an act of the confederate congress ordering the army to capture slaves. Whether Lee agreed with the policy or not, and there is no evidence he did not agree with it, he was obliged to carry it out. It was his duty.

Next, Serwer says, “Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander A.P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As historian Richard Plotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, ‘his silence was permissive.’ ” First of all, the name of the historian is Richard Slotkin, not Richard Plotkin. Slotkin does say, regarding the parading of the Union survivors, “Under the modern law of war, such behavior is formally proscribed–one of the indictments leveled against Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War was that he had made a public display of captured servicemen. No such law existed in 1864, but Confederate authorities understood that this treatment was not according to the ‘usages and courtesies’ of war. The Confederates did it to dramatize the principle that those who used Negroes as soldiers or associated with them were not entitled to the courtesies accorded ‘decent’ men. The idea came from high up the chain of command: the parade was organized by A. P. Hill, at the time Lee’s senior corps commander. It is noteworthy that, despite the publicity of this display and the widespread acknowledgement that Black troops had been murdered, General Lee never addressed the issues raised by such events. ‘Honor can turn a blind eye when the subject is thought to be beneath recognition.’ His silence was permissive.” [Richard Slotkin, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, p. 340] Slotkin gives no backing for his claim regarding what confederate authorities understood or the reason for the parade of the survivors. Lee probably did know of African American soldiers being murdered, and understanding what their use meant to men in a slaveholding society, Lee no doubt understood the motivations for those murders and may even have agreed with those motivations. It’s less clear whether or not Lee approved the parade, though he did keep silent about it. The quote about a blind eye toward something beneath recognition is, I think, on point here. Serwer doesn’t make the nuanced distinction he should make in this case.

Serwer next considers Lee’s application of confederate POW policy: “As the historian James McPherson recounts in Battle Cry of Freedom, in October of that same year, Lee proposed an exchange of prisoners with Union general Ulysses S. Grant. ‘Grant agreed, on condition that blacks be exchanged ‘the same as white soldiers.’ ‘ Lee’s response was that ‘negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange and were not included in my proposition.’ Because slavery was the cause for which Lee fought, he could hardly be expected to easily concede, even at the cost of the freedom of his own men, that blacks could be treated as soldiers and not things. Grant refused the offer, telling Lee that ‘Government is bound to secure to all persons received into her armies the rights due to soldiers.’ Despite its desperate need for soldiers, the Confederacy did not relent from this position until a few months before Lee’s surrender.” Once again, Lee was executing confederate political policy. Serwer makes it seem as though Lee had a choice. I don’t see he did. While again there’s no evidence Lee disagreed with the policy, we have to recognize he didn’t have the authority to do anything different. Confederate president Jefferson Davis had proclaimed, “That all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” Again, Serwer doesn’t provide that context.

Serwer refers to an article by Professor Elizabeth Varon regarding Grant being disappointed in Lee’s “setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to be hardly realized.” He should also have read Professor Varon’s excellent book, Appomattox, in which she establishes Lee had a different conception of the surrender’s meaning than Grant. Rather than a criticism of Lee, this should be a recognition that Lee saw the meaning of the surrender in different terms than Grant saw it, and the differing viewpoints led to the frustration Grant felt, not Lee’s deliberately being defiant in any way.

He continues, “Nor did Lee’s defeat lead to an embrace of racial egalitarianism. The war was not about slavery, Lee insisted later, but if it was about slavery, it was only out of Christian devotion that white southerners fought to keep blacks enslaved. Lee told a New York Herald reporter, in the midst of arguing in favor of somehow removing blacks from the South (‘disposed of,’ in his words), ‘that unless some humane course is adopted, based on wisdom and Christian principles you do a gross wrong and in justice to the whole negro race in setting them free. And it is only this consideration that has led the wisdom, intelligence and Christianity of the South to support and defend the institution up to this time.’ ” Here he mischaracterizes what Lee said regarding slavery and the war. Lee did not say the war was not about slavery. He said that slavery did not stand in the way of peace. You can see the interview here. Lee also did not mean to claim the confederacy fought to keep blacks enslaved out of Christian devotion. He talked about defending the institution from attack. Of course Lee was in the wrong, but there was no need to make it seem as though he was more wrong than he really was.

Serwer writes, “Privately, according to the correspondence collected by his own family, Lee counseled others to hire white labor instead of the freedmen, observing ‘that wherever you find the negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find a white man, you see everything around him improving.’ In another letter, Lee wrote ‘You will never prosper with blacks, and it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours. I wish them no evil in the world—on the contrary, will do them every good in my power, and know that they are misled by those to whom they have given their confidence; but our material, social, and political interests are naturally with the whites.’ Publicly, Lee argued against the enfranchisement of blacks, and raged against Republican efforts to enforce racial equality on the South. Lee told Congress that blacks lacked the intellectual capacity of whites and ‘could not vote intelligently’ and that granting them suffrage would ‘excite unfriendly feelings between the two races.’ Lee explained that ‘the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.’ To the extent that Lee believed in reconciliation, it was between white people, and only on the precondition that black people would be denied political power and therefore the ability to shape their own fate.” Here, Serwer makes excellent points. He is right in what he says in this portion.

Serwer next considers Lee’s tenure as the President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. “Lee is not remembered as an educator, but his life as president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee) is tainted as well. According to Pryor, students at Washington formed their own chapter of the KKK, and were known by the local Freedmen’s Bureau to attempt to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from the nearby black schools. There were at least two attempted lynchings by Washington students during his tenure, and Pryor writes that ‘the number of accusations against Washington College boys indicates that he either punished the racial harassment more laxly than other misdemeanors, or turned a blind eye to it,’ adding that he ‘did not exercise the near imperial control he had at the school, as he did for more trivial matters, such as when the boys threatened to take unofficial Christmas holidays.’ In short, Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence towards blacks carried out by his students as he was when they was carried out by his soldiers.” This is another mischaracterization. Serwer doesn’t mention Lee expelled students whom he considered to be the worst offenders. To say Lee was indifferent to these crimes is to make a false claim. It’s true Pryor says there were indications he punished these boys more laxly, but lax punishment is not indifference.

Serwer concludes, “There are former Confederates who sought redeem themselves—one thinks of James Longstreet, wrongly blamed by Lost Causers for Lee’s disastrous defeat at Gettysburg, who went from fighting the Union army to leading New Orleans’ integrated police force in battle against white supremacist paramilitaries. But there are no statues of Longstreet in New Orleans; there are no statues of Longstreet anywhere in the American South. Lee was devoted to defending the principle of white supremacy; Longstreet was not. This, perhaps, is why Lee was placed atop the largest Confederate monument at Gettysburg in 1917,  but the 6’2” Longstreet had to wait until 1998 to receive a smaller-scale statue hidden in the woods that makes him look like a hobbit riding a donkey. It’s why Lee is remembered as a hero, and Longstreet is remembered as a disgrace. The white supremacists who have protested on Lee’s behalf are not betraying his legacy. In fact, they have every reason to admire him. Lee, whose devotion to white supremacy outshone his loyalty to his country, is the embodiment of everything they stand for. Tribe and race over country is the core of white nationalism, and racists can embrace Lee in good conscience. The question is why anyone else would.” I think he makes a good point about Longstreet, though little is actually known about Longstreet’s racial views. I think Serwer makes another good point about white supremacists having reason to embrace Lee. But Lee’s image surpasses white supremacy, and I can see people embracing Lee for other points while rejecting the white supremacist portion of his legacy.

While Mr. Serwer makes some good points, his article is fundamentally flawed because he regularly mischaracterizes his sources and takes what they say out of context. He also goes too far in his final conclusion. Instead of a balanced, nuanced view of Lee, what we get with this article is mere caricature. It’s a straw man in the image of Lee that Serwer can easily knock over.

As a final thought, take a closer look at the photo of Lee at the top of this post. It’s taken at the back door of his Richmond home. Look carefully at the bricks on the left side of the photo. You can see spelled out the word, “Devil.” Is that a commentary from the person who developed the plate? Is it a commentary from God? Is it something scratched into the brick earlier and is mere coincidence? All I know for sure is it’s not there now.



  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    I have said this elsewhere, and I would shout it from a mountaintop if I could 🙂

    This blog post is superb, well-researched, & expertly written.

    Lee was a man of his time and the place he was living. There is a lot to take issue with regarding the policies and traditions in which Lee lived, however, to hold his actions apart as uniquely grievous is a distorted view. This examination/critique of the article puts everything back in perspective, and I am deeply appreciative of the time and effort set forth to accomplish this substantial endeavor.

    PS I have viewed that Matthew Brady photograph countless times, and I NEVER noticed the word “devil” etched in the brick. Don’t send me on any snake patrols 😉

  2. Bravo Mr. Mackey! Very well done! Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Sandi.

  3. I had the same reaction you did, Al—the author, Serwer, made a number of good points but often went too far or missed some needed nuance.

    Never noticed the “devil,” either!

    1. Exactly, Jim. Thanks.

  4. Al, I have to disagree with you on this one. In his conclusion, Serwer says: “Tribe and race over country is the core of white nationalism, and racists can embrace Lee in good conscience. The question is why anyone else would.” Your response to that is that you “can see people embracing Lee for other points while rejecting the white supremacist portion of his legacy.” As Serwer notes throughout, those who prop Lee us as an exemplary man frequently do so in ignorance or denial of his actual views on slavery and race.

    1. Can you not see people embracing Lee as a model for military leadership, Pat? How about those who would embrace him as an exemplar of the idea of Christian behavior of his time and place? It seems to me one can embrace Lee for certain qualities while rejecting other qualities. No one is wholly bad or wholly good.

      1. Pat Young · · Reply

        We may have a different view of what “embrace” means.

  5. Al, nice catch! I set it aside for my university history classes. Rea

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Thanks, Rea.

  6. charlie · · Reply

    My question is how did Lee expect slavery to end? Was God going to send Moses back down to Earth and deliver African Americans like the Israelites of old? Did he expect that overtime slavery would become unprofitable and through the free market slavery would end?

    1. Lee didn’t bother himself to think about that. He just figured it would end when God ended it and left it at that.

  7. Interesting points, Al. However, on balance,I think Sherwer’s article is far from flawed and I view his evaluation of Lee as well founded. His main point is that the saintly, almost godlike reputation that Lee has enjoyed for the past 150 plus years is based on hagiographic distortions.

    1. I have to disagree. He takes Pryor out of context and mischaracterizes evidence, probably unintentionally, but I see those as fundamental flaws. Additionally, he is over-the-top in a few spots. I understand something like that is satisfying to those who would like to see the marble around Lee smashed, but in my view we shouldn’t be looking simply to smash the marble but rather have a real view of the real man. The over-the-top characterizations are just as bad as the hagiography.

  8. Now I’m wondering how many of our honored forefathers and slave owning presidents were just as guilty as Lee was when it came to the treatment of their slaves.

    1. I don’t like to use the term “guilty” in cases like this. They were men who acted in accordance with the standard norms of the day. Lee’s participation as a slave owner gets highlighted because so many lost causers and other heritage instead of history types so often deny his support of slavery. Such is not the case with slave owning Founding Fathers and early presidents.

  9. one can fight the lost cause, Lee mythology without re-fighting Lee.

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