Did Robert E. Lee Oppose Slavery?

Confederate apologists often claim Robert E. Lee actually opposed slavery. Let’s put that to the test.

Exhibit Number One for them is Lee’s letter to his wife, Mary, dated December 27, 1856 and written from Fort Brown, Texas, in which Lee said, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages.” Unfortunately, these confederate apologists only read those two sentences. Perhaps they find the rest of the letter boring. But the rest of the letter provides the context for those two sentences and allows us to gain a more accurate view of Lee’s opinion of slavery.

He says in the letter, “The steamer also brought the President’s message to Cong; & the reports of the various heads of Depts; the proceedings of Cong: &c &c. So that we are now assured, that the Govt: is in operation, & the Union in existence, not that we had any fears to the Contrary, but it is Satisfactory always to have facts to go on. They restrain Supposition & Conjecture, Confirm faith, & bring Contentment: I was much pleased with the President’s message & the report of the Secy of War, the only two documents that have reached us entire. Of the others synopsis [sic] have only arrived. 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.” He referred here to President Franklin Pierce’s Fourth Message to Congress. In that address, Pierce wrote [in those days the State of the Union was written, and a clerk read it to the Congress], “Perfect liberty of association for political objects and the widest scope of discussion are the received and ordinary conditions of government in our country. Our institutions, framed in the spirit of confidence in the intelligence and integrity of the people, do not forbid citizens, either individually or associated together, to attack by writing, speech, or any other methods short of physical force the Constitution and the very existence of the Union. Under the shelter of this great liberty, and protected by the laws and usages of the Government they assail, associations have been formed in some of the States of individuals who, pretending to seek only to prevent the spread of the institution of slavery into the present or future inchoate States of the Union, are really inflamed with desire to change the domestic institutions of existing States. To accomplish their objects they dedicate themselves to the odious task of depreciating the government organization which stands in their way and of calumniating with indiscriminate invective not only the citizens of particular States with whose laws they find fault, but all others of their fellow citizens throughout the country who do not participate with them in their assaults upon the Constitution, framed and adopted by our fathers, and claiming for the privileges it has secured and the blessings it has conferred the steady support and grateful reverence of their children. They seek an object which they well know to be a revolutionary one. They are perfectly aware that the change in the relative condition of the white and black races in the slaveholding States which they would promote is beyond their lawful authority; that to them it is a foreign object; that it can not be effected by any peaceful instrumentality of theirs; that for them and the States of which they are citizens the only path to its accomplishment is through burning cities, and ravaged fields, and slaughtered populations, and all there is most terrible in foreign complicated with civil and servile war; and that the first step in the attempt is the forcible disruption of a country embracing in its broad bosom a degree of liberty and an amount of individual and public prosperity to which there is no parallel in history, and substituting in its place hostile governments, driven at once and inevitably into mutual devastation and fratricidal carnage, transforming the now peaceful and felicitous brotherhood into a vast permanent camp of armed men like the rival monarchies of Europe and Asia. Well knowing that such, and such only, are the means and the consequences of their plans and purposes, they endeavor to prepare the people of the United States for civil war by doing everything in their power to deprive the Constitution and the laws of moral authority and to undermine the fabric of the Union by appeals to passion and sectional prejudice, by indoctrinating its people with reciprocal hatred, and by educating them to stand face to face as enemies, rather than shoulder to shoulder as friends. It is by the agency of such unwarrantable interference, foreign and domestic, that the minds of many otherwise good citizens have been so inflamed into the passionate condemnation of the domestic institutions of the Southern States as at length to pass insensibly to almost equally passionate hostility toward their fellow-citizens of those States, and thus finally to fall into temporary fellowship with the avowed and active enemies of the Constitution. Ardently attached to liberty in the abstract, they do not stop to consider practically how the objects they would attain can be accomplished, nor to reflect that, even if the evil were as great as they deem it, they have no remedy to apply, and that it can be only aggravated by their violence and unconstitutional action. A question which is one of the most difficult of all the problems of social institution, political economy, and statesmanship they treat with unreasoning intemperance of thought and language. Extremes beget extremes. Violent attack from the North finds its inevitable consequence in the growth of a spirit of angry defiance at the South. Thus in the progress of events we had reached that consummation, which the voice of the people has now so pointedly rebuked, of the attempt of a portion of the States, by a sectional organization and movement, to usurp the control of the Government of the United States.”

Pierce continued, “I confidently believe that the great body of those who inconsiderately took this fatal step are sincerely attached to the Constitution and the Union. They would upon deliberation shrink with unaffected horror from any conscious act of disunion or civil war. But they have entered into a path which leads nowhere unless it be to civil war and disunion, and which has no other possible outlet. They have proceeded thus far in that direction in consequence of the successive stages of their progress having consisted of a series of secondary issues, each of which professed to be confined within constitutional and peaceful limits, but which attempted indirectly what few men were willing to do directly; that is, to act aggressively against the constitutional rights of nearly one-half of the thirty-one StatesIn the long series of acts of indirect aggression, the first was the strenuous agitation by citizens of the Northern States, in Congress and out of it, of the question of Negro emancipation in the Southern States.”

So Pierce’s first complaint is a complaint against abolitionists who decry slavery and seek its restriction and even extinction. He’s not finished. “The second step in this path of evil consisted of acts of the people of the Northern States, and in several instances of their governments, aimed to facilitate the escape of persons held to service in the Southern States and to prevent their extradition when reclaimed according to law and in virtue of express provisions of the Constitution. To promote this object, legislative enactments and other means were adopted to take away or defeat rights which the Constitution solemnly guaranteed. In order to nullify the then existing act of Congress concerning the extradition of fugitives from service, laws were enacted in many States forbidding their officers, under the severest penalties, to participate in the execution of any act of Congress whatever.” His second complaint, then, is that there were people in the North who helped slaves escape bondage and Northern states enacted personal liberty laws to help keep their black citizens from being kidnapped off the street and sent into slavery.

Pierce then proceeded to his third complaint: “The third stage of this unhappy sectional controversy was in connection with the organization of Territorial governments and the admission of new States into the Union. When it was proposed to admit the State of Maine, by separation of territory from that of Massachusetts, and the State of Missouri, formed of a portion of the territory ceded by France to the United States, representatives in Congress objected to the admission of the latter unless with conditions suited to particular views of public policy. The imposition of such a condition was successfully resisted; but at the same period the question was presented of imposing restrictions upon the residue of the territory ceded by France. That question was for the time disposed of by the adoption of a geographical line of limitation.” This refers to the Missouri Compromise, which said that any new territory north of thirty-six degrees, thirty minutes North Latitude would be free territory and new territory south of that line would be slave territory. Pierce continued, “It stood on the statute book, however, for a number of years; and the people of the respective States acquiesced in the reenactment of the principle as applied to the State of Texas, and it was proposed to acquiesce in its further application to the territory acquired by the United States from Mexico. But this proposition was successfully resisted by the representatives from the Northern States, who, regardless of the statute line, insisted upon applying restriction to the new territory generally, whether lying north or south of it, thereby repealing it as a legislative compromise, and, on the part of the North, persistently violating the compact, if compact there was. Thereupon this enactment ceased to have binding virtue in any sense, whether as respects the North or the South, and so in effect it was treated on the occasion of the admission of the State of California and the organization of the Territories of New Mexico, Utah, and Washington.” So Northerners wanted all new territory to be free of slavery. Pierce goes on to defend the repeal of the Missouri Compromise Line, an act which would allow slavery to spread to any new territory no matter what its latitude, and he attacks those who protested this repeal. He called the law “useless.”

So the message Lee praised from Pierce was one in which Pierce said abolitionists were in the wrong, in which Pierce said fugitive slaves should not be assisted in their escape, and in which Pierce defended legislative action which would allow slavery to go into all territories. Lee approved of this message and agreed with it.

And what did Lee have to say about antislavery people in the North? “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.”

Lee then pens the famous two sentences in which he calls slavery “a moral and political evil,” but to whom is it an evil? He says, “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.” What about black folks? Lee says, “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.” So slavery, to Lee, is a necessary discipline for the instruction of African Americans. How long will it last? Lee says, “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. 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.” So Lee won’t lift a finger to help blacks become free. He’s happy if it takes another 2,000 years for blacks to be free. Lee says, “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?”

To Lee, then, working to end slavery is an “evil course.” To Lee, abolitionists shouldn’t do things to make slave owners angry. To Lee, human beings should do nothing to end slavery, even if it lasts 2,000 more years or even longer than that. To Lee, abolitionists are wrong. To Lee, anyone who wants to help slaves escape bondage is wrong. To Lee, any restriction on slavery’s growth is wrong. Does that sound like someone who opposes slavery? Not to me.

Exhibit Number Two for the confederate apologists is the fact that Lee manumitted the Custis slaves. Many times in their ignorance they will confuse these enslaved people as being Lee’s slaves. They weren’t. Lee had his own slaves he had inherited from his mother’s estate. As one of the executors of the Custis estate, Lee was legally obligated to free the Custis slaves not later than five years after the death of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis due to the terms of Custis’ will. Lee eventually went to court to clarify the terms of the will, and he eventually did manumit the Custis slaves–as he was legally obligated to do. When someone does what they are legally obligated to do, can we reasonably conclude that was what they would have done without the legal obligation? Would a man who was opposed to slavery have slaves whipped for running away? Lee did, as we can see from the testimony of Wesley Norris.

We also have evidence Lee didn’t meet the will’s requirements. The Custis will specified they had to be freed not later than five years after Custis’ death, which would put it at the end of 1862. But we also have evidence at least some of the Custis slaves were still being held late in 1863: “As regards the people at the White House & Romancoke I directed Mr. Collins as soon as he could get in the small crop this fall, to obtain from the county courts their free papers & to emancipate them. They can then hire themselves out & support themselves. Their families if they choose or until they can do better can remain at their present homes. I do not know what to do better for them. The enemy has carried off all the teams, &c., & there is no certainty if they remain of making enough to live on. I wish this done.” [R. E. Lee to Mary Custis Lee, November 11, 1863] This even continued into 1864: “As regards the people at Romancoke, I much prefer their receiving their free papers & seeking their fortune. It has got to be done & it was in accordance with  your father’s will. I am unable to attend to them & I am afraid they will suffer or come to some harm. I do not see why they can not be freed & hire themselves out as others do, & think it might be accomplished. I am afraid there is some desire on the part of the community to continue them in slavery, which I must resist. I wish you would talk to Mr. Caskie on the subject & Mr. Frank Smith, whom I see is in Richmond. Mr. Collins can hire some of them out at any rate. It will diminish the number to clothe & feed. How are clothes & shoes to be obtained for them?” [R. E. Lee to Mary Custis Lee, January 24, 1864]

Lee may have freed at least some of his personal slaves, who then went to Liberia–at least, that’s what someone at the Library of Congress wrote. But Arlington researchers beg to differ, telling us the Burkes were actually Arlington slaves who had belonged to Lee’s father-in-law and were freed in one of Custis’ experiments in freeing slaves. So despite claims Lee had freed all his slaves prior to the war, we have no documentary evidence of Lee freeing any of his personal slaves. Lee had slaves with him when he was at Fort Monroe [Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography, p. 68] and he didn’t favor emancipation of those slaves. In 1849, Lee was in Baltimore, MD and expressed concern that the slaves he brought with him might be lost. As he wrote to Mary, “the abolitionists are very active here & opportunities great [for flight]. That is the experience of all that have brought their servants here.” [R. E. Lee to Mary Custis Lee, 25 Sep 1849] Lee made sure he brought the slaves back with him when he returned to Virginia. [Michael Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee, p. 64] We may also have some evidence of Lee still owning at least one slave during the war in a letter he wrote to his wife in the middle of 1863, well after all the Custis slaves were supposed to have been manumitted: “Tell Mr. Caskie I gave directions for the man he wrote about to be sent under guard, & to be delivered to the Sheriff of Richmond. I hope it was done. I sent a message to him to that effect in a letter to you. I fear it has been miscarried.” [R. E. Lee to Mary Custis Lee, June 11, 1863]

Exhibit Three for the confederate apologists is Lee’s support for arming black soldiers and providing for emancipation as a result. Lee first broaches the possibility of using blacks to support the army to Jefferson Davis in September of 1864: “A considerable number could be placed in the ranks by relieving all able bodied white men employed as teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers, and supplying their places with negroes. I think measures should be taken at once to substitute negroes for white sin every place in the army, or connected with it, where the former can be used. It seems to me that we must choose between employing negroes ourselves, and having them employed against us.” [R. E. Lee to Jefferson Davis, September 2, 1864] Notice four things here: He’s not supporting slaves in the army per se, he’s not suggesting emancipation, he’s not suggesting using them as actual soldiers, and he obviously has no black soldiers in his army, contrary to the black confederate myth. Later that month, in a letter to Secretary of War James Seddon, Lee wrote, “There is immediate necessity for the services of five thousand negroes for thirty days to labor on the fortifications at this place, those on James River, around Richmond, at Danville, and at several points on the South Side and Danville Railroads. The amount of labor to be done, and the importance of having it done promptly, make it impossible to exact it of the troops without impairing their efficiency and requiring their absence from exposed positions.” [R. E. Lee to James A. Seddon, September 17 1864] Lee wrote to Sen. Andrew Hunter on January 11, 1865 in his first mention of emancipation tied with enlisting black soldiers.

Here’s the full letter:

Headquarters  Army of Northern Virginia
January 11, 1865
Hon. Andrew Hunter
Richmond, Va.:

Dear Sir:

I have received your letter of the 7th instant, and without confining myself to the order of your interrogatories, will endeavor to answer them by a statement of my views on the subject.  I shall be most happy if I can contribute to the solution of a question in which I feel an interest commensurate with my desire for the welfare and happiness of our people.

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.  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.

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.

The employment of negro troops under regulations similar in principle to those above indicated would, in my opinion, greatly increase our military strength and enable us to relieve our white population to some extent.  I think we could dispense with the reserve forces except in cases of necessity.

It would disappoint the hopes which our enemies base upon our exhaustion, deprive them in a great measure of the aid they now derive from black troops, and thus throw the burden of the war upon their own people.  In addition to the great political advantages that would result to our cause from the adoption of a system of emancipation, it would exercise a salutary influence upon our whole negro population, by rendering more secure the fidelity of those who become soldiers, and diminishing the inducements to the rest to abscond.

I can only say in conclusion that whatever measures are to be adopted should be adopted at once.  Every day’s delay increases the difficulty.  Much time will be required to organize and discipline the men, and action may be deferred until it is too late.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R.E. Lee,
General [R. E. Lee to Andrew Hunter, January 11, 1865]

As we can see, Lee says he believes the master-slave relationship was the best that could exist between the white and black races in the same country, and he regards freeing slaves as having an evil effect. His plan of emancipation is not borne of an opposition to slavery but instead is borne of desperation for manpower and the fact that if they lose the war, they’re going to lose their slaves anyway, and if they win the war they can control the blacks in their new country.

On February 18, 1865, Lee wrote to Rep. Ethelbert Barksdale on the same subject. Here’s the full letter:

18th February, 1865

Hon. E. Barksdale,

House of Representatives, Richmond:

Sir,–I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 12th instant, with reference to the employment of negroes as soldiers. I think the measure not only expedient, but necessary. The enemy will certainly use them against us if he can get possession of them, and as his present numerical superiority will enable him to penetrate many parts of the country, I cannot see the wisdom of the policy of holding them to await his arrival, when we may, by timely action and judicious management, use them to arrest his progress. I do not think that our white population can supply the necessities of a long war without overtaxing its capacity and imposing great suffering upon our people; and I believe we should provide resources for a protracted struggle, not merely for a battle or campaign.

In answer to your second question, I can only say that, in my opinion, the negro, under proper circumstances, will make an efficient soldier. I think we could do as well with him as the enemy, and he attaches great importance to his assistance. Under good officers and good instructions, I do not see why they should not become soldiers. They possess all the physical qualifications and their habits of obedience constitute a good foundation for discipline. They furnish a more promising material than many armies of which we read in history, which owed their efficiency to discipline alone. I think those who are employed should be freed. It would be neither just nor wise, in my opinion, to require them to serve as slaves. The best course to pursue, it seems to me, would be to call for such as one willing to come with the consent of their owners. An impressment or draft would not be likely to bring out the best class, and the use of coercion would make the measure distasteful to them and to their owners.

I have no doubt that if Congress would authorize their reception into service, and would empower the President to call upon individuals or States for such as they are willing to contribute, with the condition of emancipation to all enrolled, a sufficient number would be forthcoming to enable us to try the experiment. If it proved successful most of the objections to the measure would disappear, and if individuals still remained unwilling to send their negroes to the army the force of public opinion in the states would soon bring about such legislation as would remove all obstacles. I think the matter should be left as far as possible to the people and to the States, which alone can legislate as the necessities of this particular service may require. As to the mode of organizing them, it should be left as free from restraint as possible. Experience will suggest the best course, and it would be inexpedient to trammel the subject with provisions that might, in the end, prevent the adoption of reforms suggested by actual trial.

With great respect, your ob’t serv’t,

R. E. Lee, General [R. E. Lee to Ethelbert Barksdale, February 18, 1865]

Notice this later letter contains no suggestion of emancipation. He’s still desperate for manpower here, but he wants to ensure the slave owners give their consent to slaves enlisting. It appears the Hunter letter may be the only time he suggested emancipation in return for service for slaves.

As we can see, none of these instances show Lee being opposed to slavery.

In addition, we have Lee’s reaction to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In a letter to Secretary of War Seddon, Lee wrote, “In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves 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.” [R. E. Lee to James A. Seddon, January 10, 1863] Lee regards emancipation as a “savage and brutal policy.” Freeing slaves means, to Lee, “degradation worse than death.” Bringing on equality of the races means the “honor” of their families will be “polluted.” He’s concerned about the destruction of their “social system.” He doesn’t want to see slavery destroyed. This is not a man opposed to slavery.

Robert E. Lee opposed to slavery? Nope. This man is a supporter of slavery for blacks. What he doesn’t like about it is whatever effect it has on whites.

4 comments

  1. Really hitting em where it hurts lately Al. But this did need its own post imo.

    Any plans for touching upon the Treaty of Paris claims? Cmon…you know what I’m talking about. I’m sure you are as sick of it as I am.

    1. Not at this time, Jason. I’m sure it’ll come up eventually, though.

      1. Jason P · · Reply

        Between that and the claims about Texas having “special reservations” to secede and/or split into five smaller states, I’d love to see a post on those at some point if you ever looking for ideas.

  2. This syncs up with my post a few days ago. Well done Al.

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