Misusing Robert E. Lee – “Lee wasn’t pro-slavery…”
by George Rasley
On April 12, 1861, the day secessionists in South Carolina bombarded Ft. Sumter to fire the shots that opened the American Civil War, then-Colonel Robert E. Lee was perhaps America’s most accomplished soldier.
Lee had served with distinction in the Mexican War, leading a reconnaissance patrol that discovered the means by which the Americans defeated the Mexicans at the battle of Cerro Gordo. He had served as Superintendent of West Point, had supervised the construction of numerous coastal fortifications, and most recently, Lee commanded the forces that captured abolitionist John Brown and the gang that had attempted to seize the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia and start a slave rebellion.
As America moved inexorably toward Civil War, General Winfield Scott, the highest ranking American general, and a hero of the Mexican War, told President Abraham Lincoln that he wished Lee to command the Union army. Lee, who on March 28, 1861, had ignored an offer of command in the Confederate army was offered the command on April 18, 1861, just six days after Ft. Sumter.
Lee refused the command on the grounds that he was a Virginian and owed his first allegiance to the state he believed was a sovereign entity with the right to stay in or leave the Union as it saw fit. He would, he said, not make war on the Union, but he would defend the state of his birth.
When Virginia seceded from the Union Lee said, “I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.”
Why would Lee choose the state of Virginia over the United States of America?
While Lee espused the paternalistic attitudes many Nineteenth Century Americans felt toward Africans, it certainly wasn’t because he believed slavery was just; he wrote in 1856 , “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.”
Lee wasn’t pro-slavery, he believed, as did many others of his day, that the United States of America was merely an association of sovereign states that could, if they chose, leave it or dissolve it.
That this view had been forcefully rejected by his fellow Southerner President Andrew Jackson who wrote in a proclamation rebutting an earlier move by South Carolina to nullify federal law, “I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed,” did not back in 1861 make it any less persuasive to many in the South and even some in the North.
We all know of Lee’s legendary conduct of the Civil War campaigns in defense of Virginia, his defeat at Gettysburg and his eventual surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
Were Lee’s erroneous view of the Union and the Constitution and his conduct of the Confederate armies during the Civil War all we knew about Robert E. Lee there would be little controversy in removing his statues from their places of honor.
But it isn’t what Lee did before and during the Civil War that makes him such an important figure in American history – and one that should be honored – it is what he did after the Civil War that earned him the memorials erected to his memory and a place in history that should be honored by all. Read More
About George Rasley: Editor of ConservativeHQ.com served on the Indiana – Tennessee Civil War Commission. His ancestor Rep. Joseph H. DeFreese sponsored the post-Civil War legislation to readmit Tennessee to the Union and many in his family fought with distinction on the Union side in the Civil War.