A true perspective about Robert E. Lee

When President Abraham Lincoln learned of the firing on Fort Sumter by P.G.T. Beauregard and the inchoate Confederate army, he issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion.  The reason he gave? To preserve the Union.  He said nothing about the war being fought to end slavery.  In fact, going back to his inaugural address a month earlier he had emphasized that he had no intention of ending slavery where it existed or of repealing the Fugitive Slave Law. President Lincoln did not change the goal of the war to freeing the slaves until 1863.

Lincoln’s next step was to find the best man in the army to lead the defense of America’s capital. The man he wanted was Robert E. Lee, whom General Winfield Scott had declared, “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.”  The president, on the advice of Scott, instructed his advisor, Francis Blair, to offer the position, along with a promotion to the rank of Major General, to the Virginian.

Lincoln and others hoped Lee would remain loyal to the Union because he was a known anti-secessionist and believed slavery was a moral and political evil.  However, when Blair contacted Lee, he responded: “Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”

As you can see from the above, Robert E. Lee did not fight the Civil War to defend slavery; he fought to defend his state.

But what about Lee’s ownership of slaves?  Or his views that people from Africa were inferior to whites?

In both of these, he was a man of his time. Although Lee held a dim view on the institution of slavery, he actually believed it hurt whites more than blacks. Lee argued that slaves actually benefitted from slavery in the long run through conversion to Christianity and by leaving the uncivilized tribalism of Africa for an enlightened God-fearing nation. Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln held similar views concerning the role of African Americans.  Lincoln while running for the United States Senate in 1858, maintained that he never wished to see blacks as social equals to whites.

And when it came to the ownership of slaves, Lee was a professional soldier. That was his life. He was not a plantation oligarch, as some have claimed. He probably owned a few slaves early in his adulthood, but according to the great biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee no longer owned slaves by 1847.  The slaves Lee controlled when the Civil War began were a result of the death of his father-in-law. Lee as executor of the estate, was to settle the massive debts of the plantation and free the slaves within five years.  This Lee did in 1862, almost a year before the Emancipation Proclamation.  Compare this to U. S. Grant. Grant owned a slave as late as 1859, while his wife, Julia, who was from the slave state of Missouri, had at least two slaves with her throughout the Civil War.

Robert E. Lee was not an abolitionist.  Nor did he publicly speak out against slavery.  But neither did Grant, the commander of the Union forces. Before the war, Grant’s family benefitted from slave labor and he openly admitted to a friend in an 1863 letter, “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery, but I try to judge fairly and honestly and it became patent in my mind early in the rebellion that the North and South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without slavery.”

Hopefully, we would all agree with Grant’s latter sentiment regarding our nation. Robert E. Lee definitely did.  In 1869, four years after the Civil War, the defeated general wrote: “I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South.”

Today, Robert E. Lee is being vilified and depicted as evil personified. There is a rush to destroy his statues and remove his name from schools and buildings.  Most of these angry disciples of political correctness simply do not know history or, in the case of academics, purposely twist the past to suit their progressive ideals.  I wonder if these modern-day Jacobins ever thought about this:  If Lee was so terrible, why would President Abraham Lincoln at such an important time in our history wish such a dreadful man to command our nation’s army?