A Contemporary View of Robert E. Lee

Doing some research recently, I came across a very interesting article in Harper’s Weekly, dated April 22, 1865.  I found the assessment of Lee quite interesting, especially that the “Lost Cause” image of him was already developing, an image which the paper clearly did not share.   What do others think?  https://civilwarhistory-geneschmiel.com


That the general satisfaction with the surrender of Lee should beget a kind feeling for the rebel General is not unnatural.  But it is a great folly to invest him with any romance.  Robert E. Lee may be an honest man, as doubtless many of the rebels were, but beyond that he has no claim of any kind whatever upon the regard of the American people.

His story is very briefly told.  Educated an army officer, he acknowledged the doctrine of state Sovereignty and, honestly holding it, he followed his State when she seceded.  Now even if a man believed that his State had the right to secede at her pleasure, if he thought the occasion insufficient, as Lee confessed he did, he would silently acquiesce, and no more.  But if the occasion were infamous, if the object of the exercise of State sovereignty at enormous peril to the lives and happiness of his fellow citizens were nothing but the perpetuity of human slavery, a noble and generous man would have protested with all his heart.  Robert E. Lee offered his sword.

From that moment he has been an active soldier.  His military skills have been much overrated.  STONEWALL JACKSON, his Lieutenant, achieved his most famous successes, and Lee’s two aggressive campaigns were ignominious failures. No man can be held guilty of a want of genius.  But will those who are so eager in extolling General Lee inform us why this Christian hero had not a word to say in regard to the atrocious treatment of our prisoners in rebel hands, especially at belle Isle, under his eyes?  Will the flatterers of this Virginia gentleman explain why his reports of operations in the field were so unfair and deceptive?  Will the friends of this simple-hearted soldier say why he tried a trick of words in his final correspondence with General Grant?

There is no act known top us during his long career as a rebel in arms which should favorably signalize Robert E. Lee among hundreds of his fellow-rebels.  Why does not JOHNSTON or EWELL or LONGSTREET or HILL deserve the same praise?  What excellence for character or excuse for conduct has he which they had not?  Do those who speak so softly about his crimes feel so gently about JEFFERSON DAVIS?  Yet DAVIS at least believed heartily in his cause, and it was LEE at the head of the army who made DAVIS’s crime so prolonged and bloody.

We have no emotion of vengeance against General Lee.  We would not hang him – not because he has not deserved hanging, but from motives of state policy. Neither are we inaccessible to admiration for a foe.  Major ANDRE’ we can pity, but General ARNOLD we despise.  ROBERT E. LEE was an American citizen educated by his country who, from a mistaken sense of duty, deserted his flag.  Had his story ended there it would have been sorrowful.  But he drew his sword against his flag not because of any oppression or outrage, but because by peaceful and lawful means it bade fair to become the symbol of justice and equal rights, and he drew it, thank God! in vain.  There his story ends, and it is infamous.”  https://civilwarhistory-geneschmiel.com

Author: geneofva

Author of "Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era," and of seven more Civil War books -- with more to come!!

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