To many Confederate General, Robert E. Lee is an enigma replete with contradictions, controversy, conflicting conflagrations, illusory politically incorrect through modern 21st-century liberal indoctrination. To many others, Robert E. Lee is a symbol of American nobility, courage and enduring strength. The truth is both of these variant viewpoints are historically correct. As other men of his time, Robert E. Lee personally experienced conflicting loyalties, wherein, to place his honor and duty.
Robert E. Lee loved the Union, but placed his primacy of fealty in Virginia. He developed affection to the confederacy of American States, but upon the demise of the Confederate States of America again sincerely entrusted his fealty to the United States. Was Lee’s contradictory, sometimes conflicting loyalties strange for a Southern gentleman of his time? No, not really.
In order to aptly comprehend Robert E. Lee’s hierarchy of fealty one may compare the American system of confederacy and federalism with the interwoven systems of fealty, loyalty, and subjugation to obedience within the context of the United Kingdom under the Act of Union.
Subjects of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England primary fealty belonged to the clan chiefs, thereafter, the respective kingdoms and principalities and finally to the Union Jack or the United Kingdom. Even in modern times, from time to time there are strong secessionist movements in the United Kingdom. This system of intricate, interweaving hierarchal loyalties, in large measure, were inherited through the Articles of Confederation and Federalism from Great Britain. Lee’s period in history was not far removed from Jacobite Britain.
Despite liberal ideology and indoctrination, the historical record is quite clear, Lee was not an absolutist, neither an abolitionist, nor pro-secessionist, neither pro-slavery, but rather a man of duty and honor, and concluded that in the hierarchy of his fealty Virginia had the primary claim. Certainly, this did not mean, Lee was a man born of southern nobility that was void of other loyalties, it simply meant the first-fruits of his temporal loyalties belonged to the Commonwealth.
Although, not an abolitionist by any stretch of the meaning of the term, General Lee subliming understood the inherent moral evils of slavery on many levels. Robert Lee was willing to occasionally speak upon the topic of the inherent evils of slavery. Consider the following excerpt from the 1856 private letter to his wife Mary Custis Lee.
“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. 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. 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. 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?”
(Lee’s Letter to Mary Custis Lee, dated Dec 27, 1856)
Notice that Lee aptly and saliently pointed out that the moral deprivation brought upon the African slave was great, but the immoral degradation brought upon the white man was greater. Clearly to deprive a man of free-will and the fruits of free-labor insult the morality of the character, but it is an even greater sin impinging moral character and development to glut oneself off the uncompensated labor of those in bondage. Without question, it must be rightly acknowledged General Lee was personally repulsed by the evils of slavery.
Many liberal ideologues and some scholars have taken issue of Lee’s reliance on divine providence to rectify the wrongs of slavery. However, most Christians of the time were deeply committed to the concepts of manifest destiny and divine providence in providing an opportunity for the impression and manifestation of the Lord’s heavenly royal decree. Such a pronouncement by Lee is in consistent harmony with the general’s deep belief in Christianity.
In 1861, in a private letter to his sister Anne, Lee indicated his decision to resolve his conflicting loyalties in favor of the Commonwealth of Virginia as his most important earthly loyalty within the context of his hierarchy of fealty and allegiance. Consider the following citation.
“With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword…..
(Lee in a letter to his sister Anne Kinloch Lee,dated April 20, 1861)
Hence, General Lee resolved not to take up the sword upon his relatives, family, and friends residing within the sovereign jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Lee’s choice was immutable and in keeping with traditions of fealty, duty, and honor inherited from the United Kingdom.
In January 1865, Lee expressed in a letter to Andrew Hunter, endorsing General Patrick Cleburne’s proposal allowing slaves to serve in the Confederate military in exchange for their freedom as a result of military service and additionally freedom for their families.
“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.”
(Lee’s Letter to Andrew Hunter on Employing Negro Troops, dated, January 11, 1865)
Patrick Cleburne’s proposal argued that each State in the Confederacy had the sovereign power to allow the emancipation of slaves, in exchange, for military service as meritorious service to the government. Confederate General Cleburne opined as follows:
“The Constitution of the Southern States has reserved to their respective governments the power to free slaves for meritorious services to the State. It is politic besides. For many years, ever since the agitation of the subject of slavery commenced, the negro has been dreaming of freedom, and his vivid imagination has surrounded that condition with so many gratifications that it has become the paradise of his hopes. To attain it he will tempt dangers and difficulties not exceeded by the bravest soldier in the field. The hope of freedom is perhaps the only moral incentive that can be applied to him in his present condition. It would be preposterous then to expect him to fight against it with any degree of enthusiasm, therefore we must bind him to our cause by no doubtful bonds; we must leave no possible loophole for treachery to creep in. The slaves are dangerous now, but armed, trained, and collected in an army they would be a thousand fold more dangerous: therefore when we make soldiers of them we must make free men of them beyond all question, and thus enlist their sympathies also. We can do this more effectually than the North can now do, for we can give the negro not only his own freedom, but that of his wife and child, and can secure it to him in his old home. To do this, we must immediately make his marriage and parental relations sacred in the eyes of the law and forbid their sale. The past legislation of the South concedes that large free middle class of negro blood, between the master and slave, must sooner or later destroy the institution. “
(General Patrick Cleburne Proposal, dated, January 2, 1864)
Lee wrote the Confederate Congress advocating and championing military service in exchange for freedom.
“On January 11, 1865 General Robert E. Lee wrote the Confederate Congress urging them to arm and enlist black slaves in exchange for their freedom. On March 13, the Confederate Congress passed legislation to raise and enlist companies of black soldiers. The legislation was then promulgated into military policy by Davis in General Order No. 14 on March 23, 1865. The emancipation offered, however, was reliant upon a master’s consent; “no slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman.”According to historian William C. Davis, President Davis felt that blacks would not fight unless they were guaranteed their freedom after the war.”
(Source:Wikipedia.org citing the Official Record)
General Robert E. Lee unquestionably, advocated General Cleburne’s proposal and wrote a letter to the Confederate Congress advocating Cleburne’s proposal. In March 1865 Congress did pass, at least, some of the reforms, Lee and Cleburne, as well as many others advocated. The Confederate General order No. 14, in part, as follows:
GENERAL ORDERS, No. 14.
- The following act of Congress and regulations are published for the information and direction of all concerned:
AN ACT to increase the military force of the Confederate States.
The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That, in order to provide additional forces to repel invasion, maintain the rightful possession of the Confederate States, secure their independence, and preserve their institutions, the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient, for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.
SEC 2. That the General-in-Chief be authorized to organize the said slaves into companies, battalions, regiments, and brigades, under such rules and regulations as the Secretary of War may prescribe, and to be commanded by such officers as the President may appoint.
SEC 3. That while employed in the service the said troops shall receive the same rations, clothing, and compensation as are allowed to other troops in the same branch of the service.
( General Order No.14, Richmond, Va., March 23, 1865.)
Nonetheless, the above legislation was too little and too late, the war was coming to an end and although the legislation did provide the foundation for emancipation by the sovereign states; it also, placed the final decision for emancipation within the purview of individual slave owners. Regardless, most legitimate scholars agree that General Order No. 14 would have been the foundation for substantive emancipation had the Confederacy survived. In large part, this progress was due to General Robert E. Lee’s advocacy.
It should be noted and so acknowledged that General Lee had personally emancipated the Custis Estate slaves. Many liberals attempt to impugn Lee’s character regarding freeing the Custis Estate slaves. Nonetheless, the historical record, without liberal indoctrination and misinterpretation speaks volumes. Consider the following excerpts from the emancipation decree.
Know all men by these presents, that I, Robert E. Lee, executor of the last will and testament of George W. P. Custis deceased, acting by and under the authority and direction of the provisions of the said will, do hereby manumit, emancipate and forever set free from slavery the following named slaves belonging to the Arlington estate,…
And I do hereby release the aforesaid slaves from all and every claim which I may have upon their services as executor as aforesaid. Witness my hand and seal, this 29th day of December in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred & sixty two R E Lee (Seal) Exr of G. W. P. Custis State of Virginia; County of Spottsylvania to wit I, Benjn S. Cason, Justice of the Peace in and for said County, do hereby certify that Robert E. Lee, executor of the last will and testament of George W. P. Custis, a party to the foregoing deed of emancipation, this day personally appeared before me, and acknowledge the same to be his act and deed. Given under my hand this 29 day of Dec 1862 Benjn L. Cason (JP) City of Richmond, to wit, In the Office of the Court of Hustings for the said City, the 2d day of January 1863. This deed was presented and with Certificate annexed, admitted to record at twelve 0’ Clock.
General Robert E. Lee honored the last wishes of his father in law when he unequivocally emancipated his Arlington slaves. Consider this citation from the website, “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial”.
“Inspired by his wife, Custis provided for the emancipation of his slaves in his will. Slaves were to be freed after financial obligations had been met. Custis set a deadline of five years from the time of his death for the slaves’ emancipation. The slaves believed they had been promised their freedom immediately upon Custis’ death. Robert E. Lee, who managed the estate after Custis’ death, hired out some of the slaves to raise money to settle his father-in-law’s debts. This caused resentment among the slaves. In 1862, freedom came to the enslaved people of Arlington when Lee executed a deed of manumission. Some of the slaves settled in Freedman’s Village, a community for former slaves established at Arlington in 1863. The village remained in operation through the end of the 19th century.” (<ahref=”https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/arho/slavery.html”>”Slave Biographies” @NPS.gov)
Many twenty-first century critics of General Lee openly question why he waited the mandatory five year period upon the death of his father in law Custis to emancipate the Arlington estate slaves. The answer is simple he honored the last will and testament of his father in law.Above all Lee was a man of integrity and honor.
Consider the contrasting styles of warfare when the Union General Sherman marched through Georgia to the sea, it is well-documented that confiscation, destruction, burning, pillaging and crimes by the Union army against Southern civilians actually occurred. Military historians have come to mark these violent military exercises as marking the beginnings of the age of the doctrine of total war.
Unlike, Union General Sherman, Confederate General Lee had no such concept of total destruction. Lee belonged to an earlier age of chivalry and gallantry. When the Army of Northern Virginia invaded the North, General Lee gave strict orders to his soldiers that there shall be no looting, burning, theft, rape, pillaging. Any property taken must be properly compensated. Lee’s sense of chivalry and honor did not allow him to accept the new era of total warfare.
Hence, the historical record actually vindicates Lee, regardless of the spin modern revisionist scholars, political ideologies and opportunistic politicians twist against the Confederate general. Lee was an aristocratic of his times, including allegiance to a hierarchy of loyalties, fealty, and honor.
Yes, Lee had numerous loyalties, including the Union, but the focus of his central oath was to the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is essential to understand Robert E. Lee that considering his acceptance of duty that he was obligated to resign his commission in the United States military when the Commonwealth legislature voted for secession. Other loyalties or not, it was the Virginia legislature that resolved the question of succession for Lee. The historical record is also clear Robert E. Lee was not pro-slavery nor was he an abolitionist. Lee was a man of faith, duty, honor, and integrity within the meaning of the context of the traditional old world sense.
Written by Jeffrey E. Elliott Esq.