Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans-Robert E. Lee

Apr 27, 2015 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans-Robert E. Lee

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Professor Elder, you are regarded as one of our leading historians on the Civil War. Today, I am going to ask you about the leader of the South during the Civil War – Robert E. Lee.  What can you tell us about his early childhood?

Robert Edward Lee was born on his family’s plantation on January 19, 1807. Interestingly, Lee seemed to imply in his writings that he had been born in 1806, but 1807 is still his accepted birth year. Lee was born into a prominent family. His father was Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who had been a highly regarded cavalry officer in the American Army during the Revolutionary War. After that conflict Henry Lee rose to the rank of major general, and in 1794 was elected the governor of Virginia. Unfortunately, Henry Lee’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. He lost most of his fortune, and spent a year in a debtor’s prison when his son Robert was two years old. In 1812, Henry Lee opposed America’s declaration of war on Britain, and was severely beaten by a mob because of his views. Henry Lee went away to recuperate, but died soon thereafter in Georgia. His death forced his family to live off the generosity of family members, and as a result Robert E. Lee would spend much of his young life at a relative’s house in Fairfax County, Virginia. Lee attended a private school for a period of time, and then went to a public school in Alexandria, Virginia. When he was 17, one of his relatives made a request to the Secretary of War that Lee be admitted to the US Military Academy at West Point, and in 1825 Lee became a cadet. He compiled an impressive record at West Point, ranking second in his class, and upon graduation he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Army.

By 1846, he had attained the rank of captain. He provided extraordinary service during the Mexican-American War, earning high praise from the officers that he served under. After the war, Lee served for a period of time as the superintendent at West Point, and then was appointed second-in-command of the US Second Cavalry Regiment, stationed in Texas.

In 1859, Lee happened to be on leave in the vicinity of Washington DC at the time of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. As such, he was ordered to command a force tasked with subduing Brown. He then went back to Texas, and in March of 1861 he was appointed commander of the US First Cavalry Regiment. A month later, the Civil War started. Lee was approached about commanding the US Army, but when Virginia seceded from the Union Lee resigned his commission and his services to that state.

2. What events in his life led up to him leading the South during the Civil War?

At the start of the Civil War, there were just over 1,000 officers in the US Army. Almost 300 of them resigned their commissions to serve in the Confederate Army. The vast majority of them, like Lee, were from states that seceded from the Union. Lee, therefore, was not alone in the deciding to feel a greater loyalty to his home state rather than his country. It should be noted, however, that there were Southerners who did remain loyal to the United States during the Civil War. The Virginian George Henry Thomas, for example, would earn undying fame as “The Rock of Chickamauga,” and Tennessean utter the famous words “Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead” at the Battle of Mobile Bay. But most of the Southerners in the US Army in 1861 acted as Lee did, and because of his long history of outstanding military service it was quite logical for him to eventually become the highest ranking officer in the Confederate Army.

3. Key question – was he a slave owner – and what were his feelings about slavery, cotton, the separation from the Union and the key issues surrounding the Civil War?

Robert E. Lee was a slaveholder through his marriage to Mary Custis, as she brought with her a few of her family’s slaves when she started her life together with Lee. He became even more involved in slavery when his father-in-law died in 1857, and Lee was appointed the executor of the deceased’s estate. This turned out to be a highly complicated financial matter, made even more difficult by the fact that Lee’s father-in-law had specified that his slaves should be freed in the most “expedient and proper” manner. Because his father-in-law’s accounts were in such bad shape, Lee felt that he couldn’t free the slaves at that moment in time. Rather, he kept them in slavery until 1862, when he finally gave them their freedom. This situation serves as a perfect example of Lee’s seemingly conflicted views on the institution of slavery. On the one hand, he said in a letter to his wife in 1856 that slavery was “a moral and political evil.” This seems to suggest that he personally opposed the institution. In that same letter, however he said “how long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise and merciful Providence.” In addition, there is no evidence that Lee or his wife freed their own slaves prior to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. This leads some historians to believe that Lee was not really opposed to the institution. Lee’s real opinion about slavery thus depends in large part on the point of view of the person looking at that question.

4. How did he conduct himself during the Civil War – what were his greatest “accomplishments” if you will ?

Here again, there is no agreement regarding Lee’s generalship during the Civil War. To some historians, Lee was the quintessential general. They point to his skillful handling of his usually numerically inferior forces, asserting that without his leadership the Confederacy could not have survived as long as it did. His supporters usually place great emphasis on the Battle of Chancellorsville as evidence of his tactical brilliance. To these historians, Lee represents the one person who gave the Confederacy its best chance to achieve independence. Other historians, however, feel that Lee was limited as a general. They note that he twice moved his force out of Virginia and into states loyal to the Union, campaigns that resulted in disastrous Confederate defeats at Antietam and Gettysburg. Moreover, they suggest that Lee’s reliance on attacking Union lines resulted in casualty rates that the Confederacy could ill afford. More historians embrace the belief that Lee was a superb general, but that opinion is not unanimous.

5. The ending of the Civil War must have been devastating for him – what are some of the accounts of that event?

It is apparent that by the early fall of 1864 Lee saw that the Confederacy was in peril. A Union army under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman had captured Atlanta, and a Union fleet led by Admiral David Farragut had taken possession of Mobile Bay.

To make matters worse, a Union force commanded by Phil Sheridan had gained control of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Lee, engaged in trench warfare around Petersburg, Virginia, knew that the Union needed only to continue on its present course of action to end the rebellion. The end game started in April of 1865, when the Union Army opposing Lee finally outflanked his position. Lee tried to keep his army intact by retreating, but his path was blocked a week later at Appomattox Court House. Knowing that they could not break out of the situation they were in, a number of Lee’s subordinates suggested that Lee should tell his men to slip through the enemy lines and continue the struggle through guerrilla warfare.

Lee rejected this option, choosing instead to surrender his army. It is a good thing for our nation that he did, because if he had advocated continued resistance the South might well have been totally devastated by Union soldiers stomping out the last vestiges of resistance. He conducted himself with great dignity during the surrender ceremonies, and rode away to begin his transition into civilian life.

6. After the Civil War, what was his involvement in politics, if any?

As we have seen, Lee brought the Confederacy very close to its goal of dividing the Union. Ironically, after the war he did the most of any Confederate to begin the process of bringing the nation back together. He applied for a pardon (the political rights of the top echelon of Confederate political and military leadership had been taken away during the rebellion), and advised his former soldiers to be good citizens. He thus provided an invaluable service that allowed the nation to heal its wounds as quickly as it did.

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