Five myths about Robert E. Lee

John Reeves is the author of A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

“General Lee was a handsome man” who “sat straight and firm in the saddle,” said a fourth grade text that was widely used in Virginia during the 1960s and 1970s. The textbook added that Lee’s horse, Traveller, “stepped proudly, as if he knew that he carried a great general.”

Generations of schoolchildren across America have read similar accounts of Robert E. Lee. The former Confederate general has been the subject of considerable mythmaking for over 150 years.

The real Lee was far more complex. Yes, he was a Christian gentleman and a truly great soldier. But he also led the military effort to establish a new government founded upon chattel slavery. As America reconsiders Lee’s legacy in the wake of the Charleston and Charlottesville tragedies, it’s necessary to take an honest look at his life.

Myth NO. 1

Lee was opposed to slavery.

After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee attempted to present himself as always having been opposed to slavery. In an interview shortly after his surrender at Appomattox, Lee said “the best men of the South” had been eager to do away with slavery. In early 1866, he testified before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction that he had “always been in favor of emancipation — gradual emancipation.” And in 1869, a year before he died, Lee reportedly told the Reverend John Leyburn he had never been an advocate of slavery. He added that he was happy slavery had been abolished, and would “cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered to have this object attained.”

The historical record, alas, doesn’t support his claim. Lee owned or managed slaves for over thirty years — in April 1861, he oversaw roughly 200 slaves — and always sought to maximize the value of his human property. Lee may have complained about the “peculiar institution,” but he and his family benefited from it tremendously.

Before the war, Lee held two somewhat different ideas about slavery in his mind at the same time. He conceded that slavery “was a moral and political evil in any country,” but also believed that slavery was ordained by God, and was part of the necessary historical development of African Americans. In January 1865, several months before the end of the war, Lee wrote that he believed “the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment [was] the best that can exist between the white and black races…”

Myth NO. 2

Lee blundered badly at Gettysburg.

In the bestselling novel, The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara portrays Lee as stubborn and irrationally committed to a doomed charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The hero of the book, General James Longstreet, says to Lee, “General, it is my considered opinion that a frontal assault here would be a disaster.” According to Shaara, Lee responded, “They will break. They will break. In any case, there is no alternative.” Lee turned out to be tragically wrong. “Pickett’s Charge” became one of the greatest military disasters of all time with the Confederates suffering roughly 6,000 casualties over the course of an hour.

Shaara’s novel and subsequent film, Gettysburg, have been extremely influential. It’s fair to say that many Americans have learned much of what they know about the Battle of Gettysburg from the novel and film. Unfortunately, Shaara’s portrayal of Lee isn’t entirely accurate.

Having failed spectacularly, Pickett’s Charge looks much more hopeless in retrospect. The actual decision making environment before the attack was quite different. In late 1862 and early 1863, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had won two shocking victories — at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville — in the run up to Gettysburg. And on the first two days of the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee had punished the Union Army severely. On the second day of the battle, Lee had hit the Army of the Potomac on its flanks. He quite realistically thought the Union center may have been weakened in order to hold off those flank attacks. And that’s precisely where Pickett’s Charge was directed.

There have been numerous books devoted to assessing blame for the defeat. Lee’s account seems to be defensible, however. After accepting blame, Lee then added, “With my present knowledge, & could I have foreseen that the attack on the last day would have failed to drive the enemy from his position, I should certainly have tried some other course. What the ultimate result would have been is not so clear to me.” Lee is right. Pickett’s Charge was a reasonable, though risky, option for an audacious commander who had triumphed over long odds on numerous occasions over the previous twelve months. Perhaps General George Pickett, who led the charge, had the best response on who was to blame, “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Myth NO. 3

The Confederate leadership didn’t actually commit treason.

The belief that the Confederate leaders didn’t really commit treason is widely held in America today. In 2017, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said of Lee, “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days.” Lee himself made a similar argument in 1866, when he said, “Virginia, in withdrawing herself from the United States, carried me along as a citizen of Virginia, and her laws and her acts were binding on me.”

Regardless, of Lee’s and Kelly’s view of the matter, it was always the position of the United States Government that Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the other Confederate leaders had committed treason, as defined in Article III of the Constitution. On June 7, 1865, Robert E. Lee was indicted for treason by a federal grand jury in Norfolk, Virginia. He faced death by hanging if convicted.

After the war, President Andrew Johnson, Attorney General James Speed, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Salmon Chase believed that the Confederate leaders had committed treason. Convinced that the leading rebels were guilty of this serious crime, Chase said, “There is the Constitution, and it is so plain that it can’t be made plainer.”

Surprisingly, Lee in 1861 seemed to agree that secession was treason. In a letter to his son in January 1861, Lee wrote, “Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will.”

Myth NO. 4

Lee was instrumental in reconciling North and South after the war.

In April 1865, Jay Winik notes that Lee opposed the idea of a guerrilla war in the closing days of the conflict and “set the tone of reconciliation in the tense days” immediately after the Civil War. The belief that Lee was a critical agent of national reconciliation during the last years of his life is widespread. Lee’s most distinguished biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, declared that Lee’s message of unity became “the law of public conduct for men of moderate mind in the South.”

There’s actually some truth to this particular “myth.” After the war, Lee urged former Confederate soldiers to remain in the country and apply for pardons. He even applied for a pardon himself, which he knew would be viewed as an admission of guilt. He went forward with it, regardless, because he believed his example would serve as encouragement for his fellow southerners.

Yet, despite his commendable actions, Lee was also resistant to providing leadership on the important issues facing postwar Virginia. Speaking of freedmen before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, Lee said, “I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them.” In Virginia at the time, there were 500,000 freedmen, whose status was uncertain. Lee’s thoughts on this question were obviously not helpful.

Lee was also defiant in insisting that the North earn the trust of the South. This unyielding stance, which deepened divisions at the time, resulted in General Ulysses S. Grant saying, “Lee is behaving badly…No man at the South is capable of exercising a tenth part of the influence for good that he is, but instead of using it he is setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to be hardly realized.” Given Grant’s remarks, it’s fair to say that Lee could have done more to bring all Americans together after the war.

Myth NO. 5

Lee didn’t receive a pardon because his amnesty oath was lost.

When Lee applied for a pardon in June 1865, he was unaware that he needed to include an amnesty oath with his application. He later took the required oath in October 1865 and sent it to the State Department. Many historians subsequently assumed President Andrew Johnson had refused to personally pardon Lee because his application was incomplete.

In 1970, an archivist claimed that he had found this “missing” oath. In response to this discovery, legislation was introduced to pardon Lee. In 1975–110 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox — President Gerald Ford pardoned him at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

The decision to pardon Lee in 1975 was based on inaccurate information. Andrew Johnson didn’t overlook Lee’s pardon application because a required oath had gone missing. He deliberately chose not to pardon Lee because the southern commander was under indictment for treason. Johnson, who was famous at the time for his vow to make treason odious, fully intended to have Lee prosecuted and punished. There was absolutely no chance at all in 1865 or 1866 that Johnson would have personally pardoned the former Confederate general. Later, Johnson included Lee in a general amnesty that was issued in December 1868.

Author of “A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.”