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Scrubbing the Confederacy: Robert E. Lee Edition

[ 47 ] April 20, 2011 |

See Loomis on Robert E. Lee. Also worth quoting:

The conventional wisdom holds, for example, that Lee disdained secession, but once his state took that step he was duty bound to follow. But these documents show that he was not actually opposed to disunion in principle. He simply wanted to exhaust all peaceful means of redress first, remarking in January 1861 that then “we can with a clear conscience separate.”

Nor was he against the pro-slavery policies of the secessionists, despite postwar portraits of the general as something of an abolitionist. He complained to a son in December 1860 about new territories being closed to slaveholders, and supported the Crittenden Compromise, which would have forbidden the abolition of slavery. “That deserves the support of every patriot,” he noted in a Jan. 29, 1861 letter to his daughter Agnes. Even at the moment he reportedly told Francis Blair that if “he owned all the negroes in the South, he would be willing to give them up…to save the Union,” he was actually fighting a court case to keep the slaves under his control in bondage “indefinitely,” though they had been promised freedom in his father-in-law’s will.

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  1. wengler says:

    The best that could be said about him is he disdained his soldiers less than other Confederate generals. A very low bar to be sure.

    In other news, a politician from Illinois that didn’t bow at their feet got elected so the South went batshit insane and started shooting at the federales. Lee was one of those shooters.

    At least we can be thankful that there isn’t a boomer named after him anymore.

    • Anderson says:

      The *best*? Sure, I think his generalship is overrated, but that’s just because it’s been set on so high a pedestal. The man was a fine tactician.

      • wengler says:

        Against sub-par Union generals early in the war. He had no chance against Grant.

        Lee was also a terrible strategic thinker. His two bumbling invasions of the North only served to galvanize Americans while not supporting any discernible military goals.

        • Anderson says:

          Well, you notice I said “tactician.” And good generals have a way of making their opponents look like bumblers.

          Without subscribing to the “Grant as industrialized butcher” school, I do think that Grant won by refusing to fight the kind of war Lee wanted to fight and by forcing him to fight the kind of war Grant wanted to fight.

        • Hogan says:

          What other choices were available?

      • jefft452 says:

        “The man was a fine tactician.”

        then explain Pickett’s charge

        • Robert Hobbs says:

          Pickett’s charge wasn’t meant to happen and was a last resort, no choice, forced attack.
          You have to understand what led to Pickett’s charge before you can ask one to explain it. Lee wasn’t in the North to win another battle; he was in the North to win the war. How can you say someone who was almost always outnumbered by mass superior numbers and still wins is anything but tactical?
          For one, had the high-grounds been taken on day one like Lee had asked been done there would have been no day two. The battle would have been decided at that point. Day two was problematic because it was a late start in the day – Pickett’s division wasn’t moved up and fully concentrated as Lee had originally planned, Lee had already expended his army, he had no choice but to stay in fight. Day two, pending more time and an extra division, would have seen the hook flanked and broken.
          Day three was Lee’s last measures. He had no choice, his army was expended, he couldn’t afford another ‘half victory’, and it was winning or loses at that point. There was no other option but to attempt to take that ridge. Had lee pulled out, he pulls out with no gain. What you are failing to realize is at this point in the war the North could replace their man power and resources in a month, the South, no longer could do that.
          Lee lost because of lack resources, a lack of time, and a lack of options – NOT because of a lack of tactical mistakes. Not to mention, Stuarts Calvary, was fixated to attack the center of the line from behind and had he not got cut off by Custer that too would have likely seen the break even on day three. Let’s also not forget, Lee was blinded, and the Army of the Potomac came up on him due to the idea that he Stuart was joy riding. There were a lot of small mistakes within command that led to the disaster at Gettysburg – but lee being a bad tactician was NOT one of them!

  2. Mark says:

    Lee’s own personal papers — which were pretty much unavailable for 150 years — show a drastically, profoundly, stupendously different view of Lee.

    In fact, Alan Nolan, author of Lee Considered, says EVERYTHING we think we know about Lee, should be discarded, and start over.

    For example, in Lee’s OWN HANDWRITTEN papers, he keeps obsessive track of certain escaped slave girls — mulatto girls. He paid six times his normal bounty for the return of one girl, about 13-14 years old, who escaped with her white looking child.

    Lee’s bounty hunters searched for her for months, and when they found her, Lee had her bought to him, tied up, and tortured. He screamed at her during her torture — then rented her out to a plantation known for cruelty to slaves. To top it all off, he apparently sold her white looking child.

    Elizabeth Pryor, author of “Reading The Man” had access to Lee’s papers. She adores Lee, and tries very hard to keep his halo on his head. But she reveals astonishing, baffling things.

    She excuses what she can. She calls his torture of slaves “due to Lee’s poor cross cultural communication skills” — as if he could just talk to the slaves better, he wouldn’t have to torture the girls.

    This is a man who had young girls TORTURED.

    Not sorta, not kinda, he had them tortured, and while it was the law in Virginia to whip escaped slaves, Lee needed no law, he seemed to VERY much get into it.

    Pryor excuses that too. She claims Lee “failed to appreciate his slaves desire to be free”.. Hello! How could he not notice! They kept running away! Despite promises of torture – which Lee made good on –Pryor said Lee had “an epidemic of escaped slaves”.

    Who ever said Lee was loved by his slaves is goofy. Pryor says Lee’s slaves said he was “the meanest man I ever saw”.

    Far from being against slavery, Lee was one of the biggest defenders. Yes, there is a letter to his wife, and in one sentence he says slavery is a political and moral evil — but the letter doesn’t stop there. IT goes on. Lee says the blacks are fortunate to be slaves!! He also writes that God knows slavery is cruel and painful – but pain is “necessary for their instruction”. And Lee was very willing to “instruct” they young mulatto girls.

    Most stunning of all, Lee SOLD the white looking babies. Lee regularly sold the children of his slave girls. Pryor puts it this way “Lee separated every family unit, but one”.

    Separated every family UNIT? Pryor deserves a lot of credit for exposing Lee’s torture, his cruelty to slaves — but the way she writes, you would think Lee just had a bad day. Lee could not sell the slaves themselves — due to the terms of the will.

    But the will said nothing about the children born to his slaves. Pryor says he separated every family unit, and elsewhere she says all the female slave girls under 5 were gone. Okay — where did they go?

    Did they vanish? Did they go up in a space ship? Pryor apparently knows, but doesn’t say. There is only so much the public could stand, Furthermore, her audience is wildly pro Lee — if she came out and said he sold white babies– and I mean this literally – her life could be at risk. Southern Lee lovers get that upset. Selling white babies? He would NEVER?

    Oh, wouldn’t he? He would torture 13 year old girls. He would sell babies. What is he going to do with a white looking slave girl? Would he say “Oh my, this is a line I won’t cross” Are you kidding me?

    In fact white looking slave girls — it was well known — sold for a premium. I will let you guess why. But whore houses loved to buy white looking slaves — more men would pay more money for that service. Books written AT THE TIME discussed this horrible reality.

    But if he sold black women that would go to whore houses, and light skinned women, why on EARTH would he say, no, no this one is too white. Get real.

    The real history of Lee has yet to be written. But then, the real history of the South has yet to be written too. Lee is very much a metaphor for the entire South, and the myths we have been told.

    One more thing — If Lincoln’s papers were discovered, and showed he had young girls tortured, paid six times his normal bounty for a particular girl, do you think Southern historians would BARELY mention it?

    http://leepapers.blogspot.com/

    • c u n d gulag says:

      And why should they mention it?

      Lee was a very, very mannerly man, and this was a war over manners with the rude, rude Yankees. At least that’s what one women told me when I lived down South.
      The Civil War, according to them, had nothing to do with slavery. It had to do with manners, or state’s rights, or preference for industial over agricultural policies. Or whatevery. Anything. But don’t ever tell a Southerner that the Civil War was fought over slavery. They will deny it.

      On a serious note, Mark, thanks for the information. You present quite a different Lee than the one I read about in histories and biographies.

    • Jeremy says:

      So what you’re saying is, you don’t much care for the guy?

      I know nothing of Lee, really, so this was an eye-opener.

    • Anderson says:

      A rather odd comment, as if Mark had just discovered that slaveowners did bad things to slaves.

      As for the “white” babies, well, they were white like Obama is white. Nothing to trouble the slaveowners or their Lost-Cause apologists.

      Chernow’s bio of Washington will be nearly as shocking to Mark, as it turns out that Washington, too, not only owned & managed slaves, but treated them like property.

    • hv says:

      Great comment, Mark! Lots of stuff in there that was new to me. I suspect I had fallen for the Lee con a little bit myself.

    • Tom Forehand, Jr. says:

      It is easy to accuse Lee of whipping someone. It is another thing to prove it.

      Other than an accusation from a former slave, could you provide any evidence that Lee ever had anyone whipped?

      Repeating an accusation over and over again does not make it true.

      Thanks,
      Tom Forehand, Jr.

    • southron_98 says:

      You’re believing your own hype, no Owner would lower himself to beat or be present when a slave was beaten it would have been beneath them. That is why they hired an overseer so not to soil their hands or image. If you think Lee would have expressed any feelings to anyone, again you are not familiar with the era, not to mention most whites both North and South put the black as a sub person. When you hear about great relations between the family and slave it was similar to having a family pet you feed it, loved on it, punished it when it did wrong but it was always the family pet. One would never express anything but positive comments in front of family, friends and the ever present slave. One last thing I can’t comment on whether or not Lee was a good master but I can tell you the stories by former slaves should be discounted as false.

  3. Joe says:

    Well, the first link basically notes he was a traitor. Yeah. So, was George Washington. He too served in a past conflict that was a key turning point in his nation’s history. The issue is the cause Lee fought for. That is the problem. The extended reply that basically points to the evils of slavery underlines the point.

    • Murc says:

      That’s sort of why this very site has a tendency to substitute ‘treason in defense of slavery’ for ‘Confederacy’ or ‘Confederate’ whenever appropriate. This country was founded in an act of revolution and one of our most beloved documents states that, as an act of principle, men have a right, even a duty, to commit treason when the situation calls for it.

      So simply playing the ‘treason’ card is often insufficient. You have to explain why, and when it comes to the Confederacy the ‘whys’ are all vile, vile reasons. Saying ‘treason in defense of slavery’ immediately forces neo-Confederates and Confederate apologists on the defensive, where they belong, instead of getting bogged down in a conversation over tangential minutiae, which is where they WANT to fight you.

      • j_h_r says:

        That’s sort of why this very site has a tendency to substitute ‘treason in defense of slavery’ for ‘Confederacy’ or ‘Confederate’ whenever appropriate.

        This, this, a hundred times this, a thousand times this.

      • hv says:

        So simply playing the ‘treason’ card is often insufficient.

        Actually, I find that getting wingnuts to admit it was treason is major progress. I rarely have a problem with wingnuts admitting it was treason but the good, George Washington kind.

        YMMV.

        • Murc says:

          I’ve encountered ‘secession was perfectly legal and therefore not treason’ argument on occasion, but not often. It’s a very weak argument, especially since people making it seem to be incapable of then launching into moral arguments for the rightness of secession, which allows you to stick the knife in.

    • I don’t think the situations are identical. The British government altered a long-standing status quo regarding colonial home rule, repeatedly ignored colonial attempts to negotiate, refused any participation in Parliament, and then clamped down on local self-government.

      The South lost an election. It still had the filibuster and the Supreme Court.

      • Holden Pattern says:

        And, moreover, plus, also Treason in Defense of Slavery.

      • hv says:

        StevenAttewell, I fear you may be giving too little credit to the (not yet) American desire to be provocative during the colonial attempts to negotiate. The British made a concession or two, not a lot.

  4. She calls his torture of slaves “due to Lee’s poor cross cultural communication skills”

    Cool Hand Lee.

  5. rea says:

    Lee was what passed in the South as a moderate on slavery. He was no Alexander Stephens, but the “moderate” position was pretty horrifying in and of itself. He was also a very devout, Victorian Christian, which led him to some positions that to modern eyes resemble Torquemada’s–if Christianity for black Africans came at the price of slavery, he thought they were getting a good deal.

    His dealings with slaves were also a bit more complex than Mark above suggests. Lee himself came from an impoverished family, but he married into a family that owned big plantations. His dealings with slaves were as trustee for his mentally disabled wife and executor of the estate of his deceased father-in-law. In those capacities, his legal duty was to use contemporary best slave management practices rather than follow his personal preferences. Lee was just the guy to be convinced that stern duty required him to commit atrocities, however much he disliked them. His father-in-law had left a will directing that his slaves be freed, but also a huge pile of debts, and in a world were slaves were property, that meant that the slaves legally couldn’t simply be freed. Lee spent many years trying to fix the resulting muddle, and on a personal level looked on the coming of war with some relief–at least he wasn’t stuck managing plantations.

    In other words, Lee was neither the plaster saint of legend nor the monster Mark makes him out to be.

    The best-known statement by Lee of his vews on slavery is here.

    • lawguy says:

      Well if Mark is right about the torture and the excessive rewards paid for runaway slave girls then Lee is certainly closer to the monster than you suggest.

      Secondly, and I sincerely wonder this, I had always read that Lee’s wife was physically not mentally disabled.

    • mark f says:

      His dealings with slaves were as trustee for his mentally disabled wife and executor of the estate of his deceased father-in-law. In those capacities, his legal duty was to use contemporary best slave management practices rather than follow his personal preferences. Lee was just the guy to be convinced that stern duty required him to commit atrocities, however much he disliked them.

      Now that’s a stirring defense. It also strikes me as a morally weak one. I’m no expert on this (and to be clear I am not “Mark” from above), so perhaps he was instructed by court order to operate in a certain way. But that’s not evident in the information presented here. Successful business people disagree on labor relations (and other) techniques all the time; saying Lee’s use of the harshest type of “slave management practices” was merely legal obligation seemingly dismisses the choice he would’ve had in the matter.

    • CBrinton says:

      Rea: Lee’s “dealings with slaves were as trustee for his mentally disabled wife and executor of the estate of his deceased father-in-law”

      Lee also owned personally owned slaves, having inherited them, although the exact number and how long he owned them is not precisely known. He mostly rented them out. I’d say this willingness to profit personally from slavery is good evidence Lee had no real problem with the institution.

    • David Hunt says:

      My apologies for going all Godwin on this rea, but that argument regarding Lee sounds disturbingly similar to saying Lee “was just following orders.”

    • hv says:

      …his legal duty was to use contemporary best slave management practices

      What were contemporary best slave management practices? (citation needed)

      Also, how were best practices measured in those time? What process was satisfied in establishing them?

      Did any of these “best practices” embed or conceal vile or racist assumptions that would be salient to this discussion?

  6. rea says:

    Lee also owned personally owned slaves, having inherited them

    From whom? His father (the Revolutionary War general) died disgraced and bankrupt.

    Look, my defense of Lee is very weak–he was neither plaster saint nor monster. Smart enough to see that slavery was immoral; too weak to have the will to do anything about it when he was in a position to make a difference. A big believer in order and discipline rather than personal freedom. The kind of Christian for whom the suffering of others in this world is less important than their chance of heaven in the afterlife.

    • catclub says:

      “A big believer in order and discipline rather than personal freedom.”

      Except for that treason thing.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        With notably rare exceptionsLee was a big believer in order and discipline.

        • mark f says:

          This violates the internet tradition against subjects of the post taking to comments FTW. I think it’s called the Berube Rule. I also think I just made it up.

        • rea says:

          It might seem strange for believers in order and discipline like Lee, Jackson and Davis to become rebels and traitors, but that’s what you get when you have a conservative revolution, from Lucius Cornelius Sulla to the Teaparty. It’s order and discipline for other people.

      • witless chum says:

        No doubt he’d have rationalized that by electing a president who wasn’t completely in hock to the Slave Power (as it was called at the time), which the country had not done in a long time, the yankees had transgressed against order and decency to a degree that good, Christian gentlemen could not abide.

        Which sounds insane to modern ears, but that’s the thing about the past.

        Many have pointed out that the American Civil War is the exception to the rule the rule about winners writing the history books.

        • catclub says:

          and that was only because the democrats split their votes. Any organized effort would have picked one.

          see Rogers, W
          on organized parties

    • CBrinton says:

      [Me] Lee also owned personally owned slaves, having inherited them

      [Rea] From whom? His father (the Revolutionary War general) died disgraced and bankrupt.

      Look, my defense of Lee is very weak–he was neither plaster saint nor monster.

    • hv says:

      The kind of Christian for whom the suffering of others in this world is less important than their chance of heaven in the afterlife.

      I’m confused, was that part of your evidence that he was NOT a monster?!

  7. CBrinton says:

    [apologies for the multiple post]

    [Me:] Lee also owned personally owned slaves, having inherited them

    [Rea:] From whom? His father (the Revolutionary War general) died disgraced and bankrupt.

    I don’t know from whom Lee inherited Nancy Ruffin, her children, and the other slaves Lee owned personally, but his ownership is not a matter of dispute. Even his favorably-inclined biographers describe it. Lee had relatives besides Light Horse Harry.

    Records from 1835 show that Lee was the owner of a slave woman (Nancy Ruffin) and her three children. Lee is known to have rented out Ruffin as a laborer, and appears to have hired out the children once they became old enough to work. He had previously owned more slaves than this (received as a bequest), and his will written in 1846 shows Lee still owned slaves as of that date. How late he continued to be a slaveowner is unknown, but as late as 1852 Lee appointed an agent for the supervision of “my servant man Philip Meriday.” [See Emory Thomas, _Robert E. Lee_ (NY: W.W. Norton, 1995), pp. 72, 108, 173.]

    [Rea:] Look, my defense of Lee is very weak–he was neither plaster saint nor monster.

    Your defense is also inaccurate. Lee was personally a slaveowner and he directly profited from that ownership.

    • hv says:

      I’m confused why it is better/relevant that he didn’t inherit them. He purchased them? He enslaved them personally? What’s the non-monster way to acquire slaves again? Inherit is as good as it gets, folks.

      (Also, that whole bit about his maltreatment derived from some conditions left in a will — that becomes mythologizing apologism if he didn’t inherit them.)

  8. Matt McKeon says:

    Slavery in Virginia was a declining institution in the 1850s and there was a brisk trade in selling “surplus” slaves to the slave hungry territories in the deep south(Mississippi, Alabama) which were practically the frontier. Lee’s father in law, Parker Custis, deliberately chose not to participate in that trade, taking a considerable financial hit. In his will he required that the enslaved people on his considerable estates be freed in five years: an act modeled on George Washington’s similar action(Custis was related to the Washington family). He was an antislavery slaveowner.

    Robert E. Lee is best understood not as a plantation owner, but a Victorian middle class professional, a military engineer. In “Reading the Man” Elizabeth Pryor’s recent biography of Lee that incorporates the recently uncovered letters, Lee’s attempt to earn as much income as possible in these five years, by working the enslaved people as much as possible, is a depressing account of black resistance, frustration for Lee, and a reminder that slavery ultimately rested on force. According to Pryor, Lee didn’t enjoy running a plantation, or what it required. But the system required brutality to work.

    Lee once described slavery as an “evil.” But he and other whites couldn’t conceive of a society where free blacks coexisted with whites, and this insight is buried in a paragraph where he goes on to say its the best that is possible in the present day, and we should be nice Christian slaveowners and God will take care of it, sometime.

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