This is the grave of the vile traitor Robert E. Lee.
There isn’t much reason to provide a complete biography of someone like Lee, who is extremely well-known. So a couple of points.
First, despite all the attempts over the years to apologize for Lee’s treason in defense of slavery, he had a choice and he made the wrong one. There were many southern officers who did not commit treason in 1861. Lee made that choice, even as members of his own family were advising him against it. George Thomas is the most famous southern officer who made the right choice and it is true that nearly every other top military leader from the South did commit treason in defense of slavery, but something like 30% of southern officers did not.
Second, Lee committed treason in defense of slavery because he believed in slavery. It’s basically impossible to go to a southern plantation and have them say anything other than “he was quite decent to his slaves.” Because the plantation house on confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, is run by the National Park Service, you don’t get that, but the overall mythology around Lee for a very long time is that he was personally opposed to slavery and was decent to his slaves. This is hogwash. He owned several slaves of his own, used the services of far more who was owned by his wife, and never freed a slave to our knowledge. As late as 1865, he stated, “the relation of master and slave…is the best that can exist between the white & black races.” In an 1856 letter to his wife, Lee wrote:
There are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country. It is useless to expiate on its disadvantages. I think it, however, a greater evil to the white than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly interested in…the latter, my sympathies are stronger for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and, I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise and merciful Providence.
This is not a man who opposed slavery. A former slave of Lee later said that he was “the meanest man I ever saw.” He frequently hired out all his strong males he didn’t need, breaking up families, at least for long periods of time. For a man as wealthy as Lee, whose wife descended from Martha Washington, this was highly unnecessary. Many slave owners did make the choice not to break up families, but Lee was fine with this. Lee routinely paid people to return run away slaves and beat them in doing it. Even compared to other slave owners, he was not a good man. The single best thing one might say about him is that perhaps he wasn’t quite as sadistic as some slavers. This is not something to be proud of.
Third, about his generalship in the Civil War, I will largely leave it to others. As I have stated many times, I find debates about military tactics tiresome and uninteresting. At the very least, his ascendance in the Confederate Army significantly increased the Confederacy’s ability to hold out against the United States, leading directly to the deaths of many, many people that likely would not have happened if Lee had not committed treason in defense of slavery.
Finally, I will note that the Cult of Lee that developed after the Civil War is utterly nauseating. This is the man, rather than Jefferson Davis, that southern partisans saw as their hero. The mythmaking and hagiography around Lee and the Lost Cause has done enormous damage to the United States over the years and still remains part of the popular memory of the war over 150 years later. Moreover, there’s little evidence Lee would have wanted it any other way. He was already touring the South to adoring crowds before he died.
Robert E. Lee is buried at the Lee Chapel, Lexington, Virginia, on the campus of Washington and Lee University. Somewhat amusingly, the actual grave is now off limits because the people who run the place are utterly freaked out that someone is going to vandalize everything that is in there. I find that hilarious. Put the bastards on the defensive.
If you would like this series to profile other leaders who committed treason in defense of slavery, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Alexander Stephens is in Crawfordville, Georgia and Robert Toombs is in Washington, Georgia. Oh, how I would like to write about those jerks. Previous posts in this series are archived here.