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Robert E. Lee – The Flaw in a Southern Icon

July 5, 2020

Photo of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Library of Congress (digital ID cwpb.04402) , Author Julian Vannerson, Source https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/catalog.html (PD as published/registered before 1/1/25)

Much has been written about Robert E. Lee:  why he chose loyalty to his home state of Virginia over loyalty to the United States in the Civil War; whether he should have divided his forces during the Maryland Campaign; whether he regretted having ordered Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.

Lee acknowledged that it was not until after the “War Between the States” that he truly considered himself an American.  Lee always, however, considered himself a Christian gentleman.

Lee’s blind spot, the flaw in his character, involved slavery [1].

Slavery North and South

Lee was, unfortunately, a man of his time.  Remember that slavery was endemic to the United States by the 19th Century.  North and South benefited from that appalling economic system.

Many Southerners believed that Africans were created for servitude, and “civilized” under the lash.  They used the Bible to justify slavery [2].  Africans were descendants of Noah’s son, Ham, and cursed.  Had Africans not been enslaved and forcibly transported to the Americas, they would not have been Christianized.  So went the reasoning.

Slave literacy was outlawed and slave Bibles heavily redacted, so that the few slaves who could read would not be incited to riot [3][4].

Lee’s Views on Slavery

Not having been brought up on a large plantation, Lee opposed slavery, at least in theory.  In a letter dated December 27, 1856 Lee wrote his wife:

“Slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country…I think, however, a greater evil to the white than to the black race…The doctrines and miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small part of the human race, and even among the Christian nations what gross errors still exist!”

Lee believed slavery degraded whites, giving rise to corrupt behavior.  In 1857, that belief was borne out when Lee’s father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, died.

Arlington Plantation

A descendant of George Washington, Custis owned almost 200 slaves during his lifetime.  His will directed that those slaves be emancipated no more than 5 years after his death [5].

As executor of his father-in-law’s will, Lee was charged with the task.  However, the Arlington plantation (now Arlington Cemetery) had been poorly run, and was heavily in debt.  When Lee could not find an overseer, he took a two year leave of absence from the Army to manage the plantation, himself.

Though historic sources differ, Lee’s treatment of the slaves appears to have been so harsh that it nearly caused a revolt [6].  Many of the slaves had been told they would be freed as soon as Custis died.  When this did not happen, they protested in anger.

In 1858, Lee wrote his son Rooney, describing the situation:

“I have had some trouble with some of the people.  Reuben, Parks & Edward, in the beginning of the previous week, rebelled against my authority – refused to obey my orders, & said they were as free as I was, etc., etc. – I succeeded in capturing them & lodging them in jail.  They resisted till overpowered & called upon the other people to rescue them [7A].”

After these men had been arrested, Lee decided to remove them from Arlington plantation altogether.  They and three female house slaves were handed over to the slave trader, William Overton Winston, with instructions that Winston keep the slaves jailed until he might find “good & responsible” slaveholders to work them until the end of the 5 year period [7B].

Lee did free the remaining slaves before the Civil War.  However, by 1860, he had broken up every slave family on the Arlington plantation except one.  Many of these families had been kept together since Mount Vernon days [8].

The Lost Cause

The myth of a noble – indeed, a moral – Lost Cause of the Confederacy was the basis for the Jim Crow laws, which effectively reinstated slavery following the Civil War [9][10][11].  The Lost Cause continues to provide ideological support for white supremacy today.

Brave men fought and died on both sides of the conflict.  Frederick Douglass though saw a critical distinction:

“I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.”

More than 150 years after the Civil War, we should at least be able to acknowledge that.

[1]  The Atlantic, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee” by Adam Serwer, 6/4/17,  https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-myth-of-the-kindly-general-lee/529038/.

[2]  Time, “How Christian Slaveholders Used the Bible to Justify Slavery” by Noel Rae, 2/23/18, https://time.com/5171819/christianity-slavery-book-excerpt/.

[3]  Wikipedia, “Education during the slave period”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_during_the_slave_period.

[4]  History.com, “Why Bibles Given to Slave Omitted Much of the Old Testament” by Becky Little, 4/3/19, https://www.history.com/news/slave-bible-redacted-old-testament.

[5]  Wikipedia, “Robert E. Lee”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_E._Lee.

[6]   History.com, “Robert E. Lee”, https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/robert-e-lee.

[7A and 7B]  Michael Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000).

[8]  Elizabeth Brown Pryor and Robert E. Lee, Reading the Man:  A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (2007).

[9]  Wikidpedia, “Lost Cause of the Confederacy”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Cause_of_the_Confederacy.

[10]  Wikipedia, “Jim Crow laws”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Crow_laws.

[11]  National Geographic, “Jim Crow laws created ‘slavery by another name’” by Erin Blakemore, 2/2/20, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/reference/united-states-history/jim-crow-laws-created-slavery-another-name/.

READERS CAN FIND MY VIEWS ON ABUSE AND ABUSE-RELATED ISSUES AT ANNA WALDHERR A Voice Reclaimed, Surviving Child Abuse  https://avoicereclaimed.com

From → Christian, Religion

18 Comments
  1. I have long wondered,Anna,if what it will ultimately take to free ourselves from the vestiges of slavery in this nation will be the death of another three or four generations of Americans. The passage of time has a way of bringing healing, and I am of the persuasion that time offers at least a chance of bringing people together.

    As we(hopefully)make real progress in the peaceful, cultural transformation away from the supposed superiority of one race over another, the passing of those who still hold to the archaic mindset that nearly destroyed this nation 150 years ago is key.

    Interestingly, I live just a few miles from a county named after General Lee. There are still many reminders of the man should one care to look for them. Just as interesting is that there is no shortage of people in this area who still passionately defend the “old ways”, and they do not take kindly any “outsiders” opinions about the matter.

    The TV news would have the nation believe that every reminder of the Confederacy is being systematically destroyed, but I can assure you that is not the case. There are many areas where the Stars and Bars can be seen in homes and even businesses. In those areas the notion of racial superiority is alive and well, and one must be aware of that at all times.

    On second thought, maybe three or four generations isn’t enough…

    Have a blessed day my dear friend.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Ron. I live in Maryland, one of the Civil War “border” states. There were plantations here for hundreds of years. The area is still rural. One need not go far to find a Confederate flag proudly flown. I would like to believe that is a gesture of solidarity w/ family members who died in the conflict. Sin though has long tentacles, my friend. Sadly, tearing down a few statues will not eliminate the darkness of the human heart.

      • This is true Anna. Without a change from the inside out, we are left in the same condition we were in prior to the removal of these statues. This is the frustrating part of all of this for me, that the answer is right before our eyes but we are too blind to see it.

        If 150 years of violence, prejudice, racism, and hatred have taught us anything it is that man cannot “fix” himself. Jesus Christ is still the only answer to the sorrowful conditions of this fallen world.

  2. I believe that the ones who are being ignored are actually the most guilty ones, and those are the Africans back in the Gold Coast who captures their enemies and sold them as slaves to the Europeans. White people are not the only ones to keep slaves, Black Africans kept slaves and so did Asians. Throughout history we’ve studied great civilisation like the Greeks and Romans and they had slaves. The great pyramids of Egypt were built by slaves and even the Hebrews were slaves and kept slaves…why is anyone complaining now when there are no slaves anywhere?

    • I tend to agree w/ you, Francisco. While I oppose racism and recognize that it has deep roots, I do not believe we can change history. Efforts would be better directed toward freeing the victims of human trafficking, currently suffering.

  3. As one not very familiar with US history, thanks for telling this story, Anna.

  4. Hey i just read your post it was awesome
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  5. “Sadly, tearing down a few statues will not eliminate the darkness of the human heart.” Of all that was said in your post, all comments, this to me was the highest truth given. Until I became a believer in Jesus and His love for me and all of manking I really had no idea how dark my heart was. It’s only till light is shown into darkness does it go away. The remnants from the darkness will always be with us because the darkness is in the remnants too. Until He comes/

  6. Slavery–evil and utterly indefensible.

    Blaming the contemporary generation for slavery–illogical, but common.

    Thank you for this great essay. I knew about Lee’s inheriting of his father-in-law’s slaves, but not the part about the difficulties that preceded their eventual liberation.

    As for wartime loyalties, we have very little recognition of how the US began as a union of states… and that is where the early Americans often found their primary identity. (True for northerners as well, as you can see in the correspondence of many Union soldiers.) Today all of us pledge our allegiance to an “indivisible” union, but I think it is more historical to regard the beginning of the country as a voluntary union of autonomous governments.

    I’m a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. I’m proud my great-grandfather gave four years of his life to preserve the Union and destroy slavery.

    However, I’m also a historian, and strongly believe one cannot “fairly” judge people by their shortcomings in relation to modern standards. Slavery was practiced virtually universally in the ancient world. Christianity was a major force in ending it… though it sadly took far too long to achieve complete success. Today only a handful of Islamic enclaves maintain the abhorrent practice.

    Yet, when you rightly include human trafficking (as in your comment above) as the slavery it truly is, I doubt there is a single sovereign nation on the globe that is completely free of the blight.

    A final word on General Lee. It would have been a simple thing for many of the leaders of the Confederate army to have continued to revile the federal government and even promote years of brigandry. Many, thank God, followed his example and accepted the surrender as the complete and final word on the matter. They pledged themselves to the United States, and helped the nation recover its unity.

    • I am so pleased you liked the post, Rob. You are absolutely right about the unfairness of our judging past generations by current standards. Frankly, it is unfair to expect perfection of any generation. As Christians, we know that all human beings are flawed. Our flaws may be different from those of prior generations. But they are no less glaring.

      • Yes, we definitely have our blind spots today, and no, we are not free from slavery as long as human trafficking is carried out in virtually every major city.

        There are things we can do about it, though. Last year in our city, after the local news raised awareness of the signs to look for, four men were arrested and thirteen girls were rescued from sexual slavery at our city’s biggest event of the year.

        We should all be vigilant. You can google the signs to watch for and the numbers of trafficking hotlines.

      • Yes, there are things we can do. I address trafficking regularly on my other blog.

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