There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” Robert E. Lee, in a letter to President Pierce, 1856.
These are surprising words from a man who five years later, as General Robert E Lee, almost single-handedly kept the South in the war for four long years against vastly superior (in numbers and arms) Northern armies. Wasn’t the United States Civil War about slavery? Why was Lee fighting for the South if he believed slavery was evil?
The short answer is that the Civil War was about more than slavery. The longer answer appears after studying Robert Edward Lee the man: his moral code, his sense of duty, and his religious faith, all of which were part of his upbringing.
Robert’s father was “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a Revolutionary War cavalry hero and fast friend of General George Washington. After the war Washington ascended to the Presidency and Lee became governor of his home state of Virginia. When Washington died Harry Lee was chosen to give the eulogy, which he delivered in stirring, memorable fashion, extolling his dead friend as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
By the time his son Robert was born in 1805, however, Harry Lee’s fortunes had changed. Rash financial speculations impoverished his family and forced Harry to spend a year in debtor’s prison when Robert was two. Then a political argument over the war of 1812 got Harry beaten so badly he was never the same man. He attempted to recover in the West Indies. In 1818 he took a ship to the United States but fell ill and died on an island off the Georgia coast.
Thirteen year old Robert Lee assumed duties of the man of the house. His mother and sister were often in ill health. Robert oversaw their care, and assumed most of the responsibilities of running the house and staff. In return his mother taught Robert the virtues of fiscal responsibility, a strict moral code, and faith in God. The Lee’s were devout Episcopalians who prayed daily. The church they attended in Alexandria used George Washington’s bible for scripture readings. In personality, temperament and religious sensibilities, Robert was more like his mother than his father.
In addition to taking care of his family, Lee pursued a classical education at the Alexandria Academy. He read the classics in the original Greek, and learned Latin as well. He excelled in math. Upon graduation he attended West Point, and in 1829 graduated second in his class – becoming the first to graduate without earning a single demerit. Then he tended to his mother for the last time, on her deathbed.
Two years later Lee married Mary Custis, the great granddaughter of Martha Washington, and moved into the Custis plantation called Arlington House. They would eventually have seven children together. Lee served as a military engineer until 1846 when the United States went to war with Mexico. Lee distinguished himself in battle, was promoted, given a medal, and viewed as a hero. He met a fellow soldier named Ulysses S. Grant. Grant and Lee fought side by side for the first – and last – time.
Slavery and seccession were the issues of the day. Lee was against both. In 1859 President Buchanan summoned Lee to recapture the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, when it was seized by John Brown and his band of abolitionists. Brown thought his actions would start a nationwide slave revolt. Instead, Lee’s forces surrounded him, and when Brown refused to surrender, the arsenal was retaken in a matter of minutes.
In 1861 Texas succeeded from the Union. Lee was appointed colonel by newly elected President Abraham Lincoln, and ordered to fight the southern states succeeding from the Union. Lee initially turned down offers from the confederate states to be their military leader. But when his native state of Virginia threatened to secede, Lee realized he could not invade his homeland. He resigned from the US Army and accepted command of the Virginia Army.
The Civil War divided families. Lee’s family was no exception. Some stayed with the Union, others chose the Confederacy. Most on both sides assumed it would be over quickly. Lee was one of the few people to predict a longer war. In June 1862 Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia. A much larger Union army was approaching Richmond, Virginia’s capital, in a bid to end the war quickly. Lee drove the northern forces away, and followed up this victory with several others.
The Army of Northern Virginia was arguably the best American fighting army ever assembled. Lee was a brilliant tactician who routinely gave opponents fits with his creativity and spontaneous attacks. Lee was not a strategist, however, and badly miscalculated at Gettysburg with Pickett’s charge.
By the end of the war southern troops, poorly armed and clothed, often unfed, and racked by disease, were no match for the better armed, much larger Union forces under General Grant. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, and declared:
"This war, being at an end, the Southern States having laid down their arms, and the questions at issue between them and the Northern States having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony..."
For the rest of his life Lee was a symbol of the better instincts of reconciliation between North and South. As president of a college, he opened doors to northern and southern students, and expelled anyone who mistreated blacks. He was believable when he said, “My chief concern is to try to be an humble, earnest Christian.” As for slavery, Lee declared:
“So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interest of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this that I would have cheerfully lost all that I have lost by the war, and have suffered all that I have suffered to have this object attained.”
Mack Lee was one of Lee’s slaves. He was Lee’s servant during the Civil War, and was with Lee from the Battle of Bull Run to the surrender at Appomattox. He said of Lee:
“I was raised by one of the greatest men in the world. There was never one born of a woman greater than Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to my judgment. All of his servants were set free ten years before the war, but all remained on the plantation until after the surrender.”
By the time he died from a stroke in 1870, Robert E. Lee was revered in north and south alike. He was described as:
“... a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbour without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward.”
A biography of Robert E Lee on civilwar.org, the Civil War Trust website.
Biographies of Robert E. Lee and his father, Henry Lee, on the Son of the South website.
Lee’s childhood is from Robert E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman, Chapter 2.