Robert E. Lee, Civil War General and After War, a Leader in Reconciliation

American Minute with Bill Federer

Wilmer McLean’s farm in Manassas Junction, Virginia, was the location of the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861.
Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was using McLean’s house as his headquarters, wrote:
“… of this artillery fight was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a federal shell that fell into the fire-place of my headquarters at the McLean House.”
The Confederates won the First Battle of Bull Run due in large part to General “Stonewall” Jackson holding his ground like a “stonewall,” resulting in his nickname.
With momentum on their side, Confederate troops could have pursued the fleeing and exhausted Union army 20 miles into Washington and promptly won the war.
Instead, a heavy downpour of rain turned roads into mud pits and the pursuit was called off.
Wilmer McLean moved away from the conflict, yet almost four years later his new home, near Appomattox Court House, Virginia, was the agreed location for General Robert E. Lee to surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant on Palm Sunday, APRIL 9, 1865.
Ken Burn’s documentary film of the Civil War remarked that the war began in Wilmer McLean’s front yard and ended in his front parlor.
Meeting in McLean’s house at the end of the war, General Robert E. Lee took off his sword and handed it to General Ulysses S. Grant, who handed it back.
Union General Philip Sheridan bought McLean’s table where Grant drafted the document, and gave it to Major General George Armstrong Custer to carry it away on his horse.
The other Confederate Armies soon surrendered, till the last Confederate ship, CSS Shenandoah, surrendered in Liverpool, England, on November 6, 1865, after circumnavigating the globe.
The Civil War cost 258,000 Confederate deaths and 360,000 Union deaths.
Suggestions have been made that reparations should be paid to the families of the Union soldiers who gave their lives to end slavery.
The day after General Lee surrendered, he issued his final order to his troops:
“After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude … I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.
By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes.”
Robert E. Lee concluded:
“I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection.”
Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) was a the son of the courageous Revolutionary War cavalry officer, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, who was elected the 9th Governor of Virginia and a U.S. Congressman.
Robert E. Lee was also the son-in-law of George Washington Parke Custis, who was the grandson of Martha Washington and the adopted son of George Washington.
George Washington Parke Custis owned the 1,100 acres directly across the Potomac River from Washington, DC – the city named after his adoptive father.
Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Ann Randolph (Custis) Lee, inherited the family estate.
Land poor, Lee was tutored and home-schooled as a child.
He excelled at West Point, graduating second in his class in 1829.
From 1837-1840, he worked for the Corps of Engineers, where he improved the channel of the Mississippi River.
From 1846-1848, Lee distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War.
He engineered the American troops’ passage from San Antonia across the difficult Mexican mountains so they could quickly take Mexico City.
Prior to the Civil War, the Nation was divided into five categories:
1) Radical Republican North that said slavery is wrong, end it now;
2) Moderate Republican North that slavery is wrong, gradually transition out of it;
3) Practical Neutral that did not care about human life issues;
4) Moderate Democrat South that said slavery is wrong, but just live with it and treat your slaves nice; and
5) Radical Democrat South that said slavery is good and should be expanded into the new western territories coming into the Union.
Lee did not favor immediate abolition, as radical Republican abolitionists did, but instead held the moderate opinion of a gradual abolition.
Lee’s son, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, wrote that his father “was always for gradual emancipation.”
Lee wrote to his wife, December 27, 1856:
“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages.
I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race … Blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically … & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things …
Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery controversy.
This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist!
While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in His hands who sees the end; who chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a single day.
Although the abolitionist … may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same.”
Lee supported the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States, founded in 1816.
When Lee’s father-in-law died in 1857, the will appointed Lee as executor the estate, which was a tangled mess of substantial debts, obligations to fund descendants, and slaves. It took fives years, but Lee executed the will, kept the estate solvent, and freed not only his slaves, but all those inherited by his wife.
In October 1859, the federal government ordered Lee to take 90 U.S. Marines and capture abolitionist John Brown who had led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
Lee described Brown’s raid as “the plan of a fanatic or a madman that could only end in failure.”
Lee was so highly respected, that as tensions were leading up to war, President Abraham Lincoln offered him the Field Command of the U.S. Army.
After struggling in prayer all night, Lee declined Lincoln’s offer, not because he wanted to defend slavery, but rather because he could not bring himself to take up arms and kill his relatives, friends, and neighbors that he had grown up with in his native homeland of Virginia.
He resigned from the U.S. Army, explaining in a letter to his sister:
“With all my devotion to the Union and the feelings of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.”
Lee told President Lincoln’s advisor, Francis Preston Blair, that his decision to ally with the Confederacy had nothing to with defending slavery, claiming if “he owned all the Negroes in the South, he would be willing to give them up to save the Union.”
Even after joining the Confederacy, Lee continued the legal manumission of last of his father-in-law’s slaves, writing to his son, George Washington Custis Lee, November 28, 1862, to “arrange for the people whom I wish to liberate … the whole list at Arlington, White House, &c.”
Lee’s friend William Allan recorded that Lee urged Confederate President Jefferson Davis “often and early in the war … that the slaves should be emancipated, that it was the only way to remove a weakness at home and to get sympathy abroad, and to divide our enemies, but Davis would not hear of it.”
Lee told William Preston Johnston in 1868 that “he knew the strength of the United States Government; and saw the necessity at first of … a proclamation of gradual emancipation.”
On October of 1864, Lee wrote to William Porcher Miles, Chair of the Confederate House of Representatives’ military affairs committee, to urge a program of African American enlistment, accompanied by emancipation.
General Robert E. Lee’s military expertise was so formidable that for the first two years of the Civil War, even with inferior weapons, it looked as though the South would win.
Union forces were pushed back by repeated Confederate victories, notably those of General Stonewall Jackson, till Lee’s troops were dangerously close to attacking Washington, D.C.
The Confederacy suffered a major setback when Lee’s “Lost Order 191” was discovered September 13, 1862, by Union troops, allowing the Union to inflict significant losses on Confederate troops at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.
Then, two days after Lincoln’s Day of Fasting, Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men at the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 2, 1863.
Where the Union Army had superior weapons and an unlimited source of soldiers, by recruiting from the newly arrived immigrants, Confederate ranks could not be replaced.
The costliest battles to the Confederacy include:
  • Stones River, December 31-January 2, 1863, over 11,000 casualties;
  • Chancelorville, May 1-4, 1863, over 13,000 casualties;
  • Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, over 23,000 casualties;
  • Chickamauga, September 19-20, 1863, over 18,000 casualties;
  • The Wilderness, May 5-7, 1964, over 11,000 casualties;
  • Spotsylvania Courthouse, May 8-19, 1864, over 12,000 casualties.
In January of 1865, Lee wrote to Virginia state senator Andrew Hunter:
“(The Union will) … in course of time penetrate our country …
(Southerners must decide whether) … slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institution … giving immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully … (accompanied by) a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.”
When Lee realized that the end of the Confederacy was inevitable, he was instrumental in preventing generations of hate-filled, guerrilla warfare.
One of his generals suggested continuing with clandestine, vigilante actions, to which General Lee responded:
“General, you and I as Christian men … must consider its effects on the country as a whole. Already it is demoralized by four years of war.
If I took your advice, the men … would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many wide sections …
We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.”
Living for five years after the war ended, Lee became known as a reserved example of racial healing and reconciliation to a divided nation.
A story was reported by Colonel T.L. Broun of Charleston, West Virginia, that two month after the war ended there was a service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, June 4, 1865.
The segregated congregation was startled when a black man advanced to the communion table, but Lee responding immediately:
“General Robert E. Lee arose in his usual dignified and self-possessed manner … and reverently knelt down to partake of the communion, not far from the Negro.”
In June of 1865, a U.S. Grand Jury in Norfolk, Virginia, indicted Robert E. Lee for treason.
When some friends became indignant, Lee calmly responded:
“I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South dearest rights.
But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.”
During the Civil War, Lee’s estate overlooking Washington, DC, was confiscated by the federal government and turned into Arlington Cemetery.
As was the case with many southerners, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard had his properties in Memphis confiscated as reparations and given to black families for housing.
Beauregard later became a voice for extending civil rights to blacks and allowing blacks to vote.
He argued that blacks “already had equality and the whites had to accept that hard fact.”
He advance a Reform Party movement with “Equal Rights! One Flag! One Country! One People!”
Beauregard organized 50 black leaders and 50 white leaders, June 16, 1873, which agreed on a resolution that:
“… advocated complete political equality for blacks, an equal division of state offices between the races, and a plan where blacks would become land owners.
It denounced discrimination because of color in hiring laborers or in selecting directors of corporations, and called for the abandonment of segregation in public conveyances, public places, railroads, steams, and public schools.”
After the war, a southern clergyman spoke critically of the actions of the federal government.
Following a pause, Robert E. Lee asked:
“Doctor, there is a good old book which … says ‘Love your enemies.’
Do you think your remarks this evening were quite in the spirit of that teaching?”
Lee remarked:
“Before and during the War Between the States I was a Virginian. After the war I became an American.”
In August of 1865, Robert E. Lee accepted the invitation to become the President of Washington College at Lexington, Virginia, (later changed in his honor to Washington and Lee University).
He restrained Southern students from harassing black schools and churches, even personally expelling a student involved in a harassment incident.
Robert E. Lee invited his former chaplain, John William Jones to speak in 1869.
Afterward, Lee thanked him, remarking:
“Oh, Doctor, if I could only know that all the young men in this College were good Christians I should have nothing more to desire.
I wish, sir, to thank you for your address. It was just what we needed. Our great want is a revival which shall bring these young men to Christ …”
Lee continued:
“I should be disappointed, sir, and shall fail in the leading object that brought me he re, unless these young men all become Christians; and I wish you and others of your sacred profession to do all you can to accomplish it.
We poor sinners need to come back from our wanderings to seek pardon through the all-sufficient merits of our Redeemer.
And we need to pray earnestly for the power of the Holy Spirit to give us a precious revival in our hearts and among the unconverted.”
General Lee once remarked to Chaplain John William Jones regarding the Bible:
“There are things in the old Book which I may not be able to explain, but I fully accept it as the infallible Word of God, and receive its teachings as inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
Robert E. Lee confided:
“In all my perplexities and distresses, the Bible has never failed to give me light and strength.”

Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.