A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee

A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee

Larry Holzwarth - November 6, 2017

Robert E. Lee has filled the news headlines lately. Lee is a controversial figure due to his service to the pro-slavery Confederacy, viewed as treason by many, and for the heroic status, he maintains to this day. His defenders call him a great soldier while detractors believe him to be a white supremacist. Both of these views are correct. He is remembered as a man with an admirable sense of honor yet he violated his oath to defend the Constitution and vigorously prosecuted a war against his native country.

He denounced secession yet fought to maintain it, leading hundreds of thousands to death or dismemberment. After the war, he announced that he regretted having chosen the military as a career, but his leadership and battlefield tactics are still studied by career officers today, in many nations.

Despite the crushing defeats and severe casualties he inflicted on Union armies, he became a hero in the North in the decades following the Civil War. The US Army named Fort Lee in Virginia for their defeated adversary, the US Navy christened their third ballistic missile submarine USS Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of roads, parks, memorials, monuments, and schools bear his name, and there are statues to his memory all across the country. But in life, Lee supported denying newly emancipated slaves the right to vote, believed that they should be deported from the United States, and believed that freeing the slaves had led to hostility between the races which had previously been absent.

A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee in 1869, a little more than one year before his death. Library of Congress

He also supported the institution of free schools for blacks. But as superintendent of Washington College following the war (now Washington and Lee University) he was lax punishing students for racist attacks on blacks and allowed white students to form a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Here are nine facts that are largely forgotten about Robert E. Lee.

A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee’s crypt at Washington and Lee University was the first of hundreds of memorials to the former general. New York Public Library

He opposed the construction of memorials to the Southern Cause following the war

Lee believed that after the military collapse of the South its only salvation economically and socially was friendly relations with the Northern states and the federal government. After visiting the White House in 1869 at the invitation of President Grant, Lee became a symbol of reconciliation to both North and South.

As the Ku Klux Klan stepped up its harassment and often outright murder of newly freed blacks, many in the South urged a resumption of the war. Lee counseled against it, well aware that the South was weaker than it had been in 1861 when the odds against its success were long. To him a resumption of fighting was unfathomable.

Lee believed that the construction of monuments and memorials to Southern heroes of the war would help foment the push for further insurrection. Further dividing the two sections was bad for the South both economically and psychologically. For Lee, the South’s future lay in the hands of the victorious North, and appeasement rather than opposition was the key to ending reconstruction and what many Southerners believed to be Northern occupation.

Lee believed that appeasement was also the key to harmonious relations with blacks in the South and that monuments to the Confederacy hindered those efforts. But at the same time, Lee argued for the restoration of white political supremacy and the removal of the right to vote for all blacks, regardless of level of education.

From the end of the Civil War until his death Lee supported facing and overcoming (in his mind) the political realities of the day, rather than celebrating the Old South which the Civil War had buried forever.

A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee
Lee’s sketch of the Keokuk Rapids below Fort Des Moines. Some of his proposals to improve inland waterways are still in use. National Archives

He was a skilled engineer, improving the national infrastructure

Lee graduated from his West Point class in 1829, second in his class. His high standing and his demonstrated proficiency with mathematics and drawing led him to enter the US Army Corps of Engineers, a prestigious appointment at the time. Engineers did more than design and erect military facilities, although Lee did engage in those activities during his career.

Of equal concern to the young nation was the improvement of navigation on the interior rivers, then the highways on which the produce of the burgeoning Midwest traveled to markets. In 1837 Lee was assigned to supervise the work of improving a port at the western outpost of St. Louis Missouri and to improve the navigational channels of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Lee applied his engineering ingenuity to the project by devising a system of dikes upriver from St. Louis. The dikes diverted the water into channels which scoured their own deepwater basins on the St. Louis side of the Mississippi, creating a deepwater port for the loading and unloading of steamboats. Using the river’s own waterpower to dig a harbor was both faster and cheaper than alternative methods of the day.

Lee also mapped rapids upriver on Missouri at Keokuk, Iowa, with a mind to developing a channel through the rapids to allow navigation further North during times of relatively low water on the river. Although the channel was moderately successful, not until many years later would further improvements on the river ensure year-round navigation.

Lee’s reputation as an innovative engineer earned him an assignment to Fort Hamilton, in New York and national acclaim as an officer. He also helped to justify the existence of the Military Academy, a frequent target of politicians of the day as an overly expensive luxury.

A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee
George Washington casually leans on the shoulder of his great-stepson, George Washington Parke Custis, future father in law of Robert E. Lee. National Gallery of Art

His father-in-law was Martha Washington’s Grandson

George Washington Parke Custis was raised at Mount Vernon by George and Martha Washington. He was Martha’s grandson descended from her son from a previous marriage. He was George Washington’s ward and was present with his sister in the Washington presidential residences during George’s administration. When he was in his 20s, he inherited a large plantation on the Virginia side of the Potomac River overlooking the site of the new nation’s capital city in the District of Columbia.

Between the years 1803 – 18 Custis built a large home on the plantation, a Greek Gothic Revival mansion which he named Arlington House, in which he housed many of Washington’s personal artifacts. He lobbied for and attended the cornerstone laying for the Washington Monument in 1848.

He also lobbied for the removal of slaves from Virginia and deportation to Africa, although he did not free his own slaves. His daughter strongly supported the deportation of slaves, and this daughter, Mary Custis, married Robert E. Lee in 1831. They were married at Arlington House, which they would inherit when George Custis died in 1857. With it came several hundred slaves.

Lee later supported similar measures following the emancipation of all blacks during the Civil War. He lobbied the federal government to deport the former slaves to either Africa or to colonies established in the west and argued that Virginia would support such a measure.

“I think that everyone there would be willing to aid it,” he wrote of deportation in 1866. His views on the subject were undoubtedly formed with influence from both his father-in-law and his wife. Lee’s own slaves, as well as Arlington Plantation, were confiscated at the beginning of the Civil War. Today Arlington House and its grounds are part of Arlington National Cemetery.

A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee
In this 1864 photograph taken in Richmond – Capital of the Confederacy – Lee wears the three star rank of a Confederate Colonel. A general’s stars were wreathed in laurel. Library of Congress

He refused to wear a General’s rank on his uniform

Lee had been offered a senior rank in the Union Army prior to Virginia seceding, but once it had he accepted the rank of Major General of Virginia Militia. In May of 1861, this rank was superseded by his commission into the Confederate States Army as a Brigadier General.

One month later he was promoted to the rank of General in June 1861, which he held through most of the war. In January 1865 he was promoted to the rank of General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies.

The highest rank Lee had achieved in the United States Army before the Civil War was that of Colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry, awarded him in March 1861. Lee chose to retain the rank insignia of a Colonel on his Confederate uniform. He informed friends privately that he would not wear the insignia of a Confederate General until such time that the war was won and the Confederate States recognized as an independent nation.

Despite this quirk, Lee was punctilious about his appearance and military bearing at all times. He strictly adhered to military address with his subordinates, always referring to them by their rank or with the honorific “Mister” to junior officers. He did not use familiarities with his senior officers, many of whom he had known since boyhood, and many of whom he had served with in various military posts as younger men.

Of all his generals, only one – Henry Heth – would he address by his Christian name. Despite his own refusal to wear the badges of his rank he demanded strict adherence to uniform standards by his senior officers, even as the troops under their command became more and more bedraggled as the war went on.

A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee
Freedmen’s villages such as this one were established by the Union during the war. Lee believed that the blacks were better off if enslaved. National Park Service

He believed slavery to be a “painful discipline”

Robert E. Lee believed that slavery, as practiced in the South, was an institutional evil which caused more harm to whites than it did the enslaved blacks, as he wrote to his wife in 1856. Lee referred to slavery in the same letter as a “painful discipline” which whites were duty-bound to follow as a means of both civilizing the black race and teaching them the precepts of Christianity.

To Lee, the outcries of the Northern abolitionists were both misinformed and wrongheaded, and the institution of slavery fostered good relations between the races which would vanish should slavery be abolished and there existed anything like equality. Lee based this view in part in the belief that blacks were disposed by nature to be indolent and must be forced to work for their sustenance or they would perish.

Lee often complained of the strain owning and maintaining slaves placed on his time. Lee was also in the habit of separating slave families. In some in, tances he sent slaves to work on projects far from Arlington and their families, in others he sold families piecemeal. Despite propaganda to the contrary from Northern abolitionists, neither of these was customary among Virginia planters at the time.

After the war efforts were made to present Lee as being in opposition to slavery. Recorded facts do not bear this out. Prior to the war, Lee wrote to his wife his opinion that the “…blacks are immeasurably better of here than in Africa…” and added that their enslaved status was “…necessary for their instruction as a race.”

Lee did free the slaves which were bequeathed to his wife by her father, but he was forced to do so by the dictates of his father-in-law’s will. During the war, Lee’s belief’s about race prevented him from accepting proposed prisoner of war exchanges because he would not allow them to include black troops.

A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee
Some entrenchments built by Lee in 1862 weren’t needed until 1864-65 during the Siege of Petersburg. National Archives

He was censured for being too cautious early in the war

Shortly after the beginning of hostilities in the Civil War (he had suffered a minor defeat in battle) Lee was sent to defend the city of Savannah and the coastlines of Georgia and South Carolina. The Confederates at the time had no Navy to oppose the United States fleet, and the existing defenses were those which had been built by the federal government to defend the US coastline from foreign enemies.

These centered around Fort Pulaski, on an island in the mouth of the Savannah River. Lee recognized that the use of Savannah as a port was dependent on Fort Pulaski and that the fort could not be held against a determined siege, but that the city could be kept out of Union hands with additional defenses.

Lee strengthened the existing Fort Jackson, about two miles from Savannah, and built supporting batteries and trenches to defend it from attack. Lee’s defenses were so strong that the Union could not advance upon the city and troops defending Savannah were detached and sent north to aid in the defense of Richmond, Virginia. When Fort Pulaski fell to the Union they were still unable to press forward to take Savannah.

Lee was detached and sent to Richmond as a military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, whom he had known during the Mexican War. In Richmond, Lee built a series of trenches and redoubts for the defense of the city which weren’t needed immediately, but which proved useful when Grant’s troops arrived before the city in 1864.

Because of his cautious approach to his duties in the early days of the war, and in part because of the fall of Fort Pulaski, the southern press took to calling him “Granny Lee”. The Richmond newspapers, eyewitnesses to the digging of fortifications all around the city which then went unused, added the sobriquet, “King of Spades.”

As the Union Army approached Richmond in the spring of 1862 the Army of Virginia was pushed back and its commander, Joseph Johnston was wounded. Davis selected Lee to replace Johnston in command, to the howls of indignation from the southern press. Even as Lee renamed his army to the Army of Northern Virginia, a clear indication that he intended to move it closer to Washington, the press believed that he was the wrong man to command it.

A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee
After the death of Stonewall Jackson following the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee’s long run of victories came to an end. National Portrait Gallery

He turned his greatest victory into his greatest defeat

In May 1863 Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia – numbering less than 60,000 men – boldly attacked and routed the much larger Union army (105,000 men) at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia. The battle was famous for the surprise flank march executed by Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on the night of May 1st, 1863. The price for their success was the mortal wound received by Jackson at the hands of his own men while scouting positions.

Jackson’s death changed the dynamic of the Army of Northern Virginia, which would never again win a major offensive victory in the field. With Jackson gone, Lee made the strategic decision to invade Pennsylvania rather than go to the aid of the besieged defenders of Vicksburg. The fall of Vicksburg would split the South and close the Mississippi to Confederate navigation.

The decision has been rationalized by the desire to obtain supplies from Pennsylvania farms, but in June the harvest is still some time off and although livestock could be gathered the army lacked grain to feed the animals it already held. However, supplies were more plentiful in the relatively peaceful north than in war-torn Virginia, which had supported armies in the field for more than two years.

Lee’s army was confronted at Gettysburg in a three-day battle which was the his biggest defeat, and the retreat back to Virginia was both humiliating and militarily devastating. Within a year Lee would be forced into the trenches he had prepared before Richmond in 1862.

Lee’s defeat in his second invasion of the North, coupled with his disregard for the defense of Vicksburg, reveals his weakness as a strategic planner in military terms. It also reveals his complete reliance on the input of Stonewall Jackson, who had developed the tactics for Lee’s greatest victory. And his ordering of Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the battle reveals his willingness to take heavy casualties in pursuit of victory, a trait more often attributed to US Grant. The entire Gettysburg campaign places the belief of Robert E. Lee being America’s greatest general in doubt. Lee himself was aware of his shortcomings revealed in the campaign, offering to resign in its aftermath. The Confederate Government, with no general of comparable reputation available, declined his offer.

A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee
Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, was a soldier, congressman, Governor, and land speculator who abandoned his family. Wikipedia

His father jumped bail and abandoned his debts and family

The Lee family was one of Virginia’s oldest. It was a Lee – Richard Henry of Stratford Hall, their ancestral home – who rose in the Second Continental Congress to propose the motion that began the debates over Independence in 1776. Robert’s father was Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who served as one of George Washington’s cavalry commanders during the Revolutionary War.

Lee’s daring and skill conducting raids against the British provided badly needed medicines and supplies to the Continental Army, and Washington became a lifelong patron of his fellow Virginian.

It was Harry Lee who famously said of Washington that he was “…first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Regardless, before the war was over Henry Lee began to feel that his efforts for the cause were insufficiently rewarded and he resigned his commission.

After serving as a Congressman and as Governor of Virginia Harry adopted several get rich quick schemes involving land speculation and became heavily in debt. When bankruptcy failed to clear his debts and the threat of debtor’s prison loomed, Henry ignored a personal appearance bond, the bulk of which had been posted by his brother, and fled to the West Indies, abandoning his family including the young Robert. He was abetted in his escape by then Secretary of State James Monroe.

Light Horse Harry never returned to his family, although he did return to America in 1818, dying in Georgia without ever again seeing his family. Robert E. Lee was but eleven years old at the time of his father’s death and seldom spoke of him for the rest of his life. Lee visited his father’s Georgia grave during his military years, but it was his only visit and a brief one. Near the end of his life, Robert E. Lee edited his father’s military memoirs, providing a biographical essay, but he did not defend nor discuss his abandonment of family or debts.

A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee
Confederate troops march through Frederick, Maryland in 1862. Northern blacks were targeted for kidnapping by the Southern troops. Wikipedia

Lee’s army captured and enslaved free blacks in Pennsylvania and Maryland

Lee’s two invasions of the North, which ended at Antietam in 1862 and Gettysburg in 1863, saw his army seize property from the people of both states. While living off of the land was common during the war – Northern armies frequently pillaged the lands through which they marched, often against orders – Lee’s troops seized free blacks and carried them back to Virginia as slaves, frequently in the service of the Army’s most senior commanders.

The abduction and enslavement of blacks were conducted by nearly every unit in Lee’s army and with the knowledge of the commander. This gives the lie to the often-told canard that the majority of Southern troops were not involved in slavery. While many southern soldiers did not own slaves, they participated in supporting what the South referred to as the “Peculiar Institution.” When some Confederate officers protested that the seized freedmen were adding to the logistical strains on the Army – more mouths to feed – Lee’s silence on the matter speaks volumes.

Lee’s attitude towards the black troops deployed by the Union army was expressed in an exchange of letters between Lee and Grant over a prisoner exchange, which would have benefited Lee by releasing badly needed troops to join his depleted battalions. Grant requested that black troops be exchanged under the same conditions as white. Lee replied, “…negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange and were not included in my proposition.”

Throughout his life, Lee expressed his belief in the natural supremacy of whites over blacks. In the emancipated South following the Civil War Lee urged family and friends to hire white laborers whenever possible, over blacks. Lee offered his belief that “…wherever you find the Negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find a white man, you see everything around him improving.”

It would seem Lee’s military leadership of the South was based on much more than his professed sense of honor over protecting his home state of Virginia from Northern aggression.