Anglo American Culture, Chapter Six

Chapter Six, Robert E. Lee and the American Civil War

 

Pre-reading vocabulary and phrases:

Aristocratic:

Plantation:

A model of ~ :

Tactics:

Secession:

Execution (criminal context):

Reconciliation:

Necessary Evil:

Abolitionist (slavery context):

 

Before the Civil War, Northern states had illegalized slavery and switched to an industrial economy. Northern states favored central power, like William the Conqueror had, and divided power like in the Magna Carta. Southern states, on the other hand, resisted industrial development and preferred to use slaves on farms. They favored “states’ rights” where individual states could overpower the central government. The disagreements on slavery and whether power should be with the central government or states eventually caused the Southern states to rebel in 1861. The most important leader in the North was Abraham Lincoln and the most important leader in the South was a general named Robert E. Lee. This is the story of how Robert E. Lee, who didn’t particularly like slavery and wanted the North and South to unite, ended up leading a rebellion against the United States.

Short Biography

Robert E. Lee was born to a rich family in Stratford Virginia in 1807. He is most famous for his role in the American Civil War, but he also gained fame for his outstanding service in wars against Mexico. During the Civil War, Lee commanded the entire Confederate (Southern) army against the much larger, much better equipped Union (Northern) forces. While the Union won, it was mostly because of Lee’s genius that the South wasn’t immediately crushed. These days, Lee’s reputation has become very complicated. Some Americans think of him as a traitor, while some think of him as a model of bravery. After the war, Lee became the president of a university in Virginia and remained so until his death.

Early Years

Robert Edward Lee was from an aristocratic family of Virginia politicians, plantation owners and businessmen. There were former presidents, Supreme Court judges, signers of the Declaration of Independence (an American evolution of the Magna Carta) and several decorated war heroes. Lee’s father, Henry Lee, had been a particular favorite of General George Washington.

When he was 18, Lee went to study at the famous military college at West Point, where he was an exceptional student. He was one of very few students to graduate with a perfect record and was honored for his mastery of artillery, infantry and cavalry tactics. After graduation, Lee marred Mary Custis, one of George Washington’s descendents, and had seven children.

Early Military Career

While Lee’s family remained at the family plantation to manage the slaves and conduct business matters, Lee focused on his military career. He moved all over the country, from George to Maryland, Missouri to New York, and even to Texas.

In 1846, Lee led soldiers in the Mexican War. He won honors for his brilliant tactics and bravery while serving under another general. Lee emerged from the Mexican War as one of America’s greatest heroes. Lee’s commander in particular, held Lee up as a great example of everything a soldier and American should be.

However, he did not enjoy his life after the military and struggled to adapt to a civilian lifestyle. He tried to manage his wife’s family’s plantation and slaves, but remained unhappy.

Confederate Leader

As such, Lee returned to the military in 1859. He was so desperate to rejoin the military that he accepted a very low position in Texas. However, he was not in Texas long before the government called on him to put down a slave rebellion. Lee used his excellent strategic mind to carefully plan the attack and succeeded in ending the rebellion in only one hour, and with minimal bloodshed. This made him, once more, one of the most beloved generals in the American military.

However, when the American Civil War began in 1861, Lee felt more loyal to his home state than he did to the United States and, as such, resigned from the military. Lee did not want to fight for the Confederacy either, and did not ultimately begin fighting until Virginia chose to join the Confederacy. Lee thought it was stupid to fight a war over slavery, but wanted to protect his neighbors and his state and so agreed to help the rebel army.

In the early parts of the war, Lee won several important battles against the much stronger Union forces. He took control of the Army of Northern Virginia and defeated a Union invasion of Virginia. He also won important battles in Tennessee. His success was so great he decided to try an invasion of the North. This, Lee hoped, would convince Lincoln to give up and accept the Confederacy’s desire for secession.

This plan, however, ended in disaster. In a battle called Antietam, Lee barely escaped after losing 14,000 soldiers. Soon after, he faced another huge defeat in the battle of Gettysburg, where the Union finally started to gain the advantage over the Confederacy. These two battles nearly destroyed Lee’s army.

By 1864, the North had found a competent general named Ulysses S. Grant (previous Union generals had been very ineffective). With his greater resources and stronger soldiers, Grant was able to destroy many cities in the Confederacy. By 1865, it was clear the Confederacy could not win. Lee, ashamed and defeated, had to surrender to General Grant. He said this about the experience.

“I suppose there is nothing for me to do but go and see General Grant,” he told an aide. “And I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

Final Years

While President Lincoln and General Grant could have executed Lee for treason, they instead pardoned him and allowed Lee to return to his family in Virginia. Lee spent the rest of his life working as the president of a small Virginia university and trying to help reconcile northern and southern citizens.

Robert E. Lee: Slavery, Secession, and the Choice He Made

Adapted from an article by Brooks D. Simpson

 

It is important to discuss Lee’s views on slavery, secession and the process by which he became the leader of the Confederacy. Lee’s own thinking on these matters is easily accessible, especially through his writings. Lee’s views on slavery were not terribly unusual for his time. They were a mixture of the “necessary evil” argument (which tended to emphasize the burdens slavery placed on white people) and the “positive good” argument (which tended to suggest that being enslaved benefited the black people). He did not believe in black equality, but he was not a defender of slavery. Lee did own slaves and he did discipline them, but he did not believe in an inevitable black inferiority to justify slavery. As he observed in an oft-quoted letter:

“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, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

 

Yet it is also important to recall what he wrote in 1865:

 

“Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would depreciate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.”

 

These words are carefully chosen. Lee was not an anti-slavery hero, but he was also not arguing for infinite black subjugation. His position was, for the time, moderate.

Lee held abolitionists and antislavery critics primarily responsible for the troubling debate over slavery and the beginnings of the Civil War. He reserved his harshest words for anti-slavery activists, although he complained about the behavior of Deep South secessionists in 1860-61, including their “selfish, dictatorial bearing.”  Lee also had little patience with the elaborate philosophical arguments of the secessionists, simply acknowledging that “secession is nothing but revolution.” That said, he mostly blamed the North. “The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North.”

If he dismissed the theory of secession as nonsense, however, Lee took the North vs South crisis quite seriously. He said “a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets (with the power of northern armies), and in which strife and civil war are to replace brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.”

 

That statement is essential to understanding Lee’s loyalty. As he put it, “If the Union is dissolved, and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and save in defence will draw my sword on none.

 

In other words, he didn’t want to fight for either the North or South, but would only fight if Virginia was attacked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Study Questions:

What do you think of Robert E. Lee’s reasoning about slavery?

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After reading about Robert E. Lee’s loyalty to Virginia, how do you think he compares with the Romans? How does he compare with William the Conqueror?

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Even today, there is a great amount of conflict between Americans who want states’ rights and Americans who want a strong, central government. Who do you think is correct? Why?

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Do you need states’ rights to ensure Magna Carta-style division of power? Why or why not?

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Korea used to have problems with “regionalism.” How is this similar to or different from the US Civil War?
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