What Historians Keep Getting Wrong about Robert E. Lee

The Lee monument in Richmond. Source: Colin Woodward

By Colin Woodward

Last month, historian Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and other history books, wrote a piece in the Washington Post on Robert E. Lee. The article attempted to extinguish the historical fire that began after White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly spoke about Robert E. Lee and his legacy. Many historians and pundits were critical of Kelly, who said that the Civil War happened because of a “lack of compromise,” and he praised Lee as an “honorable man.”

Rather than examine Kelly’s statements (the man is not a historian after all), I would like to address some aspects of the Lee debate and what people seem to keep getting wrong about Lee, despite all that has been written about him since his death in 1870. I will also address the incorrect statements Winik made in his article.

Lee the Aristocrat?

Winik states that Lee’s “lineage was impeccable” and that he “descended from two signers of the Declaration of Independence.” In fact, Robert E. Lee was not a blood relation of any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was born at Stratford Hall, which was the home of Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, both of whom signed the Declaration. But Lee’s father was Light Horse Harry Lee, who descended not from the Stratford line but the Leesylvania (located in northern Virginia) line of Lees. Light Horse Harry’s connection to Stratford was through his first wife, Matilda Ludwell Lee, the niece of Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee.

Matilda died in 1790. Light Horse Harry remarried. His second wife was Ann Hill Carter of Shirley plantation. She was Robert E. Lee’s mother. Did Lee have connections to the wealthiest and most prominent families of Virginia? Yes.

And no. It was Lee’s connections to his wife, Mary Custis, whom he married in 1831, that kept him relevant in Virginia’s social circles. By the time Robert E. Lee was ready for West Point, the Lee family was in tatters. His father, Light Horse Harry, a gifted commander during the Revolution, was dead and had lived the last ten years of his life in disgrace.

Light Horse Harry served several terms as governor of Virginia, but by the time Jefferson became president, Light Horse Harry was the kind of person you wouldn’t trust with money. Nor was he much of a father. We will never really know the psychological impact of this, but Light Horse Harry never knew Robert. Rather than act like a responsible father and husband, he frittered away the family fortune on bad land deals, spent time in debtor’s prison, and was disfigured and left for dead by a Baltimore mob during the War of 1812. Such disasters not only ruined him, they made sure he was virtually invisible to his family.

While Robert completed his schooling in northern Virginia, Harry went to the West Indies in a futile effort to restore his health. Harry died in 1818 in Georgia. Three years later, Robert E. Lee’s half brother, Henry Lee, IV, wrecked by a personal scandal and financial ineptitude, sold Stratford to a friend. The Lees never got the house back.

People often refer to Robert E. Lee as an “aristocrat,” but as a young man, Lee had no wealth or status to fall back on. He was on his own. What he made of himself was more in the mold of the “self-made man” than the result of an “impeccable” lineage.

General Robert E. Lee. Source: Stratford Hall

Lee’s Politics

Winik says that by 1861, Lee was “an avowed Federalist.” First, let’s put aside Winik’s confusing conflation of the Federalist party of Lee’s youth and the supporters of the federal government during the secession crisis. Lee’s father, Light Horse Harry, was a Federalist: the party of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. But the Federalists were all but dead by the end of the War of 1812. During and after the Mexican War, Robert’s political leanings were with the big government, pro-business Whigs until the Whigs dissolved in the mid-1850s.

After the Whigs dissolved, Lee threw his lot in with the Democrats, who dominated antebellum southern politics. As was true of most southerners, Lee feared the rising Republican Party, which was firmly opposed to the extension of slavery. Lee was no ideologue. He was never a politician, not a planter (not for long, anyway), and he disliked talk of secession. Lee was no Fire-eater, but he ultimately he threw his lot in with the Confederacy.

Lee and the Enemy

The war tested Lee’s political moderation. Winik claims that Lee was “never much of a hater” and that he referred to the Yankees as “those people” rather than the enemy. He also cites Lee’s often quoted line, uttered at Fredericksburg in 1862 December about it being well that war was so terrible, “lest we grow too fond of it.”

The idea of Lee not referring to his enemy as “the enemy” gained currency in Ken Burns’s 1990 Civil War documentary. But as the late Alan Nolan and others have pointed out since then, Lee often referred to the Yankees as “the enemy.” Lee called them that as early as April 1861. Over time, the war became far worse than most Americans could have imagined it, and the conflict horrified and embittered Lee. As I have noted in a previous blog post, Lee expressed disgust at the slaughter at Fredericksburg. Lee was not a callous monster, but more often he expressed disdain for the Yankees than sympathy. “The Federal Army should have been destroyed” Lee noted in his report of the Seven Days campaign. Lee’s job was to kill, wound, or capture as many Union troops as he could.

Lee was shocked at the destruction of his beloved Virginia, and in response, he sometimes sounded much like his most aggressive general, Stonewall Jackson. In a March 1863 letter, Lee wrote to his brother Carter and quoted the verse from Psalms: “Through God we shall do great acts; & it is He that shall tread down our enemies.” As was true of Jackson, there was a lot of the Old Testament in Lee. And by November 1864, he was worried about the “Philistines”–the Yankees–further destroying his beloved Virginia.

Stonewall jackson
Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were perhaps more alike than most people think. Both were advocates of hard war and repelled by Yankee behavior. Source: Library of Congress

A letter written by Lee in August 1864 ably reflects his attitude toward the Federals later in the war. “I have been kept from church to day by the enemy’s crossing to the north side of the James river & the necessity of moving troops to meet him,” the general wrote to his wife. He described the destruction of churches in the Culpeper area, and his reaction was worthy of Stonewall Jackson. “All are razed to the ground,” he said of the churches, “& the materials used, often for the vilest purposes.” What those purposes were exactly, he did not say. But what is clear is that by then, Lee had become embittered against the “cowardly persecutors the Yankees.”

Lee and Emancipation

Winik also is misleading when it comes to the details of Lee emancipating the Custis family slaves. Lee was executor of the estate of George Washington Parke Custis, the man who built Arlington and had owned its many slaves. When Custis died in 1857, Lee, his son-in-law, sorted out the estate. Custis wanted his slaves freed once his debts were paid, but the emancipation of the slaves was not to take more than five years.

arlington slaves freed
Arlington slaves freed during wartime

By December 1862, Lee was prepared to free the Arlington slaves, per the Custis will. However, the Arlington slaves had in effect already been freed by the Union army, which occupied the plantation, located on the high ground just outside Washington. Executing Custis’s estate gave Lee fits, and he was glad when it was finally accomplished. The freeing of the Arlington slaves was not an act of philanthropy, but an instance of Lee executing a legal duty and freeing himself of a personal burden.

In the heated political climate of 2017, Lee’s defenders and detractors want Lee to be more committed on matters of race than he was. Lee never owned more than a few slaves himself. His attitude toward black people was mostly one of indifference or condescension. Lee was a soldier, not a planter. He also shunned politics. In an era when men like Jefferson and Lincoln wrestled with the slavery issue, Lee rarely wrote on the subject. When Lee tried his hand at running Arlington in the 1850s, he hated it. Were it up to Lee, he would’ve been happy to see black people disappear from the South.

Lee had problems with slavery, but he was in the gradual emancipation school of thought: slaves should be freed some day, but not soon. In the context of his time, Lee took a mostly practical view of slavery: the institution should survive so long as it worked to white people’s advantage.

Robert E. Lee was no racial ideologue, but he was no abolitionist either. Winik cites Lee’s December 1856 letter as an example of his anti-slavery attitudes. But it is far from an abolitionist document. Lee never diverged from an attitude of white supremacy, and he had nothing original to say about slavery. What he did say was done infrequently and with reluctance.

Lee’s reasons for joining the Confederacy were not based on the perpetuation of slavery for all time, but neither did he want emancipation. Defenders of Lee like to say that the general was a “man of his times.” But it is a meaningless statement. Everyone is a man or woman of his or her times. Lee’s times were filled with abolitionists and others opposed to slavery, both black and white. More relevant to the discussion is to acknowledge that Lee was at neither extreme of the slavery debate.

Later in the war, Lee supported the enlistment of black troops into the Confederate army. Before March 1865, African Americans were only allowed to serve in the Rebel ranks in support roles: diggers, teamsters, and body servants. With Lee’s backing, the Confederacy passed a bill in mid-March 1865 that allowed black men to serve as soldiers. The bill did not emancipate black men who wanted to fight. Seeing the problems of such a bill, Jefferson Davis changed the law so that black Confederate troops would not have to fight as slaves. But they could not serve without their masters’ permission. The war ended before any African American recruits fought in battle.

Lee’s attitude toward black men in the Rebel army followed the pragmatic course he had taken toward the subject of slavery all of his life. So long as he thought the Confederacy could win the war without the help of black labor, he did so. Lee, however, eventually saw that the Confederacy needed tens of thousands of black workers in order to survive. As the Union succeeded in freeing tens of hundreds of thousands of slaves and arming many of them, Lee realized that every slave that left his master for the Union lines added one more fighter to the Union as it subtracted one from the Confederacy. However, only until the last few months of the war did Lee publicly ask for black troops, because the Confederacy was unraveling and desperate for manpower.

Lee and Guerilla Warfare

Just as Winik gives Lee too much credit as an emancipator, he also gives him too much credit concerning his ability to prevent a large scale guerrilla conflict. The Army of Northern Virginia certainly did not dissolve into small bands dedicated to shooting at any Yankee that showed his head. But Lee never had any intention of fighting a guerilla war.

The Confederacy’s hopes rested on winning a conventional conflict. Lee did not know how to fight any other kind of war, and diplomatic recognition depended on major Confederate victories against the Union’s largest armies. By April 1865, Lee eschewed a guerrilla war because it would further wreck Virginia and southern society. Guerrilla warfare was also uncertain. Lee had no assurance that an irregular war would succeed.

That said, Winik wrongly suggests that southerners went home in 1865 and never again disturbed the peace. Thanks to Lee’s efforts, Virginia did not suffer the kind of bloodshed and chaos after the war that beset Louisiana or South Carolina. Despite Lee’s acceptance of defeat at Appomattox, however, many southerners fought on and waged a bloody campaign to overthrow Reconstruction. Lee advocated reconciliation, but his word alone was not enough to make peace in the South after the war. And his talk probably had little resonance outside of Virginia.

Lee and Reconciliation

Winik sees Lee as a symbol of reconciliation. And Lee certainly was that in many ways. Winik, however, accepts without criticism the early 20th century story of Lee kneeling beside a black church attendant at St. Paul’s in downtown Richmond in June of 1865. Richmond historian Philip J. Schwarz has written about the event–if it indeed happened at all–as open to interpretation concerning Lee’s supposed selfless, egalitarian attitude toward African Americans.

Lee’s loyalties after the war are also a problem for those who see him as a humbled, honorable American. “Now he spoke as a U.S. citizen,” Winik writes in his Post article concerning Lee’s postwar status. But in fact, Lee was no longer a citizen, and he never had his citizenship rights restored. Despite Lee’s advocacy of reconciliation, he eventually came to see himself as a southerner first. “As a citizen of the South,” he wrote in December 1866, “I feel deeply indebted to you for the sympathy you have evinced in its cause,” he wrote Sir John Acton.

In 1868, Lee signed his name to the White Sulphur Statement, which spoke of the “deep seated conviction that at present the negroes have neither the intelligence nor other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.” Lee might have advocated for national reconciliation, but it was on the condition that the supposed “bottom rail” stayed on the bottom.

White sulphur springs
Lee, sitting second from left, at White Sulphur Springs in 1868 August. Source: University of Virginia


Much remains to be said about the controversial figure of Robert E. Lee. For historians to move scholarship forward, however, they must dispense with the Lee of the Lost Cause and “Marble Man” myths. Rather than recycle old ideas about the general, historians must put Lee in a context that is both historical and relevant to the heated political climate of the 2010s.






Author: leefamilydigitalarchive

The Lee Family Digital Archive is an online repository documenting the Lee family of Virginia. The editor of the LFDA is Dr. Colin Woodward, a historian of the South and published scholar. The site, which is free and open to the public, is located at www.leefamilyarchive.org. The LFDA contains 4,000 letters, documents, books, legal papers, and references sources, covering more than 300 hundred years of Virginia and American history. The site is updated Monday-Friday and contains many items never before published. Please check us out on the web. Comments and suggestions are appreciated, and reference questions are promptly answered.

4 thoughts on “What Historians Keep Getting Wrong about Robert E. Lee”

  1. Great post, Colin. From reading his book and his article, I’m convinced the only thing Mr. Winik understands about the Civil War is how to promote himself. He’s obviously a genius at that, because his writing is replete with factual errors as well as interpretive nonsense.


  2. It is certainly true that Lee eschewed a guerrilla war fearing it would further wreck Virginia and southern society. However, most of the credit for his soldiers going home and not engaging in guerrilla warfare were the generous terms of surrender that Grant offered the south.


  3. Overall an excellent article, however, I believe that you undersell Lee’s familial position. Yes, his father squandered the family fortune leaving Lee’s mother with comparable less money and resources than the other members of the Lee and Carter families were used to, but he was still the progeny of two of the most aristocratic and powerful families of Virginia and relied heavily upon that family network for his success.

    Those kind of ties and the resources that come from such a background were quite substantial. His impeccable aristocratic pedigree is the reason he was considered a proper suitor to marry into the Custis family. At most, he was a “cash poor” member of two of Virginia’s most powerful families. I believe that detract greatly from the “self-made man” narrative.

    Other than that minor quibble, if found your article to be amazingly insightful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s