Robert E. Lee: Honorable Man, or Treasonous Scoundrel

I routinely enjoy listening to the personalities on the local talk radio station, KNOX AM 1310, as they cover a variety of topics and have moments of amusement on occasion. Ryan Cunningham, who hosts the Ryan Cunningham Show from 12-3pm on the station noted in late March of his upcoming trip in early April to Tampa, Florida, to cover the Frozen Four for the station. He mentioned that part of his route down to Florida was going to take him near Shiloh National Battlefield.

Ryan noted his interest in that battle and the larger war, which necessitated me calling into the show and sharing my experiences visiting the site two times. I friended him on Facebook and found out he had a good time, but, like visiting most Civil War battlefields, one day can’t do it justice. I do hope he will get the chance to visit again soon, as it is a bit of a drive from eastern North Dakota.

Anyway, he shared with me an interesting thing that happened on Monday’s show, which I missed hearing, where a caller argued that Robert E. Lee was not an honorable man because he fought for the Confederacy. I wish I could have heard the exchange, as Ryan hinted in his message to me that it was an amusing thing. Reading this got me to thinking about that question, as it is a potentially divisive one.

Certainly, one cannot deny that Lee’s pre-war military career and his personality reflected an honorable man. He was one of the most respected officers in the army at the time and such was his reputation that Lincoln offered him command of all Union armies. Had Lee stayed with the Union, like fellow Virginian George Thomas did, one can only wonder how the war would have turned out.

Lee was conflicted in April 1861, go with the Union that he had served for his entire adult life, or resign and side with his home state, which was clearly heading towards secession. History knows which way he chose and he eventually became a beloved general in the Confederate army, as well as begrudgingly respected by his Union counterparts, several of whom had known him before the war and had served under him, or alongside him. Lee achieved some great feats as a Confederate general, but does this service strip him of his honor?

While he did commit treason by levying war against the United States, as noted in Article III of the Constitution, consider his April 20, 1861 letter to Winfield Scott, where he resigned from the Army:


Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the Army.   I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance.

It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life & all the ability I possessed.

During the whole of that time, more than 30 years, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, & the most cordial friendship from my companions.   To no one Genl have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness & consideration, & it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation.

I shall carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me.   Save in the defence of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.

Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness & prosperity & believe me most truly yours

R. E. Lee

-Courtesy of Civil War Trust

I read in this letter a man conflicted by his competing devotions to his duty as an American soldier and his loyalty to his home state. Keep in mind that many Americans’ identities, both north and south, related to their home state first and the nation second. While the states’ rights movement has clouded some of this in our post-Civil War history, the oath of enlistment for the United States Army is important to consider at that time, where the United States was referred to in the plural. As noted on the Army’s Center of Military History website, the oath used at the beginning of the Civil War read as follows:

I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me.

Yes, Lee served a cause that was committed to the maintenance of chattel slavery as part of its existence as a nation, but he conducted such service with honor. Consider his actions at Appomattox Courthouse, where he agreed to surrender to Grant, under quite generous terms. He very easily could have disbanded the Army of Northern Virginia into the hills and led a protracted guerilla war, which Davis seemed to desire. He chose not to do this and acquiesced to Grant’s generous terms. In fact, the respect and honor that Grant and other Union commanders seemed to hold for Lee is evidenced by Grant reminiscing on their pre-war army days.

Yes, Lee took up arms against the United States, which is treasonous, but I must argue that he retained much of his honor as a man, considering how he could have conducted himself and the war. Lee was an old soldier, who was suited to aid in the reconciliation of the nation.

Love him or loathe him, Robert E. Lee remains an important figure in our history and, with that, I will ask you to consider the following question and share your thoughts in the comment section.

Watch “Rebel” tonight at 10PM ET/9PM CT

I just viewed this production that is part of the PBS series Voces, which deals with Latino figures. Rebel tells the story of Loreta Velazquez, a Cuban-American, who served as a soldier in the Confederate Army, later to serve as a spy for the Union. Her story, largely forgotten for much of the post-war years is one of the more unique in the long list of women who served in the military on both sides in the Civil War.

Velazquez’s story begins with her childhood in Cuba, where she attempted to defy traditional gender stereotypes, much to the chagrin of her parents, including her doting father. Concerned for her future and seeking to mold her into a “proper” young woman, Loreta was sent to New Orleans in 1849, where she blended into the unique society of the city, being viewed as white instead of Hispanic, which was important in post-Mexican War America.

Further defying conventions, Velazquez eloped with an American Army officer, known as William, much to the disappointment of her family. She followed William to various military postings, until William left the Army upon secession, joining the Confederate Army. William later died in the war, while Loreta also joined, taking the name Henry T. Buford. After supposedly fighting at Bull Run, she took to spying for the Confederacy, then rejoined the Army, fighting at Fort Donelson and Shiloh. Later in the war, she served the Union cause as a spy.

After the war, she wrote her memoir The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velázquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T Buford, Confederate States Army, which is the source of controversy in the historiography on the war. Her account shattered the “Lost Cause” mythology surrounding Confederate soldiers, as she described them as boorish and ungentlemanly. Her writing raised the ire of Jubal Early, who was influential in the early historiography from the southern perspective on the war. Due to this controversy, her story was largely erased from the history and memory on the war.

Through Rebel, director Maria Agui Carter attempts to draw out the true story of Velazquez and her contribution to the larger understanding of the Civil War. Complete with a cast of academics crossing several fields and disciplines, gripping cinematography, and a unique story, Rebel is worth viewing on your local PBS station and will enlighten and entertain those interested in the Civil War, spies, women’s history, or Latino history.

Check out the site for the documentary here, and buy Velazquez’s book here.

Lose the Lost Cause by David Patten

I was contacted by Mr. Patten, who asked me to post his essay considering the topic of the “Lost Cause” and its level of influence on our understanding of the war since its conclusion. I know that this may spark some vigorous discussion and debate, as this is a subject that historians have argued over for well over one hundred years. I hope you will all give Mr. Patten’s essay consideration and thought.




As we journey through the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and with the release of the movie Lincoln, and particularly with the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation upon us, Americans have been well motivated to deeply assess every aspect of the time period that tore our nation apart. While we ponder those times and analyze why our nation plunged into such strife, we will, as always, be exposed to the continuing drumbeats of the “Lost Cause”. Southerners, and many Northerners alike, will regale us with the noble reasons that actually motivated eleven states to secede. We will be told that they were fighting for their liberties and for their proud heritage. The Southern states, in fact, stood up to an overreaching, draconian national government bent on crushing individual freedoms and destroying states’ rights.

Have I missed any of the other lies the “Lost Cause” might tell? The lies actually never seem to end. They started just after the smoke cleared from the battlefields that revealed Southern defeat and they continue to this very day. Only now, they are magnified by the moment.

One issue dominated the politics of the Civil War time period and everything else spun off of that issue. The issue of racially specific slavery caused the Civil War and the “Lost Cause” revisionists, from 1865 to the present, cannot change or sanitize the true reason for Southern secession. Can any of us today honestly imagine our nation splitting apart in 1861 had there been no slavery? What other issue or issues so captivated the imaginations of the people back then that could have caused the Union’s destruction? Only one issue had that kind of power and anything else anyone could cite would be a mere corollary. Even a cursory reading of the thoughts of the Southern leadership exposes their obsession with the issue of slavery. Dig deeper and their obsession over that singular horror becomes pathological.

Jefferson Davis lauded slavery as a great institution through which “a superior race” changed “brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers…worth thousands of millions of dollars.” He proclaimed that “the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable” and he bridled at any attempt to interfere with that system or limit its extension.

Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s Vice President, declared that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” In addition, he unequivocally stated that slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

State after Confederate state declared in their “secession resolutions” that slavery was the primary cause of their departure. Mississippi summed it up best, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” “There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union…”

The Confederate Constitution enshrined slavery and forbade its states and territories from banning it or interfering with its spread. In addition, Section 9 of the document extended the same prohibitions to the national government, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in Negro slaves shall be passed.” As a result, there was no avoiding slavery in the C.S.A., not even through secession, for curiously, no such right was provided. In effect, the Southern leaders created exactly what they wanted; a slaveholding nation well insulated against those who would seek to alter or abolish the peculiar institution.

Northerners of the time period were hardly confused as to the origin of the conflict. Lincoln unlocked the deep non-mystery in his Second Inaugural Address, “All knew that this interest (slavery) was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war…”

In his memoirs, Grant came right to the point, “The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery.”

The Confederate dream of an exclusive slaveholding nation crashed in 1865. But, out of the ashes of Confederate defeat emerged a victory of sorts; it was the “Lost Cause”. History is supposedly written by the winners, but not this time. Rebel writers such as Edward Pollard, Alexander Stephens, Jefferson Davis, and so many others seized control of the narrative and transformed the ugliness of the slaveholding cause into a fight for liberty and rights. Both the Confederate journalist Edward Pollard and the former Vice President Alexander Stephens began their assault on history directly after the war was over. Slavery ceased to be an issue. Rather, valiant struggles for freedom by gallant Southern cavaliers facing overwhelming odds became the norm. Davis waited a few years, but then in 1881, he joined the club with his memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. In volume one, he wrote, “The truth remains intact and incontrovertible, that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” Views such as these found enormous audiences and sparked a tidal wave of historical distortion that tragically gained acceptance.

One Southerner wasn’t fooled by any of it. Colonel John S. Mosby, arguably the finest partisan raider the Confederacy produced stated, “The South went to war on account of slavery.” He found the “Lost Cause” sentiment repulsive and wrote, “I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery.” But then he added something very interesting, “After the fight is over they invent some fanciful theory on which they imagine that they fought.”

Now we see the “Lost Cause” fully exposed. With slavery abolished upon the ruin of the South and labeled as the filth that it was, how then do the losers cope? Looking at the reality of the war, the South endured destruction on a scale few could ever have imagined, and for what? They shed blood and lost all defending a system of horror and disgust, thus myth became their only refuge. Given their situation, the so glorious, so holy “Lost Cause” could have turned out so no other way.

We now have the perfect opportunity to set things straight and see the conflict as it truly was. Only time will now tell if we can finally put the “Lost Cause” myth away and face the brutal truth of our past while celebrating the new birth of freedom that gave meaning to all the destruction.

A “nation” born 150 years ago

February 8 represents the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Confederate States of America. I purposely put nation in quotes to reflect the unrecognized status of the Confederacy. The Confederacy is an interesting creation, as several influential Southerners viewed their nation as the heir to the Revolution, resisting the tyranny of Washington. I wonder how they would react today. The Confederacy stirs many emotions today, but it can not be denied that its short history is wrapped in its role in beginning our nation’s bloodiest war. While the actual Confederacy lasted only four years, the idea lives on through historical memory, first dominated by the Lost Cause, and now through the ongoing debates in history over secession and the current divide over states’ rights, etc. I will close this short post with the encouragement to go out and read the histories on the Confederacy to understand how the views on the southern creation have changed over the last 150 years.