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.

Reflecting on The Civil War after 25 years

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity in the Civil War blogging community about the rebroadcast, which is starting tonight, of Ken Burns’ monumental documentary The Civil War to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its debut on PBS. Many bloggers note the significant changes in our nation and the debate over how we remember the war that have occurred in the last 25 years. Consider that the direction of the historical study on the war has blossomed in many different ways since 1990. Further, no one in 1990 likely fathomed that we would have an African American president (regardless of your feelings on him and his administration). Needless to say, I hope many in the country will watch this and reflect.

I remember vaguely viewing segments of it when a little boy at Fort Hood, Texas, which was only a couple years after the piece debuted on television. It was still routinely broadcast on PBS then. I had an emerging interest in history at that time, the Civil War in particular. As I got older, watched Gettysburg at 10 and Glory at age 12, I eventually sought out this program and checked it out from my local library on VHS and watched it, enjoying it immensely. A few years ago, I finally purchased it on DVD and watch it occasionally to draw inspiration from different sections when needed.

Tonight’s broadcast features episode one, which focuses on the historical context and causes of the war. To hear of the violent acts and division in the nation at that time (Bleeding Kansas, the attack on Sen. Sumner, and John Brown’s Raid), causes me to reflect on recent violence and riots across the country. I will say that I doubt we’re heading towards conflict as in 1860, but that we must remember the lessons of the war and the horrors that it wrought, so that the “better angels of our nature” can prevail between those on opposite sides of the political fence.

While it is still about an hour and a half away, I always find a semblance of comfort and power in the words Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. He wrote:

Headquarters, Camp Clark
Washington, D.C., July 14, 1861

My Very Dear Wife:

Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines, that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle-field for any country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know, that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with care and sorrows, when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it, as their only sustenance, to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death, and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in this hazarding the happiness of those I loved, and I could not find one. A pure love of my country, and of the principles I have often advocated before the people, and “the name of honor, that I love more than I fear death,” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up, and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.

I know I have but few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot, I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care, and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers, I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

– Sullivan

(Text courtesy of National Park Service website)

I hope that sincerely hope that many will take time to watch this documentary, especially with children, and educate them on the significance of the conflict and what it means today in our current society.

Trouble in Baltimore

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the occupation of Baltimore by Federal troops in 1861 after a period of discontent and rioting that swept the city and parts of the border slave state in the wake of the firing upon Fort Sumter. This trouble and that posted earlier in Missouri illustrated the precarious situation in the border states that remained in the Union.

Maryland had strong ties to the South. A slave state, it place the capital, Washington in an interesting position, surrounded by slave states. When Virginia seceded in April, fears of Maryland leaving grew in the city. The inauguration of Abraham Lincoln intensified feelings among the Southern leaning citizenry, especially after his calling for volunteers, which meant Union troops would be passing through Maryland, Baltimore in particular.

The tension grew to violence, as soldiers and civilians were killed in several days of rioting over the war and the course of the state. In the aftermath, Benjamin Butler, who later became famous for his order against the women of New Orleans, commanded the remainder of a Union force sent to maintain communication lines to Washington, and occupied the city, placing it under martial law. Thus began 150 years ago an occupation of an American city. Attempts at secession were tried, but failed, and, despite the turmoil, Maryland remained in the Union.

Great article from Military History Quarterly on Fort Sumter

Check out this article from Drew Lindsay of Military History Quarterly that deals with the 150th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter. It includes some great photos.