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Happy Birthday Robert E Lee

xRxExFoyxJan 19, 2018, 10:26:20 PM

Why do Americans admire Robert E Lee?

While the Civil War ended ~150 years ago, a recent phenomena in the 21st century has been removing the statues, monuments, and even markers in cemeteries of Southerners from the war. A figure in the center of this controversy and from that time period is general Robert Edward Lee. During the war and long after its conclusion, Lee was well respected on both sides for many reasons.

Lee’s family was in Virginia since the 1600’s. His father was revolutionary war hero Major General Henry Lee who served under George Washington and as governor of Virginia after the war. Robert Lee married the step-great-granddaughter of George Washington. Lee never owned slaves until he inherited them from the death of his father-in-law. And in accordance of his father-in-law’s will, he freed all of these slaves in late 1862 during the middle of the war he was fighting. [1] [2]

Unlike many Southerners in his time period, Lee acknowledged the institution of slavery as evil in a letter to his wife,

“…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….” [3]

He also wrote to his son against secession as he felt it would be detrimental to the nation, however he expressed that he would go with whatever route Virginia chose.

“…It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established & not a government by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison & the other patriots of the Revolution. In 1808 when the New England States resisted Mr Jeffersons Imbargo law & the Hartford Convention assembled, secession was termed treason by Virginia statesmen. What can it be now? Still a union that can only be maintained by swords & bayonets, & in which strife & civil war are to take the place of brotherly love & kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country, & for the welfare & progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved & the government disrupted, I shall return to my native State & share the miseries of my people & save in her defense will draw my sword on none.” [4]

When Lincoln summoned an army in April, 1861. Lee was offered a command of this force which he denied. In response to Lincoln’s presidential adviser Francis Blair, Lee is reported to have said:

“…how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?” [5]

Lee garners most of his respect for his military prowess. In the Mexican-American War he was one of Winfield Scott’s chief aides and distinguished himself in several pivotal battles. During the Civil War, Lee gained command of the main Confederate army in the summer of 1862. Every major battle fought by his army was outnumbered and out supplied by superior federal forces. Lee defeated 4 invasions and launched 2 counter invasions into Union territory. In a spiteful move, the Federal government turned Lee’s estate Arlington, near Washington D.C. into a cemetery during the war. His goal while in command was to destroy the Federal army in a decisive battle to establish peace talks and independence for the southern states. Despite besting six Union generals, Lee never achieved a decisive battle and was finally beaten in a war of attrition by Ulysses S Grant. In the first two battles against Grant, Lee personally led his men in critical moments of the battle where his terrified men would scream “LEE TO THE REAR” to encourage him to stay out of danger. [6] [7]

While Lee is responsible for perpetuating the war, the most important reason Lee should be admired is because he was also crucial in ending the deadliest conflict in American history. Against the wishes of his government and passionate generals, Lee chose to surrender his ~20,000 troops rather than drag on the war. Lee wrote to stubborn Confederate president Jefferson Davis:

“…A partisan war may be continued, and hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence. It is for Your Excellency to decide, should you agree with me in opinion, what is proper to be done. To save useless effusion of blood, I would recommend measures be taken for suspension of hostilities and the restoration of peace.”

Six days later following Lee’s advice and rejecting orders from their President, the largest surrender of the war occurred in North Carolina with 89,270 rebels choosing to give up the fight. The remaining rebel armies surrendered the next few days. [8]

After the war, classical liberal historian Lord Acton wrote to Lee expressing grief over the political ramifications of the conflict (see comments for Acton's words). Responding to Acton, Lee explained his reasoning in choosing to side with the state governments:

“….I can only say that while I have considered the preservation of the constitutional power of the General Government to be the foundation of our peace and safety at home and abroad, I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic is sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home and will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it. I need not refer one so well acquainted as you are with American history, to the State papers of Washington and Jefferson, the representatives of the federal and democratic parties, denouncing consolidation and centralization of power, as tending to the subversion of State Governments, and to despotism…” [9]

In conclusion, tearing down Lee’s statues and monuments isn’t going to provide solutions to modern political problems or change the past. This was a noble rebel general married into George Washington’s family fighting for independence and embodies the American character of rebels resisting centralized political power.


[1] Lee Family History:



[2] Lee’s inherited slaves:



[3] Lee’s Letter to his wife on slavery:


[4] Lee’s Letter to his son on secession:


[5] Lee turns down command of Union Army:




[6] Lee’s Military Prowess:

1862:Lee defeats George McClellan in the 7 Days Battles:

(https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/seven-days-history )

Lee defeats John Pope in 2nd Battle of Bull Run

(https://www.nps.gov/mana/learn/historyculture/second-manassas.htm )

Lee invades Maryland and is repulsed at Antietam:

(https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/maryland-campaign-1862 )

Lee defeats Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg:

(https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/fredericksburg-0 )

1863: Lee defeats Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville:

(https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/chancellorsville )

George Meade repulses Lee’s 2nd invasion at Gettysburg

(https://www.civilwar.org/learn/civil-war/gettysburg-campaign )

1864: Lee holds off Ulyssess S Grant’s Overland Campaign

(https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/overland-campaign )

Lee’s estate Arlington is turned into a cemetery:

(https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-arlington-national-cemetery-came-to-be-145147007/ )


(http://www.civilwarhome.com/leetorear.htm )

(https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/media_player?mets_filename=evm00001417mets.xml )

[8] Lee and Confederate Army surrender:





[9] Acton-Lee Correspondence:

*Acton and Lee’s correspondence for the Southern Point of View: (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/People/Robert_E_Lee/FREREL/4/Appendices/4*.html) (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/People/Robert_E_Lee/FREREL/4/17*.html#note16)

*Archive of all of Lord Acton’s letters:


*Full Transcript of both letters: