Discussion About the morality of R.E.Lee

Piedone

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After my third post in this forum I must admit, that I am somehow puzzled, how lively the debate very soon gets.
Obviously there are some affairs which better shouldn´t be adressed...as there are clearly partizan views and sympathies which cannot be conciliated easily.

Well...I know that my point here is another box-office-smash of that kind - but I cannot help...I have to ask it from you:

Probably much less people would sympathize with the historic South if there hadn´t be Lee and the ANV.
There was much blundering and tobacco-chewing in Richmond and Bragg´s leading in the West was far from sweeping, there were outspoken, fire-eating slaveocrats and so on
- but as far as I read about Lee I read nothing which could really stain his vest....

Of course I read about his (brief and reluctant) period as a slave owner - but regarding the reality of american life in 1860 he acted nowhere out of the common there - but followed rules which were quite common accepted in that time
(rules - regarding the dealing with enslaved humans - as hard as this may sound in the present time).

In regard of his private relations and his management of the army his extreme need to act morally seems puzzling to me.
Hence I´ve got one question:

Did he indeed - as a commander of the ANV - acted that morally?

Please...
- I know that there is a actual discourse in the US to somehow get to a more critical historical assessment of the South
- and I know that at the moment the tone in such discussions quite easily becomes rash.

I am in need of primary sources and documents (which so many of you have overflowing knowledge of) as a fundament of reasoning -
I am a bit tired of partizan biographies (which I read) and mere opinions (which tend to ignore all sources which do not support that opinion)...

To specify it: From the title of this thread it should be clear that I am indeed a bit sympathtic to Lee, but on the other hand I know that I am of course influenced by D.S.Freeman (whom I read maybe to early in my life when I was easily impressionable....)
- but nothing I read afterwards could change my impression that much.
But I am not a opinionated bigot - I am indeed looking for a foundation to get to a more balanced appraisal....
 

James N.

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Welcome to the forums!

Since I'm coming earlier than usual to this hot-button topic which I have tended thus far to avoid in several previous threads, I'll merely comment on one significant factor in Lee's upbringing and early life that was for him and his family the proverbial elephant in the room... That would be the disgrace and fall from grace, power, success, popularity, and relative wealth of his famous/notorious father General and Virginia Governor Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee. This failure not only plunged his estranged family into near-poverty but served to tarnish the Lee family name and serve as a constant goad to his young son to strive relentlessly for perfection in virtually every aspect of his career. Of course Robert was only a very young child when this occurred, but his mother especially continually reminded him of his "Duty". His appointment to West Point was largely made out of fond memories of the best of his father, and it also served to motivate the young Lee to prove worthy of the trust that had been given him. Even in his marriage which has been questioned as possibly lacking in love he appeared to be attempting to live up to his concept of people's expectations by marrying the adopted great-granddaughter of George Washington. The memories of both The Father of His Country Washington and his favorite cavalry commander Harry Lee continually overawed Robert, who strove to live up to their reputations.
 
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James N.

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317.JPG


Although this fine brick home in downtown Old Alexandria, Va. - which recently sold for millions - identified by the historical marker in front of it as Lee's Boyhood Home seems comfortable, accommodating, and spacious, it should be remembered that before this the family residence had been the huge plantation Stratford on the Northern Neck. Moving here was a definite comedown for the Lee family and was largely done to put them close to relatives who could help out. Throughout his life, Robert remained devoted to the memory of his father, editing his memoirs during any spare time he had following the Civil War while he was serving as President of Washington College in Lexington. The Lee Memorial Chapel there on the campus was also built during his tenure prior to his death, and was completed only shortly before and in time to receive his remains. However, it was built for the entire Lee Family, including the body of his father, which was brought there in 1913 from its place of exile in coastal Georgia, and where father and son are reunited in the crypt:

DSC05577.JPG
 

Piedone

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Dear James, many thanks for the interesting material – I knew from the elephant in the room in the Lee family. But another thing you said makes me wish that this thread should be closed again as soon as possible.
I too think the whole thing is much to controversial and I really do not want to arouse hard feelings and words.
I also found some other threads which confer in a wider sense to my question - which in itself probably was somehow dumb as too much depends on the personal viewpoint.
And on a second thought I doubt that there really are facts or sources who are able to answer that question - as the question itself asks only about an interpretation of such facts.
Let’s close that thread.
 

Quaama

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I read Personal reminiscences, anecdotes, and letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee by Rev. J William Jones (Chaplain in the Army of Northern Virginia and Washington College [later Washington and Lee University) many years ago. A wonderful book that focuses on the character of Robert E. Lee.

Although the book has some discussion on Lee's military achievements it is focused on Lee's character and morality. It does what it says on the cover and includes personal reminiscences, anecdotes and letters from many notable figures who knew General Lee personally. Highly recommended for any study of the morality of General Lee. It also has some interesting pictures (engravings) that are not readily available elsewhere. The book includes references to numerous primary sources and quotes.

[I generally dislike reading online books but do it when there is no other option. Fortunately, in this instance, I was able to print the whole thing out at work. I was permitted a few eccentricities and when the boss found a few pages about Lee when she collected pages from the printer she knew exactly on whose desk they should be placed.]
 
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NH Civil War Gal

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Even in his marriage which has been questioned as possibly lacking in love he appeared to be attempting to live up to his concept of people's expectations by marrying the adopted great-granddaughter of George Washington.

Lee wasn't necessarily the first choice either exactly because of his father's reputation. Lee had to prove himself worthy to marry into the Custis family and they were concerned for a bit that he wouldn't break out in his father's spots.
 

Scott1967

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Lee was about as close as you can get to American Royalty i even think he was related to Charles II.

He always strove to to be upright and law abiding and as ANV commander he was the ideal man to lead , Soldiers will always follow nobility no matter how inept that commander is it has been proven through history , The fact that Lee was not inept and was of noble birth was a winning combination and concreated the myth the ANV was an army more like the old Cavalier's in the English Civil war.

I do believe Lee was Moral while in command however as we have another thread questioning his morality in his private life you need to bare that in mind in my opinion.
 

Quaama

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Lee was about as close as you can get to American Royalty i even think he was related to Charles II.

He always strove to to be upright and law abiding and as ANV commander he was the ideal man to lead , Soldiers will always follow nobility no matter how inept that commander is it has been proven through history , The fact that Lee was not inept and was of noble birth was a winning combination and concreated the myth the ANV was an army more like the old Cavalier's in the English Civil war.

I do believe Lee was Moral while in command however as we have another thread questioning his morality in his private life you need to bare that in mind in my opinion.

Do you mean the Lee as a Slaveholder: Reputable Primary Sources? thread?

I have been reading that thread (but not getting involved) as despite the OP's request there seems to be next to nothing in the way of primary sources let alone ones that directly relate to Lee as a slaveholder. Also, I may be mistaken but the OP here seems to ask for primary sources in regards to Lee "as a commander of the ANV".
 

lelliott19

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I've read a lot of accounts from those who served in the ANV. In these few lines, Lafayette McLaws (division commander in Longstreet's corps), seems to hint at Lee's morality as commander of the ANV. He certainly summarizes well the general opinion of others I have read - from Private to General:

....This resulted in great measure from that nobility of soul which caused General Lee to be willing to take the blame on himself and not try and throw it on others. He was one of those chosen few in the world so richly endowed with that divine quality which made men follow him, attach themselves to him, and do his bidding without question; that he never had to contend against the machinations of the ambitious, the envious or the mischievous. No matter whether in victory or defeat he had no defection from him, and to the last his commands were obeyed without a murmur. This great respect and confidence which all had in him prevented or disarmed even a desire to criticize his orders....And it is due to General Lee to believe that in those instances where his orders seem now to have been defective, he would, if living, be able to supply such information concerning them as would make them plain.​
[Lafayette McLaws, "The Battle of Gettysburg," a paper presented before the Georgia Historical Society, January 7, 1878.]​

In this quote, from a letter written to his wife soon after the Battle of Chancellorsville, Asst Surgeon Daniel Morse Holt (121st NY) seems to hint at "morality" - at least it sounds like morality to me:
...As it was, I kept about, being the recipient of numerous favors from rebel officers, always treated with respect, and in very many cases with marked kindness. Here General Lee came to see me. Four times did this great man call and feelingly inquire if the men were receiving all the care that could be bestowed: at the same time remarking that it was beyond his power to yield such succor as his heart prompted. Their army, he remarked, was not supplied as ours, with Sanitary and Christian Commission supplies, neither was the Medical department as completely and thoroughly equipped—no chloroform for minor cases of Surgery—no stimulents [sic] for moderate or severe prostration, and as a consequence no means of alleviating the suffering of their men,—​
All that he could do, he did do: he sent the Medical Director of their army to look in upon us and to supply help in amputations &c., which by this time had become imperative. Death was upon our track and most nobly did these Surgeons combat it. Not alone in the breasts of our men dwell humanity. Human nature is about the same the world over, and I found just as sympathetic hearts here as anywhere. I must in justice say for an enemy, that I never was treated with greater consideration by intelligent men, than I was by these very rebs for the ten days I remained among them; and at the same time I might say I never had so hard a time. The experience of a lifetime was crowded into these eventful days. http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/civil_war_series/8/sec10.htm
 
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jackt62

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Assessing morality of an individual is a function of their private beliefs and public actions. We do know that Lee maintained high standards of personal behavior and also expected it of his family and colleagues. Much of Lee's sense of honor and duty were attempts to undo the flawed legacy of his father and half brother, and were also a reflection of Lee's understanding of the need to uphold the Virginia aristocracy of which he was a part. Lee's public actions in terms of his command of the ANV generally followed Lee's personal beliefs of honor and morality. But let's not forget that Lee as an embodiment of the antebellum southern culture, which accepted slavery as a "positive good," turned a blind eye to morally offensive actions on the part of the ANV, which included impressing northern Black persons into bondage during the Gettysburg campaign, and the slaughter of surrendered African American soldiers during the Crater battle.
 

eeric

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I've read a lot of accounts from those who served in the ANV. In these few lines, Lafayette McLaws (division commander in Longstreet's corps), seems to hint at Lee's morality as commander of the ANV. He certainly summarizes well the general opinion of others I have read - from Private to General:...."

I have read a fair amount of southron diaries from Chesnut etc etc and I agree that he was regarded very highly at the time
 

Scott1967

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I read Personal reminiscences, anecdotes, and letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee by Rev. J William Jones (Chaplain in the Army of Northern Virginia and Washington College [later Washington and Lee University) many years ago. A wonderful book that focuses on the character of Robert E. Lee.

Although the book has some discussion on Lee's military achievements it is focused on Lee's character and morality. It does what it says on the cover and includes personal reminiscences, anecdotes and letters from many notable figures who knew General Lee personally. Highly recommended for any study of the morality of General Lee. It also has some interesting pictures (engravings) that are not readily available elsewhere. The book includes references to numerous primary sources and quotes.

[I generally dislike reading online books but do it when there is no other option. Fortunately, in this instance, I was able to print the whole thing out at work. I was permitted a few eccentricities and when the boss found a few pages about Lee when she collected pages from the printer she knew exactly on whose desk they should be placed.]

Again it hard to determine the real Lee from the mythical Lee , So many books about the man and the fact the Lost Cause created a legendary figure who to believe.

However their are glimpses of a darker side to Lee while leading an army , The threat to bayonet stragglers in his Maryland campaign , The prisoner exchanges with Grant , The fact that Grant basically accused Lee of using coloured PoW to rebuild the Petersburg defences while insight of Union guns , You could also debate was it morally right for Lee to carry on the war in Nov64 even though Lincoln had been elected by an even bigger margin than 61 and with no hope of winning and CSA desertion rates at an all time high , Lee also had a habit of turning a blind eye like he did with AP Hill parading captured coloured troops around Richmond after the Battle of the Crater.

However i think overall Lee was a Moral person within his own social and racial class while leading an army.
 

A. Roy

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I haven't studied Lee in depth, but so far I gather that his morality was influenced by his Protestant religion, especially a kind of Calvinist tradition that sees humans as merely actors on a stage already scripted by the deity. So he might have been motivated to just do his best in the role that was handed to him, whether on a large or small scale, and to trust that his sincerity and piety would make him moral in the eyes of the deity.

This is an excerpt from a pre-war letter (1857), which expresses a bit what I'm talking about:

I feel always as safe in the wilderness as in the crowded city. I know in whose powerful hands I am, and on Him I rely, and I feel that in all our life we are upheld and sustained by Divine Providence, and that Providence requires us to use the means He has put under our control. He designs no blessing to idle and inactive wishes, and the only miracle He now exhibits to us is the power He gives to Truth and Justice to work their way in the wicked world.

(John William Jones, Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee: Soldier and Man. Neale Publishing Company, 1906. Page 85.)

Roy B.
 

Sgt. Tyree

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Lee wasn't necessarily the first choice either exactly because of his father's reputation. Lee had to prove himself worthy to marry into the Custis family and they were concerned for a bit that he wouldn't break out in his father's spots.
Harry (what is it about men called Harry?) was a horseman and commander of horsemen par excellence but he was not a man you’d want to loan money to.

Come to think of it, other than allegiance, it’s hard to see a big difference between Ol’ Harry and his counterpart Tarelton.
 

Quaama

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Again it hard to determine the real Lee from the mythical Lee , So many books about the man and the fact the Lost Cause created a legendary figure who to believe.

However their are glimpses of a darker side to Lee while leading an army , The threat to bayonet stragglers in his Maryland campaign , The prisoner exchanges with Grant , The fact that Grant basically accused Lee of using coloured PoW to rebuild the Petersburg defences while insight of Union guns , You could also debate was it morally right for Lee to carry on the war in Nov64 even though Lincoln had been elected by an even bigger margin than 61 and with no hope of winning and CSA desertion rates at an all time high , Lee also had a habit of turning a blind eye like he did with AP Hill parading captured coloured troops around Richmond after the Battle of the Crater.

However i think overall Lee was a Moral person within his own social and racial class while leading an army.

The OP said "I am in need of primary sources and documents ... as a fundament of reasoning ...".

Do you have any of these to support your statements or or they "mere opinions" because the OP said he was "tired" of such opinions.
 

Quaama

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Here's one extract from the Reminiscences... book I referred to earlier in relation to Lee and prisoners.

"No man, living or dead, ever heard ’General Lee utter an unkind word to a prisoner, or saw him maltreat in the slightest degree any who fell into his power. And, when he was charged by the radical press with being responsible for alleged “cruel treatment ” of prisoners, he quietly said : “ I court the most searching investigation into this matter.” The following extract from his testimony before the congressional “reconstruction ” committee may be appropriately introduced in this connection :
“Question. By Mr. Howard :
‘ I wish to inquire whether you had any knowledge of the cruelties practised toward the Union prisoners at Libby Prison and on Belle Isle ?
’ Answer. ‘I never knew that any cruelty was practised, and I have no reason to believe that it was practised. I can believe, and have reason to believe, that privations may have been experienced by the prisoners, because I know that provision and shelter could not be provided for them.’
Q. ‘"Were you not aware that the prisoners were dying from cold and starvation ?
’ A. ‘ I was not.’
“Q. ‘ Did these scenes come to your knowledge at all ?’
A. ‘ Never. No report was ever made to me about them. There was no call for any to be made to me. I did hear—it was mere hearsay—that statements had been made to the "War Department, and that every thing had been done to relieve them that could be done, even finally so far as to offer to send them to some other points —Charleston was one point named—if they would be received by the United States authorities and taken to them homes ; but whether this is true or not I do not know.’
“Q. 1And of course you know nothing of the scenes of cruelty about which complaints have been made at those places’ (Andersonville and Salisbury)?
A. 1Nothing in the world, as I said before."

The book goes on and then quotes some total statistics in relation the war when it says:

"Without going more fully into the question, the following figures from the report of Mr. Stanton, Secretary of War, in response to a resolution of the House of Representatives calling for the number of prisoners on both sides and their mortality, are triumphantly submitted :
In Prison.
U. S. soldiers 260,940 Died. 22,526
Confederates 200,000 Died. 26,500
... Two Federal prisoners died out of every twenty-three ; while two out of every fifteen Confederates died in Federal prisons. The mortality was fifty per cent, greater in Federal prisons than in ours ! And, even if all that is charged against us were true, General Lee was in no way responsible, as he had no control whatever over the prisoners after they were turned over to the authorities at Richmond."

[Edit. It seems to me that the figures for the Confederates are suspiciously round numbers. If anyone else has a reference to a primary source (or the actual document that Stanton sent to the House of Representatives) I'd be interested to see it.]
 

Quaama

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Here's another insight into Lee from 'Reminiscences' that followed soon after the prisoner discussion.

"One day in the autumn of 1869, I saw General Lee standing at his gate, talking to a humbly-clad man, who turned off, evidently delighted with his interview, just as I came up. After exchanging salutations, the general pleasantly said, pointing to the retreating form, “That is one of our old soldiers who is in necessitous circumstances.” I took it for granted that it was some veteran Confederate, and asked to what command he belonged, when the General quietly and pleasantly added, “He fought on the other side, but we must not remember that against him now."
The man afterward came to my house and said to me, in speaking of his interview with General Lee : “Sir, he is the noblest man that ever lived. He not only had a kind word for an old soldier who fought against him, hut he gave me some money to help me on my way.”
 

Andersonh1

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This story from one of the chaplains in Lee's army made an impression on me. William Jones was present and was a part of this conversation, so this is an account by one of the participants.
In this age of hero-worship there is a tendency to exalt unduly the virtues of great men, to magnify the religious character of one professing to be a Christian, and even to manufacture "Christians" out of those of notoriously irreligious lives. This is so well understood that there may be with those who never came in contact with this great man a lingering doubt as to the genuineness of his piety—a fear that with him, as with so many others, his profession of religion was merely nominal. A few incidents, culled from the many that might be given, will serve to dissipate any such impression, and to show beyond all cavil that with General Lee vital godliness was a precious reality. I can never forget my first interview and conversation with General Lee on religious matters. It was in February, 1864, while our army was resting along the Rapidan, Rev B. T. Lacy and myself went, as a committee of our Chaplains' Association, to consult him in reference to the better observance of the Sabbath in the army, and especially to urge that something be done to prevent irreligious officers from converting Sunday into a grand gala day for inspections, reviews, etc. It was a delicate mission. We did not wish to appear as either informers or officious intermeddlers, and yet we were very anxious to do something to further the wishes of those who sent us, and to put a stop to what was then a growing evil and, in some commands, a serious obstacle to the efficient work of the chaplain. The cordial greeting which he gave us, the marked courtesy and respect with which he listened to what we had to say and expressed his warm sympathy with the object of our mission, soon put us at our ease. But as we presently began to answer his questions concerning the spiritual interests of the army, and to tell of that great revival which was then extending through the camps, and bringing thousands of our noble men to Christ, we saw his eye brighten and his whole countenance glow with pleasure ; and as, in his simple, feeling words, he expressed his delight, we forgot the great warrior, and only remembered that we were communing with an humble, earnest Christian.​

------------------------​
As we were about to leave his [Lee's] tent, Mr. Lacy said: "I think it right that I should say to you, general, that the chaplains of this army have a deep interest in your welfare, and that some of the most fervent prayers we offer are in your behalf." The old hero's face flushed, tears started in his eyes, and he replied, with choked utterance and deep emotion: "Please thank them for that, sir—I warmly appreciate it. And I can only say that I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation, and need all of the prayers they can offer for me." - pp 49, 50 - "Christ in the Camp", by Rev. J William Jones, former chaplain in the Army of Northern Virginia
 
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