Lee's Changing View of Secession

WJC

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#1
What was Robert E. Lee's view of Secession?
Reviewing his personal letters and various biographies, he seems to have dramatically changed his opinion after secession was attempted.
This thread will discuss his view and how it changed.
 

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WJC

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#2
Some will recall the strong view Lee shared in a letter written January 23, 1861 to his son Custis:
As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and her institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it were intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It is intended for perpetual union, so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government (not a compact) which can only be dissolved by revolution, or by the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established, and not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the other patriots of the Revolution.​
<J. William Jones, Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee, Soldier and Man. (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1906), pp. 120-121.>
Lee in January 1861 saw secession as a catastrophe, a "revolution" that he clearly opposed.
After 1865, Lee argued that secession was not only legal, but right.
Edited.
 

WJC

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#3
The issue is that while he is hailed as a conciliator after the war, quietly using his influence to bring the sides together, he espoused a viewpoint totally at odds with his prewar stand. He purposely adopted a position that he had himself argued against. It is this inconsistency that I find worthy of our examination.
Edited.
 

Viper21

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#4
What was Lincoln's view on Black people pre-war vs. 1865? Did his personal thoughts change ? Or did he see political opportunity?

I'm sure 4 yrs of hard war, & suffering, would change many peoples perception, or viewpoints on lots of subjects. Especially when viewing these hardships first hand.

In regards to Lee's view.... regardless of what he personally thought, or not... was he now supposed to, post-war, look into the eyes, & hearts of so many suffering souls, & claim they were wrong?

Postwar, Lee struck a conciliatory tone publicly. However, I gather, this was out of a deep desire to see his brethren suffer no more. He realized that to move forward, such a tone was necessary, & overall the best course of action at that time.
Edited.
 

Bruce Vail

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#5
Thanks for your response.
Let me be more clear: I am not disputing the importance of the oft-quoted paragraph. I am simply saying that the paragraph was incidental to the topic I raised.
Lee in January 1861 saw secession as a catastrophe, a "revolution" that he clearly opposed.
After 1865, Lee argued that secession was not only legal, but right.
I think you have put your finger on it. Lee's position on secession and revolution was neither clear nor consistent. He can't be faulted too greatly for this, as so many of his countrymen also had to shift their positions to meet the rapidly changing facts on the ground.

It's unfortunate that so many Lost Causers insisted that Lee was a paradigm of the great Christian warrior, because it is an impossible ideal for any flesh-and-blood man to meet. He was as susceptible to inconsistency and error as anyone else.
 

WJC

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Post war, Lee struck a conciliatory tone publicly. However, I gather, this was out of a deep desire to see his brethren suffer no more. He realized that to move forward, such a tone was necessary, & overall the best course of action at that time.
Thanks for your response.
Lee certainly seems to have understood his influence on public opinion and chosen to use it to promote reconciliation. He had witnessed firsthand the futility of war. Privately, he seems to have adopted an idyllic view of the antebellum south and its attempt to secede.
Perhaps that is part of the answer to the questions this thread poses. While others vented by publishing their revisionist history, perhaps Lee developed his own 'Lost Cause' arguments privately, expressing openly little more than his changed view on the legality of unilateral secession.
 
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#8
Or perhaps he was still mourning the loss of so many brave souls, & dealing with his own demons concerning such. .
More like Viper wrote. The thing General Lee sought to avoid, the destruction of Virginia, and the expenditure of human life, was actually the result of his actions.
And by Gettysburg he attempted to organize the battle that would end the killing and force negotiation. He was unsuccessful.
He wanted to get out of the war after that, but he skeptical of turning the war over to Davis.
Hamlet, King Lear, and Robert E. Lee, such is the nature of tragedy.
 
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#9
The problem with Lee's view of secession is that people in nearly identical circumstances, David Farragut, Winfield Scott, George Thomas, and some of Lee's cousins reached the exact opposite conclusion.
When Lee saw the secessionist precipitating a crisis by shelling Fort Sumter, I think he should have been aware that if someone is taking away the time to think an issue through, they are probably hiding something. In addition, he had traveled all over the United States and spoken with a wide range of Americans. He was uniquely gifted with knowledge that the drive towards immediate emancipation was not as vigorous as portrayed by the advocates of secession.
Thus his decision to risk his entire career and his wife's property on the gamble of secession looks like the same ill considered risk taking in which his father engaged.
 
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#10
The second issue is why was it necessary to attempt to break out of Petersburg and escape to Lynchburg? Why could he not unambiguously ask Grant what terms he would offer if the occasion came for Lee to offer surrender? The discussion could have been negotiation only, but the knowledge could have saved lives and property.
Moreover, Lee treated Grant like Grant would not know the difference between peace and surrender.
The inbred presumptuous that a Virginian could dazzle a man from Illinois reflects poorly on Lee, in the final days.
 



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