General Robert E. Lee

As a Marine Infantryman, we studied Lee, we studied his tactics, his leadership, and his mission-type orders he issued to his subordinates. We never studied Grant, there was nothing there worthy of our study. Many have suggested what the outcome would have been if Lee would have had the resources of Grant. All the frantic screaming  and illegal actions by those who would destroy any historical remembrance of him, are merely showing just how ignorant they are about our history. They know nothing of the real General Robert E. Lee.


By Edward C. Smith
Let me begin on a personal note. I am a 56-year-old, third-generation, African American Washingtonian who is a graduate of the D.C. public schools and who happens also to be a great admirer of Robert E. Lee’s.

Today, Lee, who surrendered his troops to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House 134 years ago, is under attack by people — black and white — who have incorrectly characterized him as a traitorous, slaveholding racist. He was recently besieged in Richmond by those opposed to having his portrait displayed prominently in a new park.

My first visit to Lee’s former home, now Arlington National Cemetery, came when I was 12 years old, and it had a profound and lasting effect on me. Since then I have visited the cemetery hundreds of times searching for grave sites and conducting study tours for the Smithsonian Institution and various other groups interested in learning more about Lee and his family as well as many others buried at Arlington.

Lee’s life story is in some ways the story of early America. He was born in 1807 to a loving mother, whom he adored. His relationship with his father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, (who was George Washington’s chief of staff during the Revolutionary War) was strained at best. Thus, as he matured in years, Lee adopted Washington (who had died in 1799) as a father figure and patterned his life after him. Two of Lee’s ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence, and his wife, Mary Custis, was George Washington’s foster great-granddaughter.

Lee was a top-of-the-class graduate of West Point, a Mexican War hero and superintendent of West Point. I can think of no family for which the Union meant as much as it did for his.

But it is important to remember that the 13 colonies that became 13 states reserved for themselves a tremendous amount of political autonomy. In pre-Civil War America, most citizens’ first loyalty went to their state and the local community in which they lived. Referring to the United States of America in the singular is a purely post-Civil War phenomenon.

All this should help explain why Lee declined command of the Union forces — by Abraham Lincoln — after the firing on Fort Sumter. After much agonizing, he resigned his commission in the Union army and became a Confederate commander, fighting in defense of Virginia, which at the outbreak of the war possessed the largest population of free blacks (more than 60,000) of any Southern state.

Lee never owned a single slave, because he felt that slavery was morally reprehensible. He even opposed secession. (His slaveholding was confined to the period when he managed the estate of his late father-in-law, who had willed eventual freedom for all of his slaves.)

Regarding the institution, it’s useful to remember that slavery was not abolished in the nation’s capital until April 1862, when the country was in the second year of the war. The final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was not written until September 1862, to take effect the following Jan. 1, and it was intended to apply only to those slave states that had left the Union.

Lincoln’s preeminent ally, Frederick Douglass, was deeply disturbed by these limitations but determined that it was necessary to suppress his disappointment and “take what we can get now and go for the rest later.” The “rest” came after the war.

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the few civil rights leaders who clearly understood that the era of the 1960s was a distant echo of the 1860s, and thus he read deeply into Civil War literature. He came to admire and respect Lee, and to this day, no member of his family, former associate or fellow activist that I know of has protested the fact that in Virginia Dr. King’s birthday — a federal holiday — is officially celebrated as “Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson-Martin Luther King Day.”

Lee is memorialized with a statue in the U.S. Capitol and in stained glass in the Washington Cathedral.

It is indeed ironic that he has long been embraced by the city he fought against and yet has now encountered some degree of rejection in the city he fought for.

In any event, his most fitting memorial is in Lexington, Va.: a living institution where he spent his final five years. There the much-esteemed general metamorphosed into a teacher, becoming the president of small, debt-ridden Washington College, which now stands as the well-endowed Washington and Lee University.

It was in Lexington that he made a most poignant remark a few months before his death. “Before and during the War Between the States I was a Virginian,” he said. “After the war I became an American.”

I have been teaching college students for 30 years, and learned early in my career that the twin maladies of ignorance and misinformation are not incurable diseases. The antidote for them is simply to make a lifelong commitment to reading widely and deeply. I recommend it for anyone who would make judgment on figures from the past, including Robert E. Lee.

[Dr. Smith is co-director of the Civil War Institute at American University in Washington, D.C.]


7 thoughts on “General Robert E. Lee”

  1. Unfortunately..these hostilities to take down all of these monuments are not just related to General Lee! Any of the Civil War heroes (including General Lee, etc..) are all a part of the grand excuse to do the same ‘liberal bullshit’..the burning, the pillage, teardown, beating, destroying public property, raping, ‘occupying’…they are all hate white mongering! ..’ These liberal idiots are ruining sacred and historical monuments that belong to America..! (regardless of how ugly and how wrongly it was performed..) It’s a part of American history! And..absolutely NO BLACK..or any other liberal asshole, has been around to see or experience these deeds..or have suffered during their error. These Obama dirt bags have been doing this crap for the past 8-10 years! Undoubtedly, many outstanding American men that were fighting during the Civil War..for their own cause or for their own beliefs..and for the sake of their own families..have died for a BLACK CAUSE!! The Civil War was not fought just over “slavery”…which most blacks don’t even consider! Now..unfortunately, many of these black, and so called nazi white supremacist racists..and their ignorance..lacking any knowledge of our states histories..and their known situations at that time in the 1800’s..are not know! The same history of the times are probably not even taught in our liberal school systems of today! I feel sickened that much of this divisiveness of race has been elevated to this situation because of the way Barrack Obama has handled racism during his administrations. He started it..he and his anti-white liberal tactics..his back door liberal racist methods ..the DC. ‘occupiers’..the ‘Black Lives Matter’ cop killers and their racist criminals..and this whole fascist makes me bitter..makes me sick! I have a hard time thinking about how it will end! And, that our existing Congressional government is turning it’s head..and looking the other way..! Where is our gutless leadership..?

  2. Lee was a brilliant warrior, and he has done things worthy of his being memorialized with a statue. As I explain to my son, though, most statues of Lee and other Confederate war heroes were erected during the Jim Crow era by organization formed to continue fighting for antebellum ideals and way of life, and to intimidate the Negro population of the South. THOSE statues need to be removed BUT continue to study the history of the war.

    1. Sorry Angie, but I could not disagree more with your assessment of history and the value of it to our Nation. Those statues need to be in place to remind our younger generations of the horrible war that took a toll of over 600K of our countrymen on both sides. Those confederate generals have a place in our history; they were all heroes of their time. It matters not when or why they were erected. To destroy them is insane. Those who are frantic about their destruction know nothing about Lee or who he was. Have you explained to your son what the war was fought about? As most unknowing Americans believe, it was not over slavery.

  3. I am sickened by the ignorance displayed by the young destroyers of history. Now Columbus is the latest to be attacked along with Washington and Jefferson. There will be no end and I fear a second Civil War is eminent. None of this would be happening if real history were taught to the young empty headed, social media obsessed fools.

    1. The latest is: Few people knew of ESPN’s Robert Lee before this incident. Lee (who has no relation to General Lee, as it apparently must be stated) started working at ESPN in 2016. He was not allowed to broadcast a University of VA ball game because of his name. OMG. It all started with some liberal imbecile tweeting something about it. Then ESPN made a statement that they changed broadcasters to avoid controversy. Here was one comment about it.

      Avoid controversy? What controversy? Oh, you mean when a few idiots on Twitter bring it up? Because that’s probably the only controversy that will occur. All it takes is a few stupid people with smart phones, who see a racist behind every rock and tree, to start a hashtag, and then get retweeted by other stupid people with smart phones, and then all the regular people will respond appropriately. And thus a Twitter war begins. And of course, everyone knows what’s trending on Twitter must be what everyone in the country is thinking about. Right?
      Except, no. Twitter is it’s own little stupid world with little stupid people who live and breathe every waking moment updating their feed. Us regular people, which is by far the vast majority of us, couldn’t give two ***** about what’s trending on Twitter. Yet the media will blow it up into a national story, because after all, people from all over the nation are tweeting about it, so it must be big. Huge! ESPN, being part of that little media bubble, is once again catering to the lowest common denominator. The dumbest people on Twitter are the ones controlling the conversation. Because you can have an IQ of 0 and still be given an equal platform, thanks to social media. Your credibility doesn’t matter. YOU don’t matter. The only thing that matters is likes and retweets. Whatever is retweeted the most is the truth. Doesn’t matter if people retweeted it to make fun of how stupid you are.

      I am not a tweeter and would never think about being one, I have a brain in my head, not in my arse.

  4. I’m reading his story right now (600 pages) of bravery, brilliance, and patriotism. We would be blessed to have one more of Gen Lee in our country if it is to survive.

Please leave a comment on this post or on any subject; all are appreciated. Thank you and Semper Fi, Jim