Robert E. Lee had a reputation as one of the finest officers in the United States Army. Therefore, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee the command of the federal forces in April 1861. Nevertheless, Lee declined and tendered his resignation from the Army when Virginia seceded on April 17th. He argued that he could not fight against his people. Instead, he accepted a general’s commission for the newly formed Confederate Army.

His first military battle of the Civil War was at Cheat Mountain, Virginia (now West Virginia) on September 11, 1861. 

Although the Union won, Lee’s reputation withstood the public criticism that followed the battle. He then served as military advisor to the late President Jefferson Davis until June 1862. Following that, he was given command of General Joseph E. Johnston’s embattled army on the Virginia peninsula. 

This army also boasted some of the Confederacy’s most prominent military figures, including James LongstreetStonewall Jackson, and the cavalier J.E.B. Stuart.

Many streets at military bases are named after these men. The naming of these bases and streets was done during WWI when the Army expanded its military training centers to train troops overseas to Europe. Even in the early 1900s, there was a solid anti-Unionist sentiment still active in the South. Thus, it was believed that naming bases after Confederate generals (rather than Union ones) would increase the number of men from the South answering the draft call.

Lee’s Troops Continually Bettered Their Adversaries No Matter the Odds
“Recumbent Statue” of Robert E. Lee asleep on the battlefield by Edward Valentine in the Lee Chapel in Lexington, VA. (Susan Rissi Tregoning)

After the simultaneous Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of the Union armies. Rather than make Richmond the aim of his campaign, Grant chose to focus on destroying Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. In a relentless and bloody campaign, the Union juggernaut bludgeoned the under-supplied Rebel band.  

Despite his ability to make Grant pay heavily in blood for his aggressive tactics, Lee had been forced to yield the initiative to his adversary. He recognized that the end of the Confederacy was only a matter of time. By the summer of 1864, the Confederates had been forced into waging trench warfare outside of Petersburg.  

President Davis named him general-in-chief of all Confederate forces in February 1865. But only two months later, on April 9, 1865, Lee was forced to surrender his weary and depleted army to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the Civil War.

As author and Lee biographer Roy Blount, Jr. wrote in Smithsonian Magazine,

“His own hand probably never drew human blood nor fired a shot in anger, and his only Civil War wound was a faint scratch on the cheek from a sharpshooter’s bullet, but many thousands of men died quite horribly in battles where he was the dominant spirit, and most of the casualties were on the other side. If we take as a given Lee’s granitic conviction that everything is God’s will, however, he was born to lose.”

Nevertheless, it can be disputed that Lee was “born to lose.” He was second in his class at West Point and led the Marines who recaptured Harpers Ferry from John Brown. Further, he was considered the most capable general officer in the U.S. Army at the start of the Civil War. And during the war, he won a string of victories against Union generals while often short of supplies and badly outnumbered.

In June 1865, just two months after the South’s surrender, a federal judge in Virginia prepared to hand down treason indictments against Generals Lee, Longstreet, Jubal Early, and others. The judge claimed that the paroles Grant had given them were temporary military expedients, thus they did not affect the right of the government to seek criminal charges after hostilities ceased. 

(The Art Archive/REX/Shutterstock)Major-General George Washington Custis LEE, with his father, Robert E. LEE (seated), 1807-70 and Lt. Col. Walter Herron TAYLOR, Lee's chief of staff, shortly after the surrender at Appomattox, photographed at Lee's Franklin St. home, Richmond, Va., April 1965. Robert E. Lee, Confederate general and commander of the Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War. (Mathew Brady) Art - various Artist: BRADY, Mathew (1822-1896, American)
Major-General George Washington Custis Lee with his father, Robert E. Lee (seated), and Lt. Col. Walter Herron Taylor, Lee’s chief of staff, shortly after the surrender at Appomattox, photographed at Lee’s Franklin St. home, Richmond, VA., April 1865.

A general amnesty proclamation had been issued in May of 1865 but it excluded 14 classes of persons from it including Confederate generals. General Grant saved Lee and others from the hangman’s noose. Grant insisted that during the national emergency of a war, he exercised his authority under the president, who had the power to grant paroles, pardons, and clemency. The paroles he gave under the president’s authority had the full force of federal law behind them.

Grant argued that Lee and others should remain free as long as they abided by the parole terms. Further, if the government proceeded to prosecute these Confederate generals, it would cause the thousands of soldiers in the South, who had accepted similar parole, to believe it was no longer being honored.

General Grant feared this would cause hostilities to recommence at the cost of many lives.

April 26, 1865, Gen. Joseph Johnston surrenders the Army of Tennessee

Read Next: April 26, 1865, Gen. Joseph Johnston surrenders the Army of Tennessee

When President Johnson still refused to prevent the indictments from being issued, Grant threatened to resign from the Army in protest if Johnson did not act.

At the time, General Grant was the most famous American in the country. Johnson knew he could not afford to lose his support. So, Johnson was forced to stop the Treason indictments of Lee and other paroled Confederates from proceeding.

Lee never returned to his plantation home near Alexandria. Rather, his home had become a cemetery for Union and Confederate dead. Lee moved to Lexington Virginia and eventually became the president of Washington College in Virginia (now known as Washington and Lee University). He remained in that position until his death.

During the Reconstruction, Lee was a leading force in attempting to heal the wounds of division and bring the South back into the United States. 

Tellingly, when he received a letter from the widow of a Confederate soldier expressing her bitterness about the war being lost, Lee wrote back to her, “Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring (your kids) up to be Americans.”

On May 1st, 1869, Lee called upon Ulysses S Grant, who had recently been elected president. The meeting was brief and cordial, but it sent a powerful message that it was time for the South to put animosity aside and rejoin the Union.

It is ironic that although Lee was calling on the people of the South to rejoin the United States in their hearts and minds, he had been stripped of his U.S. citizenship.

Lee had applied formally for an amnesty to the government, which would have restored his full citizenship. The amnesty consisted of an oath of loyalty to the government, the Constitution, and the United States. He signed it on October 2, 1865. The submission of this oath should have resulted in Lee receiving a full and final pardon and having his full rights as an American citizen restored. The wording of the oath was as follows,

“I Robert E. Lee of Lexington, Virginia, do solemnly swear in the presence of Almighty God that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder and that I will, in like manner abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.”

Perhaps out of a sense of spite and anger over the assassination of President Lincoln, Lee’s amnesty application was never granted. Secretary of State William H. Seward gave Lee’s application to a friend as a souvenir. It was not seen again until it was discovered misfiled in the National Archives’ records in 1970. In 1975, President Gerald Ford granted that long-lost pardon to Robert E. Lee, and his full rights as a citizen were restored posthumously.

Recently, Under Cancel Culture, Confederate Statues Have Been Removed From all Over the US
Richmond’s towering Robert E. Lee statue is transformed by protesters following the killing of George Floyd. Is removal next? (John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The statue of Robert E. Lee was at the center of violent protests in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was vandalized and the protesters scrawled anti-Trump profanities on it in white paint.

Also, the statue in Market Street Park was defaced with an expletive aimed at former President Donald Trump, according to WVIR. In addition, an illegible word was written on the back of the statue, and blue paint was spattered around its base. Part of the fence around the monument was knocked down.

One of the More Famous Statues to Be Removed Was at the Virginia Military Institute

Virginia Military Insitute, the nation’s oldest state-supported military college, had long resisted calls to remove Stonewall Jackson’s statue from its perch.

But in late October 2020, the institution’s board voted to remove the Stonewall Jackson statue after the Washington Post reported on students’ allegations of an “atmosphere of hostility and cultural insensitivity” at the school.

Kaleb Tucker graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in May. According to a recent article, “he can’t stop thinking about the indignities he endured as a black man on the campus of the country’s oldest state-supported military college.”

There is no need to wonder what Lee himself would think of the recent uproar over renaming military bases and taking down monuments erected to Confederate generals and their war dead. I suspect his advice today would be the same as he gave to that grieving widow 150 years ago. 

There are several excellent books about Robert E Lee that we have linked below for further reading:

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee: A Biography

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause