In my book, The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee, I discuss an important interview with Robert E. Lee that appeared in The New York Herald on Saturday, April 29, 1865, almost three weeks after his surrender at Appomattox. Here are remarks from Lee on five topics that came up during the interview with The Herald’s Thomas Cook.
On the death of President Abraham Lincoln The General considered this event in itself one of the most deplorable that could have occurred. As a crime it was unexampled and beyond execration. It was a crime that no good man could approve from any conceivable motive. Undoubtedly the effort would be made to fasten the responsibility of it upon the South; but, from his intimate acquaintance with the leading men of the South, he was confident there was not one of them who would sanction or approve it. The scheme was wholly unknown in the South before its execution, and would never have received the slightest encouragement had it been known, but, on the contrary, the most severe execration. I called the General’s attention, at this point, to a notice that had been printed in the Northern papers, purporting to have been taken from a paper published in the interior of the South, proposing for the sum of 1,000,000 dollars to undertake the assassination of the President and his Cabinet. The General affirmed that he had never seen nor heard of such a proposition, nor did he believe that it had ever been printed in the South, though if it had, it had been permitted merely as the whim of some crazy person that could possibly amount to nothing. Such a crime was an anomaly in the history of our country, and we had yet before its perpetration to learn that it was possible of either earnest conception or actual execution.
On his decision to fight for the Confederacy
He stated that, as a firm and honest believer in the doctrine of State rights, he had considered his allegiance due primarily to the State in which he was born and where he had always resided. And, although he was not an advocate of secession at the outset, when Virginia seceded he honestly believed it his duty to abide her fortune. He opposed secession to the last, foreseeing the ruin it was sure to entail. But when the State withdrew from the Union he had no resource, in his view of honour and patriotism, but to abide her fortunes. He went with her, intending to remain merely a private citizen. When he resigned his commission in the United States’ army he had no intention of taking up arms in any other service, and least of all in a service antagonistic to the United States. His State, however, called for him, and entertaining the fixed principles he did of State sovereignty, he had no alternative but to accept the service to which he was called. When he made use of the declarations that have been so extensively quoted of late he had accepted only a commission from Virginia. Subsequently, when Virginia attached herself to the Southern Confederacy, the same political impressions impelled him to follow her, and when he accepted service under the Rebel Government he did so on the principle that he was defending his native State. And yet, by the act of accepting such service he was bound in honour to serve in any part of the Confederacy where he might be called, without reference to State lines; and the reconciliation with his former avowal, if any were necessary, was found in the fact that Virginia, standing or falling with the other Southern States, in defending them all he was defending the one to which he considered his allegiance primarily due.
The South has, during all this time, been ready and anxious for peace. They have been looking for some word or expression of compromise or conciliation from the North upon which they might base a return to the Union. They were not prepared, nor are they yet, to come and beg for terms; but were ready to accept any fair and honourable terms, their own political views being considered. The question of slavery did not lie in the way at all. The best men of the South have long been anxious to do away with this institution, and were quite willing to-day to see it abolished. They consider slavery forever dead. But with them, in relation to this subject, the question has ever been, ‘ What will you do with the freed people? That is the serious question to-day, and one that cannot be winked at. It must be met practically and treated intelligently. The negroes must be disposed of, and if their disposition can be marked out the matter of freeing them is at once settled. But unless some humane course is adopted, based on wisdom and Christian principles, you do a gross wrong and injustice to the whole negro race in setting them free. And it is only this consideration that has led the wisdom, intelligence, and Christianity of the South to support and defend the institution up to this time.
On the prospects of peace
He was particular to say that should arbitrary or vindictive or revengeful policies be adopted the end was not yet. There yet remained a great deal of vitality and strength in the South. There were undeveloped resources and hitherto unavailable sources of strength which harsh measures on our part would call into action; and that the South could protract the struggle for an indefinite period. We might, it was true, destroy all that remained of the country east of the Mississippi river by a lavish expenditure of men and means; but then we would be required to fight on the other side of the river, and, after subduing them there, we would be compelled to follow them into Mexico, and thus the struggle would be prolonged until the whole country would be impoverished and ruined; and this we would be compelled to do if extermination, confiscation, and general annihilation and destruction are to be our policy. For if a people are to be destroyed they will sell their lives as dearly as possible.
On punishing treason
The only barrier to an immediate and universal suspension of hostilities and return to the Union being the treatment the national authorities may promise those who have been resisting its power and paramount authority. It is proper to say that this was not so stated by General Lee, but is simply an inference from the conversation that took place on that topic. On the contrary, the General seemed very cautious in regard to terms. In order to get at his views, if possible, I suggested the conservative sentiment of the North, which proposed a general amnesty, to all soldiers and military officers, but that the political leaders of the South be held to a strict accountability. ‘Would, that be just?’ he asked. ‘What has Mr. Davis done more than any other Southerner that he should be punished? It is true that he has occupied a prominent position as the agent of a whole people, but that has made him no more nor less a rebel than the rest. His acts were the acts of the whole people, and the acts of the whole people were his acts. He was not accountable for the commencement of the struggle.’ On the contrary, he was one of the last to give his adherence to the secession movement, having strenuously opposed it from the outset and portrayed its ruinous consequences in his speeches and by his writings. Why, therefore, should he suffer more than others?
John Reeves is the author of The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee. He is currently working on a book about the Battle of the Wilderness.