Robert E. Lee and America’s Second Slavery

Robert E. Lee’s appearance before Congress in 1866 revealed his troubling vision for post-Civil War Virginia. 

Robert E. Lee’s attitudes toward the freed slaves after the Civil War might shock modern Americans. When asked by a U.S. Congressman in 1866 if he felt Virginia’s “colored population” should relocate to the other southern states, Robert E. Lee replied, “I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them. That is no new opinion with me.” To a follow up question on whether Virginia’s future was impaired by the presence of the black population, Lee answered, “I think it is.”

Lee expressed these harsh views in an appearance before the congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction in February 1866. No man from the southern states was more highly regarded than Lee, so his opinions carried tremendous weight. Judge John C. Underwood, who had recommended to a grand jury in June 1865 that Lee be tried for treason, believed the overwhelming majority of Virginians “would say that Lee was almost equal to Washington, and was the noblest man in the state.” Alas, Lee couldn’t envision a post-war Virginia based on equal justice and opportunity for all citizens. He made it very clear that even though he accepted the verdict of the war, he opposed full citizenship for the freed people.

The congressional committee that questioned Lee had been set up in December 1865 to investigate the condition of the former Confederate states. Senator Jacob Howard of Michigan and Congressman Henry Blow of Missouri examined Lee on a wide variety of issues, but the discussion relating to the freed slaves is particularly fascinating to Americans today as we struggle to understand our complex racial history.

Lee wanted the committee to know that he wished the freedmen well, even though he held a very negative view of them in general. When asked about the freedmen’s capacity for learning, Lee replied, “I do not think that he is as capable of acquiring knowledge as the white man is.” He also believed that the blacks he knew “look more to the present time than to the future.”

Sadly, Lee’s private attitudes towards blacks were even worse. Just months after the war, he had urged his cousin to get rid of ninety or so former slaves, believing that the “government would provide for them.” He added that, “I have always observed that wherever you find the negro, everything is going down around him, and where you find the white man, you see everything around him improving.” Several years later, he advised his youngest son Robert that he’d “never prosper with the blacks” and that his “material, social and political interests are naturally with the whites.”

Given those attitudes, it’s not surprising that Lee opposed voting rights for blacks in Virginia after the war. He told the congressional committee that “they can’t vote intelligently” and that giving them “the right of suffrage would open the door to a great deal of demagogism, and lead to embarrassments in various ways.” All in all, Virginia would likely choose “smaller representation” instead of giving blacks the right to vote, Lee suggested.

Lee’s congressional testimony reveals a man who had grudgingly accepted the Union triumph, along with the emancipation of the slaves. He wasn’t willing, however, to help integrate the freedman into Virginian society. Not only would he deny them the vote, he’d like to “get rid of them” altogether.

In “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of the grim aftermath of the Civil War in the South where “a second slavery ruled.” Blacks were denied political rights, while their schools and churches were burned to the ground. With the death of Reconstruction in the 1870s, Coates argues that “political violence was visited upon blacks wantonly, with special treatment meted out toward black people of ambition.”

Robert E. Lee may have been the only person alive after the Civil War who could have helped make a better future for the freed slaves. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner recently wondered if Lee might have somehow been able to encourage white Southerners “to accord blacks equal rights,” while also helping to prevent the violence against the freed people in the region during that time.

We know that Lee saw things differently, of course. In the immediate aftermath of the war, he had been able to demonstrate moral leadership by encouraging his fellow soldiers to become loyal citizens again. He also made it clear — both privately and in his remarks before the congressional committee — that he wouldn’t support full citizenship and justice for the former slaves.

Lee remains a great hero to many Americans today — we name schools and highways after him in honor of his physical courage and fine character. There’s even a stained-glass window devoted to his memory at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. We must never forget, however, that his unwillingness to lead on the issue of Reconstruction helped bequeath a bitter racial legacy for post-Civil War America.