Regarding Mr. DeFelice’s letter on General Robert E. Lee, I would like to present a few more facts about General Lee that Mr. DeFelice overlooked.
First, Robert E. Lee graduated from West Point in 1829, second in his class in academics and without any demerits. As a fellow West Point grad, I can attest that is no easy task. In fact, I was out of the running for a demerit free cadet career shortly after lunch on my first day.
Second, Lee served in the United States Army with distinction in both war and peace for over 30 years in the run up to the Civil War. He was so valuable during the Mexican War that General Winfield Scott, the Commanding General, called Lee the best soldier in the Army. Lee also was instrumental in several major peace time engineering projects that improved our nation’s river systems.
Third, DeFelice mentions that Lee “managed over 200 slaves owned by the family of his wife”. To be clear, Lee had these slaves bequeathed to him by Lee’s father-in-law, G.W.P. Custis, upon Custis’ death in 1857. Lee did not purchase the slaves and he certainly did not want to “manage” them at Arlington. Remember when Lee inherited these slaves, he was in the middle of a promising Army career. The last thing he wanted was to run a plantation. Additionally, in accordance with the language of the bequest, Lee freed these slaves in 1862, five years after Custis’s death.
Fourth, Lee was not in favor of secession from the Union and he considered slavery a terrible evil. Lee made many statements to this effect both before and after the war. General Lee has been criticized by some because he did not publicly speak out against slavery before the war while an Army officer. Keep in mind, Lee was an Army officer and Army officers were and still are expected to be apolitical. They fight our nation’s battles. They are not politicians and we should all be thankful for that.
Fifth, in a testament to his ability, Lee was offered the command of the Union armies soon after Fort Sumter was attacked. But, in a testament to his character, he declined the offer. Despite what Mr. Defelice states, Lee did not fight for Virginia because he thought Virginia was right. Anyone who has studied Lee’s life knows that is not true. He simply could not take up arms against his family and friends. Think about what Lee sacrificed. A career Army officer offered the command of the entire Union Army, a position he dreamed of throughout his career, and he turned it down out of a sense of honor to his home state. I would argue that based on our nation’s history up to that point, a successful General Lee eventually would have been President Lee. Remember that 4 of our first 16 Presidents had been war heroes. How many people today would make sort of sacrifice out of a sense of honor? Not many.
Sixth, after the war, Lee was one of the leading Southern voices for reconciliation with the North. People seem to forget that fact. Despite the harsh and punitive policies of the Radical Republicans imposed on the South, Lee always counseled patience and obedience to the federal government. In fact, immediately after the surrender at Appomattox, Lee squelched a plan to carry on a sort of guerilla war from western Virginia. He wanted peace and healing.
Finally, Mr DeFelice asks why should we “celebrate” General Lee. I would say many reasons. Lee was a man of incredible ability and he was a man of honor. Lee was a beautiful man; physically, spiritually, and morally. But mostly, General Robert E. Lee was a man, even a myth, the people of the South needed after the war. He was a man they could admire and point to with pride when the people of the South had little to celebrate. The South needed a hero when the war was over and General Lee fit the bill. If nothing else, his statues should stay for that reason.
Thomas Hand, Richmond Hill