General Robert Lee

General Robert Lee

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Robert E. Lee and Slavery

As a biographer I am often asked which part of my subject’s story has been most difficult to explore. All historic figures have troubling aspects, of course, and the two with which I am most familiar, Clara Barton and Robert E. Lee, are no exception. In Lee’s case it is easily his lifelong interaction with slavery.

The “peculiar institution”—as slavery was known in the South—is itself a distressing topic. Its ugly details challenge us. So does the painful paradox of a nation rooted in liberty, yet exercising daily oppression. If you add Lee to this mix, more conflicting emotions are awakened. He is a controversial figure, seen by some as a shameless traitor and by others as a beloved hero. His association with slavery has been characterized with similar partisanship, sometimes painting an image that is more fabled than factual.

Some people may ask why we should delve into this difficult topic. There are several reasons we ought to be interested. First, as students of history, our job is to try to establish as clearly as possible what happened in the past and how those events and attitudes affected our national development. This is particularly important when we are talking about figures such as Lee, whose image has largely been shaped by oral tradition. Since we are historians rather than folklorists, part of our task is to separate reality from legend.

Lee’s views on slavery are also central to his story because they influenced decisions that would have profound consequences for the United States. Slavery shaped his resolution to fight for the South. Lee’s opinions also served as a beacon for generations of Southerners as they struggled to comprehend the tragedy of the war. Without an understanding of Lee’s racial attitudes, it is impossible to make sense of either his own actions or his strong impact on Southern society.

Finally there is the fact that Lee has been presented as more than a significant military leader. He has often been portrayed as a man of great personal virtue—a man to be emulated. When we set up a model like this, it not only invites us to examine his character, it virtually requires us to do so. Any com – munity that claims to be based on ideals must know who and what it reveres. If we are going to embrace heroes, it is important that we accept their human frailty as well as admire their achievements. If we do not, we create empty icons, whose hollowness undermines any ability to inspire.

The first thing we can say about Robert E. Lee’s interaction with the institution of slavery is that it is extremely well documented. This may surprise some people. One biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, claimed that Lee said “nothing of any consequence” about slavery. Statements like this have left many people with the impression that Lee was somehow outside the messiness of human bondage. Actually, he wrote hundreds of letters that show he fully participated in the institution and held strong opinions about it. Interestingly, this rich cache of information was in plain sight and had been available for decades. I was privileged to read a large number of recently discovered Lee family documents, but the most illuminating materials were already in well-known archives and courthouses, easily accessible to anyone. Because of this abundance of information no one has to interpret Lee’s attitudes or actions. He is very open in telling us about them himself.

To understand Lee’s viewpoint we have first to appreciate his day-to-day interaction with slavery. His earliest knowledge of the institution was gleaned on his father’s plantation. “Light-Horse Harry” Lee had been a bold Revolutionary War hero—and an equally bold financial speculator. By the time Robert was 14 months old, Harry Lee had lost most of his property and was thrown into debtor’s prison. Slaves were included on his “schedule” of debt payments alongside horses, dogs and hogs. Sometimes servants were snatched in the night by creditors trying to recover their losses. Others were hired away to bring in income, apparently with little attention to maintaining their family connections. Among the first lessons young Robert learned about slavery, therefore, was that when all was said and done, African Americans were simply property.

This view was reinforced when his family moved to Alexandria, Va., an important center of the slave trade. The Lees lived only a few blocks from some of the country’s major dealers in human flesh, and coffles of manacled slaves were a daily sight. Though some were sickened by these scenes, most people became inured to them and simply acquiesced. And that was what Robert E. Lee did: He acquiesced.

Lee’s other significant experience with slavery was at Arlington, his parents-in-law’s estate. George Washington Parke Custis, Lee’s father-in-law, had inherited hundreds of slaves from his grandmother, Martha Custis Washington. Custis had pretty standard ideas about slavery: He denounced the institution as a “vulture” that was preying on the society, but did nothing to overturn it. He was not really interested in managing his large labor force and left it to a series of uneven overseers. Some of these men “oversaw” reprehensible operations, and Custis was accused of “cruel, inhuman and barbarous treatment of slaves,” including at least one murder.

But Mary Fitzhugh “Molly” Custis, Lee’s mother-in-law, held different views. She liberated the slaves she inherited and ultimately persuaded her husband to free his own in his will. While working for slavery’s demise, she tried to soften conditions at Arlington as much as possible. She taught the bondsmen to read and write, and provided religious meetings—much of which was illegal. She took a personal interest in the slave families, which were never broken up during her lifetime.

Molly Custis also supported the American Colonization Society, which proposed emancipating slaves and returning them to Africa. Today this is sometimes seen as a halfway measure that only substituted one tyranny— deportation—for another. But Mrs. Custis considered it a practical step to get around the stringent laws of Virginia, which prohibited freedmen from staying in the state, and as a result discouraged manumission. The Colonization Society also opened the first real de bate about the future of slavery in America. Amazingly, Molly Custis had an active voice in that debate, advocating the elimination of slavery more than a decade before the abolitionists began to organize.

Molly Custis was by all accounts a superior woman, and she had great influence on her son-in-law. He considered her a surrogate mother and adopted her religious principles and many of her social precepts. But on the issue of slavery he failed to follow her lead. Indeed when Lee ran the Arlington estate, after the death of his parents-in-law, his style as a master was in striking contrast to the traditions Mrs. Custis had established.

And what about Lee’s own slaves? He inherited 10 or 12 from his mother, but it is difficult to determine whether he freed any of them. Before the Mexican War he wrote a will that would have liberated one family however, since he was not killed, those provisions never went into effect. There is no evidence of Lee’s slaves being emancipated—no courthouse records, no mention of it in his massive letter books. One of his sons later said that he had freed all his slaves before the war, but had taken no legal action so they would not have to move out of Virginia. That seems questionable, however. A freed African American really could not exist in Virginia without papers the law would put him right back into slavery.

In fact, we have an example of a freed couple without documents being thrown into jail in 1853 by Lee’s father-in-law, a justice of the peace. We also know that Lee was aware of the need to provide free papers, since he went to considerable trouble to get proper documents for the Custis slaves who were freed during the Civil War. In any case, his own papers show that he owned slaves well into the 1850s and considered buying another in 1860. He also used his wife’s slaves as personal servants throughout the Civil War.

Lee’s letters tell us much about his racial attitudes. He seemed to dislike the bondsmen’s presence and generally avoided dealing with them. (“Do not trouble yourself about them, as they are not worth it,” he counseled his wife.) He had a low opinion of blacks as workers and complained continually about their habits. (“It would be accidental to fall in with a good one,” he ultimately concluded.) He found the constant need to provide for the slaves burdensome, and as a result frequently rented them out.

As late as 1865 he was still asserting that “the relation of master and slave…is the best that can exist between the white & black races.” He had equally dismissive views of other groups who threatened white aspirations, including Mexicans and American Indians, whom he several times described as “hideous” and whom he believed to be culturally inferior. It is important to note that these are not random comments, written on a bad day, but a constant pattern in Lee’s writing.

Of course, Lee was not the only person to hold these views in his day. This kind of thinking led not only to the justification of slavery, but also to the Mexican War and aggressive actions against American Indians. Indeed, most Americans, North and South, were unable to envision a multiracial society based on equality. Even those opposed to slavery had trouble doing so. Abraham Lincoln, for example, never considered African Americans his equal and only reluctantly relinquished his plans to deport freed blacks to Central America or Haiti.

What is striking about Lee’s writings is the consistency of his disdain for black people. We see no attempt at all by Lee to wrestle with the morality of these views. Washington, Jefferson, George Mason and Henry Clay—just to name a few—all struggled with the ethical consequences of their racial beliefs. Many never took action to free their slaves or to right legal wrongs, but they did agonize over the contradictions they perceived. So did several of Lee’s Army friends, who sympathized with the Indians and ultimately opposed slavery. By contrast Lee never seems to have suffered any spiritual pain over the inequitable society surrounding him.

In 1856 Lee summarized his beliefs in a telling letter to his wife. “In this enlightened age,” he wrote,

there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country. It is useless to expiate on its disadvantages. I think it, however, a greater evil to the white than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly interested in…the latter, my sympathies are stronger for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and, I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise and merciful Providence.

On first reading, this letter seems confusing and contradictory. Lee acknowledges that slavery is evil, but then says the evil is greater for whites than for blacks, without giving an explanation of how this could possibly be. He says he assumes that the institution will fade away, but offers no prescription for hastening that day. Instead he takes a complicated middle ground in which he regrets the existence of slavery but claims it is necessary, and then sidesteps any responsibility for the slaves’ condition by saying that that is up to God, not man.

In fact, what seems like a convoluted assessment is actually an unusually clear statement of the proslavery views of Lee’s era. Apologists admitted that slavery was regrettable but concocted elaborate justifications for its continuation. The belief that slaves were better off than blacks living in Africa that their character needed somehow to be elevated by whites that it was necessary to prolong slavery into an unpredictable future—even a Divine Sanction for it all—were themes of sermons, pamphlets and newspaper articles. Proslavery advocates such as James Henry Hammond, George Fitzhugh and Thomas Dew underscored that they were not responsible—God had created the institution, and some sort of providential action would make it disappear.

Amazingly, this letter has sometimes been used to point to Lee as an abolitionist. This view is particularly hard to understand because in the same letter Lee slams those who opposed slavery. “The abolitionists,” he wrote, “have neither the right nor the power to interfere in what he has no concern. Still I fear he will persevere in his evil course.” So the question arises: How could anyone turn this letter into proof of Lee’s antislavery views? Is this wishful thinking, or possibly part of the “Lost Cause” propaganda?

To demonstrate how facts can become veiled by popular tradition, let’s look at a story that is often told to illustrate Lee’s kindness to slaves. Soon after the end of the war, one of his friends wrote: “You must remember Nat, who was Aunt Lee’s dining-room servant: after her death his health became very bad [Robert] took him to the South, had the best medical advice, comfortable room, and everything that could be done to restore him and attended to him himself.” This story was repeated—sometimes with embellishments—by many historians over the years. One has Lee nursing Nat “with the tenderness of a son” and personally laying him in his grave another says he cared for the slave “tenderly and faithfully until death delivered the poor fellow.” The story as Lee himself tells it, however, is quite different.

It is true that Nat joined Lee on his first Army assignment, near Savannah, Ga., and that he died of consumption there within a few months. Lee was concerned about Nat’s health but confided that “I know not what to do with him.” He got the old man a room, consulted a doctor, and asked a boatman to look in on him occasionally, but did not personally follow Nat’s progress closely. Indeed, Lee admitted that his posting, 15 miles away, often kept him away from Nat for weeks. When the slave died, far from attending to his burial, Robert was astonished to be told the news. “I had not the least idea he was so low….I was perfectly shocked to hear of his death when I had been flattering myself that he was recovering,” he told his fiancée. Actually the mother of one of his friends had taken responsibility for Nat. “Mrs. Mackay in some of her visits of Benevolence had found him out,” Lee wrote, “…and unbeknowing to me, visited him regularly & sent him all the delicacies from her own table.”

Now, this is not a terrible story. It is not a story of brutality or crass neglect. But neither is it the saga of nursing Nat “with the tenderness of a son” that Lee’s admirers liked to tell. If anything it is a story of a distracted young man who was more or less oblivious to his old servant’s condition. If the tale has a ministering angel, it is Eliza Mackay, not Robert E. Lee.

But it is an excellent illustration of the way historical incidents become bloated when they start to be used as parables. Those who believed the prettier versions of this tale repeated it until it became a kind of “common knowledge” about Lee’s concern for his slaves. Some writers then took real liberties with the story’s meaning. Freeman cited it as proof that Lee could not possibly have fought to uphold the system of slavery! Another writer saw it as an example of Lee’s “solicitude” for his servants, concluding that “none had a kinder or more faithful master.”

Which leads us to ask another question: Would his own servants have been likely to agree with the statement that Lee was a kind master?

Our best information about the slaves’ thinking comes from the time when Lee was executor of his father-in-law’s estate. George Washington Parke Custis died in 1857, leaving a messy will. To sort out matters, Lee got temporary leave from the Army. As executor he had legal authority over the slaves, as well as day-to-day responsibilities for their supervision.

And what did the slaves say about Robert E. Lee? One called him “the meanest man I ever saw.” “He was a hard taskmaster,” confided another. “He tried to keep us slaves, when we was as free as he,” was another comment. In addition, the slaves showed their feelings by their actions. During the time Lee was master at Arlington he had a chronic problem with runaways. They also frequently refused to recognize his authority, ignoring his orders or trying to undermine his plans. On one occasion they even physically threatened Lee. “Only the merciful hand of Kind Providence and their own ineptness prevented a general outbreak,” wrote Lee’s wife.

A slave rebellion at Arlington? How did such chaos come about? As previously mentioned, Lee’s father-in-law had written a complicated will. He freed all his slaves, but with the vague provision that it should be done sometime within five years. He also bequeathed extravagant legacies to his granddaughters that proved difficult to pay from the estate’s earnings. As executor, Lee interpreted this to mean that he could keep the African Americans enslaved until he had paid the legacies. Actually the will stipulated that he should sell land to pay the bequests, but Lee did not want to do this, even though the Custis estates contained thousands of acres.

The slaves, however, who had excellent lines of communication, believed they had been freed. Despite Lee’s efforts to make their lives more comfortable (repairing long-neglected houses, for example), they were angry at being kept in bondage and increasingly tested their new master. “Reuben Parks & Edward, in the beginning of the previous week, rebelled against my authority—refused to obey my orders, & said they were as free as I was, &c, &c,” Lee told a son. “I succeeded in capturing them however, tied them and lodged them in jail.” To increase the estate’s earnings, Lee relied on his old habit of hiring out the slaves to other masters. Many of them were sent hundreds of miles away and were extremely unhappy. The slaves who were hired out had no idea where they were going or when—if ever—they might return no way of contacting their relations, and no guarantee of a sympathetic master. In addition, by hiring all the strong males away, Lee broke up every family at Arlington, something the Washingtons and Custises had taken great pains not to do.

When Lee realized he could not pay the legacies by the end of five years, things took a turn for the worse. Rather than sell land, he petitioned the local court to keep the slaves in bondage as long as needed to fulfill his daughters’ inheritance. He also sued for permission to send the slaves out of the state, which was not common practice. The local magistrate recognized this and ruled against Lee, who responded by appealing the case to a higher court.

The slaves, as usual, caught the drift of events and became actively alarmed. They may have thought that Lee would never give them their freedom. They must have feared that once sent out of the state, they would never again see their families. I should add that these two measures—sending the slaves south and breaking up their families—were against the socially accepted practices of Lee’s neighbors and relatives. It is this set of actions, which were considered harsh in his own time, and which jeopardized the future of people who had been legally liberated, that most clearly put Lee on the darker side of slavery.

This was when the slaves began to protest openly—verbally, as we have seen, as well as by running away, and even through physical violence. The situation at Arlington became so bad that several newspapers seized on the story. One of the things they reported was that after recapturing three of the runaways—one of whom was a woman—Lee had them brutally whipped. That story is corroborated by five eyewitness accounts, all of which agree in substantial detail.

Those accounts state that Lee was infuriated and wanted to set an example for other slaves who were rebelling against him. One newspaper maintained that Lee viciously whipped the woman himself, but the more sober witnesses state that he called in the county sheriff, Dick Williams, to serve out her punishment. Lee’s own account books show him paying an extraordinary sum of money to that very man “for capturing, &c, the fugitives.” At the time Lee told his son, “The New York Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather’s slaves, but I shall not reply.” Many years later he maintained that there was “not a word of truth” in the story. But there was more than a word of truth in it—all of the details can be verified by Lee’s own writings.

Not only do Lee’s papers uphold the story, there is nothing improbable or out of character about this incident. We know there was a whipping post at Arlington and that Lee had a strong temper. Moreover, Lee was not only within his rights to lash the fugitives, it was actually the penalty prescribed by law. Sheriffs were routinely called in to do just that kind of demeaning work. As one Virginia constable de – scribed it: “It was part of my business to arrest all fugitive slaves….Next day they are examined and punished. The punishment is flogging. I am one of the men who flog them.”

In addition, we know Lee had little objection to this kind of chastisement. In one letter, for example, he argued with his wife about a slave who had been mistreated by a neighbor. Mary Lee thought they should buy the man to rescue him from his unkind owner. But Lee protested, asking: “Is everything to be yielded to the servant and nothing left to the master?” He then declared that buying the slave would set a bad precedent, undermining “the instruction and example that was intended for the others.” One of the men who was later punished for running away recalled that Lee said the whipping was meant to “teach us a lesson we would never forget.” Interestingly, using punishment to set an example was a disciplinary measure Lee also used while superintendent of West Point.

The lawsuit dragged on until 1862. While the court deliberated, Lee told his son he might ignore the five-year deadline for freeing the slaves and “just leave them as they are.” Ultimately the appeals court ruled against Lee, directing him to liberate the slaves by January 1, 1863. Only then did he free the bondsmen as his father-in-law had desired. In the end he sold property—just as the will had proposed— to pay the legacies to his daughters.

Remarkably, some biographers have labeled Lee an “emancipator” despite the clear record of his actions and beliefs. How can this be? I think the answer is rooted in the longing people have for their idols to be great in every way, rather than ordinary or imperfect. As heroes become iconic figures, people also want to attach their aspirations to them, in a process sociologists call “transference.” In their zeal, they hope their leaders will represent not only what they are as a society, but what they would like to be. It is fascinating and telling that what Southerners have wanted Lee to represent—the better self they want him to be—is an antislavery leader.

Lee’s experiences at Arlington and his role in capturing abolitionist John Brown in 1859 radicalized his feelings on slavery. He feared the increasingly powerful Northern majority, which he had been complaining about since the 1830s. It enraged him to feel defenseless in the face of what he saw as mounting Yankee humiliations. As the nation lurched toward crisis, his carefully crafted middle ground on slavery began to give way. He backed the Crittenden Compromise, which would have prohibited slavery from ever being abolished in the United States, saying that it “deserves the support of every patriot.” Though he denounced secession, and his own kin were sharply divided (a nephew and many close cousins fought for the Union), in 1861 Lee decided to defend the South’s way of life, of which slavery was the distinguishing feature.

After the war, Lee continued to hold attitudes about class and race that were chained to the old order. A few weeks after Appomattox he expounded to a newspaperman on the need to “dispose” of the freedmen. He not only advocated the deportation of African Americans, he backed a plan to replace them with destitute whites from Ireland, who would form a new servant class. He also signed a petition that proposed a political system precluding all blacks, and many poor whites, from voting.

His public pronouncements were sometimes at odds with his private actions. Despite the fact that Lee told the Joint Committee on Reconstruction that everyone wished the former slaves well, for example, the records of the Freedman’s Bureau show that students under Lee’s direction at Washington College were heavily involved in their harassment. The situation turned serious on several occasions. Some of “General Lee’s boys” shot an African American for not stepping into the gutter when they passed. Incidents of rape were common. It appears that an organization similar to the Ku Klux Klan was founded by the students during Lee’s presidency. Lee sent out some orders forbidding participation in any public antiblack rallies, but Washington College documents show that he did not strictly enforce that policy. Certainly he never used the near imperial control he had at the college to stop those activities.

For a biographer who comes to have a close, admiring relation- ship with the person being studied, finding such information is painful. I can recall sitting in the Alexandria courthouse, holding the legal documents Lee had filed, shaking my head and thinking: “Oh, I hope this is not going where I think it is!” Many readers will undoubtedly also find this aspect of Lee distressing. And I think that we are right to be troubled by it. That is the appropriate response, whether out of sorrow for the callousness in our past, or simple disappointment that someone we revere held attitudes that even in his day were on the sorry end of humanity’s scale.

But where then does this leave us? Should we conclude that Robert E. Lee was an immoral man, unworthy of historical interest? Throw him on the trash heap of history? Or should we apologize for him, and portray him as merely representative of his era?

In my judgment, we should take care not to go too far in either direction. We do have to recognize the intellectual and cultural norms of Lee’s time. We also have to recognize that as much as we might like to have principles that never vary, this is actually not the way societies behave. Values change over time, and human beings are often slow to catch up. We have to understand Lee within the context of his standards, not our own.

That being said, we cannot use this as a reason to absolve Lee from responsibility for his own attitudes. While we might be able to say, “Well, he wasn’t any worse than anybody else,” by the same token we also have to say that he wasn’t any better than anyone else. And there is the rub, because generations have been led to believe that Robert E. Lee was better than everybody else—even on this difficult issue of slavery. Yet all of the evidence shows he lacked the vision or the humanity that would have allowed him to transcend the petty opinions of his day. Nor did his racial attitudes ever grow or evolve as, for example, did Washington’s. While we can understand the reasons for that, we cannot award him the greatness that comes from being able to see beyond the commonplace and take actions that would raise him above the ordinary.

What I would propose is that all of us who admire Lee embrace him for the complex, contradictory, fabulous but flawed person that he was. If we try to make him more, we actually insult him. Every time someone maintains that he never used the word “enemy,” or that he never lost a battle (he just ran out of ammunition), or that he was opposed to slavery—any time we make these mistaken assertions, we are implying that the person he really was, is not good enough.

I would say simply: If you want to do Robert E. Lee justice, embrace the fine qualities that he truly has to offer us— and they are considerable—but also recognize his limitations and the injustices perpetrated at his hands. Then lend him your respect. It is the greatest compliment you can give him.

Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s book Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters won both the Lincoln Prize and the Jefferson Davis Award. Her list of sources for this article is in “Resources,” on P. 71.

Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.


The bronze statue, sculpted by Antonin Mercié, depicts Confederate general Robert E. Lee atop a horse. The horse is not a representation of Robert E. Lee's horse Traveller, whose modest scale Mercié believed would not suit the overall composition. Traveller was replaced by a stronger looking thoroughbred. [8] Lee stands 14 feet (4.3 m) high atop his horse and the entire statue is 60 feet (18 m) tall including a stone base designed by Paul Pujol. [9] [10]

The state-controlled land around the statue serves as a traffic circle at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Allen Avenue (named after Otway Allen, the developer who donated the land to the association). The Lee Monument is a focal point for Richmond. (Most popular online maps depict the "Lee Circle" as the center of Richmond). [11]

Background Edit

Throughout the war, many American Southerners viewed Lee as a war hero and a master strategist. [12] Following the death of Robert E. Lee in 1870, several organizations formed with the goal of erecting a monument to Lee in Richmond. These included survivors of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, the Lee Monument Association led by Confederate general Jubal Early, and the Ladies' Lee Monument Association. These organizations were merged into the Lee Monument Commission in 1886, led by Lee's nephew and Virginia governor Fitzhugh Lee and together the funds combined to $52,000. [13] [14]

The Sculptor: Antonin Mercié Edit

Antonin Mercié, born on October 30, 1845 in Toulouse, was an artist and sculptor known for his works in France before his Robert E. Lee Memorial earned him a reputation in the United States. He was a student under François Jouffroy and Alexandre Falguière, and he became a member of the Institut des Beaux-Arts as well as president of the Société des Artistes Français and Grand Officier de la Légion d'Honneur. His style is known for being "soberly realistic." [ citation needed ] Mercié won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1868 and awards such as an honorary medal at the "Salon des Moins de 30 Ans". [15]

Although famous for his works in Paris, Mercié devoted particular attention to the construction of the Robert E. Lee Monument. Mercié constructed the monument in France and had it shipped to America. [16] He constructed the monument in sections, which were sent to America in four separate shipping crates. Mercié wished to watch the unveiling of the monument, but due to stress from a previous ocean voyage, he stayed in France. [ citation needed ] After the unveiling of the monument, Mercié earned other commissions from the United States, including a monument representing Francis Scott Key and the creation of the American National Anthem in Baltimore, Maryland. Mercié dreamed of seeing the unveiling of the Key monument, but was reportedly unable to attend due to a domestic situation with his wife. [16]

Construction and dedication Edit

When the construction of the monument was complete, the Lee Monument Association of Virginia sent a representative to France to inspect the work and issue the final payment of $20,000. The journalist Lida McCabe reported on the transaction between the American business man and the French sculptor, observing that the transaction was forced and uneasy. The Monument Association representative seemed to have little interest in the monument itself and simply occupied himself with his financial duties. McCabe's reporting focused on the dedication that Mercié put into the sculpture. After listening to Mercié, McCabe discovered that he had researched the Civil War and General Lee extensively. McCabe reported that had acquired different props such as saddles and stirrups, coats, and boots to make sure that the monument was as accurate as possible. [17]

The cornerstone for the monument was placed on October 27, 1887. The statue arrived in Richmond by rail on May 4, 1890. [18] Newspaper accounts indicate that 10,000 people helped pull four wagons with the pieces of the monument. The completed statue was unveiled on May 29, 1890. [9] Two of Lee's daughters, Mary Custis Lee and Mildred Childe Lee, attended the dedication. [19]

The site for the statue originally was offered in 1886. Richmond City annexed the land in 1892, but economic difficulties meant that the Lee Monument stood alone for several years in the middle of a tobacco field before development resumed in the early 1900s. [9]

In 1992, the iron fence around the monument was removed, in part because drivers unfamiliar with traffic circles would run into the fence from time to time and force costly repairs. After the fences came down, the stone base became a popular sunbathing spot. [11] In December 2006, the state completed an extensive cleaning and repair of the monument.

It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2007, the Virginia Landmarks Register since 2006, and is located in the Monument Avenue Historic District. [1]

Confederate Leader

In October 1859, Lee was summoned to put an end to an enslaved person insurrection led by John Brown at Harper&aposs Ferry. Lee&aposs orchestrated attack took just a single hour to end the revolt, and his success put him on a shortlist of names to lead the Union Army should the nation go to war.

But Lee&aposs commitment to the Army was superseded by his commitment to Virginia. After turning down an offer from President Abraham Lincoln to command the Union forces, Lee resigned from the military and returned home. While Lee had misgivings about centering a war on the slavery issue, after Virginia voted to secede from the nation on April 17, 1861, Lee agreed to help lead the Confederate forces.

Over the next year, Lee again distinguished himself on the battlefield. On June 1, 1862, he took control of the Army of Northern Virginia and drove back the Union Army during the Seven Days Battles near Richmond. In August of that year, he gave the Confederacy a crucial victory at Second Manassas.

But not all went well. He courted disaster when he tried to cross the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, barely escaping the site of the bloodiest single-day skirmish of the war, which left some 22,000 combatants dead.

From July 1-3, 1863, Lee&aposs forces suffered another round of heavy casualties in Pennsylvania. The three-day stand-off, known as the Battle of Gettysburg, wiped out a huge chunk of Lee&aposs army, halting his invasion of the North while helping to turn the tide for the Union.

By the fall of 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant had gained the upper hand, decimating much of Richmond, the Confederacy&aposs capital, and Petersburg. By early 1865, the fate of the war was clear, a fact driven home on April 2 when Lee was forced to abandon Richmond. A week later, a reluctant and despondent Lee surrendered to Grant at a private home in Appomattox, Virginia.

"I suppose there is nothing for me to do but go and see General Grant," he told an aide. "And I would rather die a thousand deaths."

Today in military history: The Red Baron is killed in action

Posted On April 21, 2021 16:57:00

On April 21, 1918, the Red Baron was killed in action.

Manfred von Richthofen, known to allies and enemies as the Red Baron, was a dog-fighting legend in a time when planes were made of wood, fabric, and aluminum.

After joining the German army as a cavalryman, the Barron quickly switched to the Imperial Air Service in 1915, and took to the skies over the western front by 1916.

Between 1916 and 1918, the Red Baron downed 80 enemy aircraft, easily surpassing all flying-ace records of the time.

While many Ace pilots of the era were known for risky and aggressive aerial acrobatics, the Baron was a patient tactician and expert marksman. He preferred to dive upon his enemies from above, often with the sun at his back. His two most famous aircraft, the Albatros D.III and Fokker Dr. I, were painted bright red to honor his old cavalry regiment.

On April 21st, while hunting British observation aircraft, the Red Baron and his squadron ventured deep into Allied French territory. They quickly got into a tussle with an Allied squadron, and the Baron began to stalk a Canadian Air Force plane.

In the heat of the chase, the Baron flew too low to the ground, and was fired upon from below. Sources differ on who fired the shot, but the kill is often credited to an Australian machine gunner using a Vickers gun.

The Baron was struck in the chest by a single .303 bullet. Even as he died, he still managed to make a rough landing. By most accounts, his plane was barely even damaged.

He was buried by Allied forces with full military honors.

Today in Military History

Robert E. Lee’s Tactics During the Civil War

Although Lee’s purported “tactical genius” was trumped by Grant’s “superior talent in grand strategy,” Lee is famed for his tactical management of battles. He was the tactical victory in several 1862–63 battles and generally performed well on the tactical defensive against Grant in 1864. However, Robert E Lee Tactics proved fatally defective. His tactical defects were that he was too aggressive on the field, he frequently failed to take charge of the battlefield, his battle plans were too complex or simply ineffective, and his orders were too vague or discretionary.

Problems with Robert E Lee’s Tactics

The first problem was that Robert E Lee’s tactics, like his strategy, were too aggressive. Bevin Alexander pointed out that in 1862 alone Lee had “an obsession with seeking battle to retrieve a strategic advantage when it had gone awry or he thought it had.” Thus, at Beaver Dam Creek (Gaines’ Mill), Frayser’s Farm (Glendale), Malvern Hill, and Antietam, he resorted to “desperate, stand-up, head-on battle” that resulted in great losses. “This fixation was Lee’s fatal flaw. It and Lee’s limited strategic vision cost the Confederacy the war.” Elsewhere Alexander concluded, “Lee never understood the revolution that the Minié ball had brought to battle tactics. . . . This tendency to move to direct confrontation, regardless of the prospects of the losses that would be sustained, guaranteed Lee’s failure as an offensive commander.”

Although sometimes creative (particularly when Stonewall Jackson was involved), too often those tactics failed to adequately consider the advantages new weaponry gave to defensive forces. Rifled muskets (ones with grooves rifled in their bores to spin bullets for accuracy) and bullets which expanded in the bores to follow the grooves (Minié balls) greatly increased the accuracy and range of infantry firepower (from 100 yards to between 400 and 1,000 yards), thereby providing the defense with an unprecedented advantage. Fuller called the Civil War “the war of the rifle bullet,” and rifle bullets (primarily Minié balls) accounted for 9 0 percent of the about 214,000 battlefield deaths and 469,000 wounded during the war. This advanced weaponry made assaults increasingly difficult.

Despite the fact that seven of eight Civil War frontal assaults failed, Lee just kept attacking. Battles in which Lee damaged his army with overly aggressive tactics include the Seven Days’ (particularly Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, and Malvern Hill), Second Manassas, Chantilly, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Rappahannock Station, the Wilderness, and Fort Stedman. Archer Jones pointed to Lee’s periodic misplaced elation when he refused to “quit while he was ahead,” and cited Malvern Hill, Chantilly, the end of Chancellorsville, and Pickett’s Charge as examples.

The North had more advanced weaponry and had it earlier in the war. Its Model 1861 Springfield rifle, with an effective range of 200–400 yards, could kill at a distance of 1,000 yards or more. Most infantrymen (especially Federals) had rifles by sometime in 1862, Union cavalry had breech-loading (instead of muzzle-loading guns) repeating rifles by 1863, and even some Union infantry had these “repeaters” (primarily Spencer rifles) in 1864 and 1865.

Demonstrating this trend, Rhode Islander Elisha Hunt Rhodes experienced an improvement in weaponry during the war. In June 1861 he was first issued one of many muskets that he described as “old-fashioned smooth bore flintlock guns altered over to percussion locks.” Late the following month, when other Rhode Islanders’ enlistments expired after First Bull Run, Rhodes’ unit members traded their smoothbore weapons for Springfield rifles. Three years later, in July 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley, Captain Rhodes wrote: “I have forty of my men armed with Spencer Repeating rifles that will hold seven cartridges at one loading. I have borrowed these guns from the 37th Mass. who are armed with them and have used them for some time.”

Appreciation of the great reliance upon rifles by both sides in the conflict can be gleaned from the following estimates provided by Paddy Griffith in his thought-provoking Battle Tactics of the Civil War. He estimated that the Confederate Government procured 183,000 smoothbore muskets and 439,000 rifles and that the Union obtained 510,000 smoothbores and an astounding 3,253,000 rifles, including 303,000 breechloaders and 100,000 repeaters. The increased effectiveness of breechloaders, rather than muzzleloaders, was demonstrated by Union cavalry on the first day at Gettysburg (July 1, 1863) and by Union defenders on the second day at Chickamauga just two months later.

Musketry and the new lethal force of rifle power accounted for as many as 80 percent of the Civil War’s battlefield casualties. The improved arms gave the defense a tremendous advantage against exposed attacking infantry or cavalry. Use of trenches from 1863 on further increased the relative effectiveness of infantry defenders’ firepower. Similar improvements in artillery ranges and accuracy also aided the defense. Rhodes, for instance, wrote on February 14, 1862: “The 4th Battery ‘C’ 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery came over [to Washington, D.C.] from Virginia this morning and exchanged their brass guns for steel rifle cannon.” The old smooth-bore cannons had ranges of 1,000 to 1,600 yards while the new rifled artillery had ranges of 4,000 to 6,000 yards.

Despite these significant new advantages held by the defense, during battle after battle, Lee frontally attacked and counterattacked with his splendid and irreplaceable troops. Military historian Bevin Alexander asserted that Lee’s obsession with seeking battle and his limited strategic vision lost the war. The short-term results of Lee’s overly aggressive tactics were his troops’ injury, death, and capture the long-term results were dissipation of the South’s finite resources and loss of the war.

Lee was not alone in failing to adequately compensate for the new effectiveness of defensive firepower, but, as the leading general of a numerically inferior army for almost three years, he could not afford to make that mistake. In fact, Lee lost 20.2 percent of his soldiers in battle while imposing only 15.4 percent losses on his opponents. This negative difference in percentage of casualties (4.8 percent) was exceeded among Confederate generals only by Lee’s protégé Hood (19.2 percent casualties minus 13.7 percent difference) and by Pemberton, who surrendered his army at Vicksburg. For example, neither Joseph Johnston (10.5 percent casualties minus 1.7 percent difference), Bragg (19.5 percent casualties minus 4.1 percent difference) nor Beauregard (16.1 percent casualties minus 3.3 percent difference) sacrificed such percentages of their men in unjustified frontal assaults as did Lee. Lee’s statistics substantially improved when he generally went on the defensive—finally and much too late—after the Battle of the Wilderness in early May 1864.

In addition to his aggressiveness, Lee had other tactical problems. His second problem was his failure to take charge on the battlefield. Lee explained his approach to a Prussian military observer at Gettysburg: “I think and work with all my powers to bring my troops to the right place at the right time then I have done my duty. As soon as I order them into battle, I leave my army in the hands of God.” To interfere later, he said, “does more harm than good.” “What Lee achieved in boldness of plan and combat aggressiveness he diminished through ineffective command and control.”

The third problem with Robert E Lee’s tactics was his propensity to devise battle plans which either required impossible coordination and timing or which dissipated his limited strength through consecutive, instead of concurrent, attacks. For example, the Seven Days’ Battle was a series of disasters in which Lee relied upon unrealistic coordination and timing that resulted in Confederate failures and extreme losses. Again, the second and third days at Gettysburg featured three uncoordinated attacks on the Union line by separate portions of Lee’s forces when a simultaneous assault might have resulted in an important Confederate breakthrough or seizure of high ground.

Lee’s fourth tactical problem was that his orders often were too vague or discretionary, an issue discussed more fully below. The pre- Gettysburg orders to Stuart and the Gettysburg Day One orders to Ewell are examples of this problem. In Philip Katcher’s words, “Lee’s failure adequately to order his generals to perform specific actions or discipline them if they failed was probably his greatest character defect. . . . One of his staunchest defenders [Fitzhugh Lee] agreed: ‘He had a reluctance to oppose the wishes of others or to order them to do anything that would be disagreeable and to which they would not consent.[’]” Almost a century ago, George Bruce concluded, “Every order and act of Lee has been defended by his staff officers and eulogists with a fervency that excites suspicion that, even in their own minds, there was need of defense to make good the position they claim for him among the world’s great commanders.”

Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, Reckons With Its History Of Slavery

Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, reopened to the public for the first time since 2018 on Tuesday. The Virginia mansion where Robert E. Lee once lived underwent a rehabilitation that includes an increased emphasis on those who were enslaved there. Andrew Harnik/AP hide caption

Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, reopened to the public for the first time since 2018 on Tuesday. The Virginia mansion where Robert E. Lee once lived underwent a rehabilitation that includes an increased emphasis on those who were enslaved there.

After seven years of planning and $12.5 million in restoration work, the National Park Service reopened the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Tuesday. The mansion — officially called the Robert E. Lee Memorial — was built by enslaved people more than 200 years ago. It sits high on a Virginia bluff across the river from Washington, D.C., overlooking the Lincoln Memorial. Located within Arlington National Cemetery, it's surrounded by the graves of, among others, Union soldiers.

It's an embattled site for a home with a difficult past and a complicated present.

Since 1983, Arlington House has served as the official symbol of Arlington, Va. Its image adorns the county's seal, flag, website and stationery. It's on police cars and government mail. Now, after a year of racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the county is in the process of redesigning its logo to remove the mansion's image.

13.7: Cosmos And Culture

What, Really, Is A Monument?

Julius Spain, president of the Arlington Branch of the NAACP, is one of the leaders of the effort to remove the image of the home from official community materials. He says the memorial represents "a very dark time in our history."

"It's a slave labor camp where people were raped and killed. We have to preserve our past, not glorify it," Spain says.

Showing the "ugly parts" of the mansion's history

A nuanced presentation was part of the goal of the restoration, according to the NPS's Charles Cuvelier, superintendent of the office that administers Arlington House. He showed NPR around the house and grounds with some of his colleagues.

Robert E. Lee's plantation office at Arlington House. Andrew Harnik/AP hide caption

Robert E. Lee's plantation office at Arlington House.

"What we've tried to do is create windows into the past, even the ugly parts." Cuvelier points to places in the restoration efforts — a portion of a wall showing each layer of paint and plaster, revealing the structure beneath, and how it's changed over the years. He says the philosophy goes deeper — he wants to expose how ideas and thinking have evolved as well.

Finding a way to memorialize Robert E. Lee while acknowledging his role in leading the Confederacy and upholding slavery is not an easy line to walk.

Beyond the main house and the adjacent quarters for enslaved people, there is a space dedicated to the complexity of Lee as a person. The small room includes descriptive panels that prod visitors to think deeply about the wisdom and culture of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, accounting for the accolades Lee received, and also the criticism.

The Two-Way

In Reckoning With Confederate Monuments, Other Countries Could Provide Examples

Ida Jones, a historian and archivist at Morgan State University who studies African American history in the Washington, D.C., area, says Americans "need to see and acknowledge what happened at Arlington House."

"These national parks, these historic homes, these historic personalities need to be understood and viewed not as celebrity, but as filters through which we look at our past," she says. "Arlington House honors Lee, but it also includes nuanced conversation about Lee and the context in the times in which he lived and the decisions that drove his choices."

A room in the South Slave Quarters building at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, which reopened to the public for the first time since 2018. Andrew Harnik/AP hide caption

A room in the South Slave Quarters building at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, which reopened to the public for the first time since 2018.

Those choices are part of institutionalized racism that has impacts to this day. Some of the original housing for enslaved people, for example, once served as a gift shop, and much of the information about their lives has been lost because no one cared to preserve or remember it.

Researchers worked to remember those enslaved there

Archivists were able to trace some of the enslaved inhabitants, and their names are written on plastic sheets preserving the walls. Some people are known only by the work they performed, such as "Gardener," or by their relation to another, such as "Mary's Child." Many names have been lost forever.

During this renovation, the National Park Service worked to uncover and restore as much information as possible about those enslaved at the site. But it stands in stark contrast to the main house, where Lee's accounts and possessions were meticulously preserved over the more than 150 years since his death.

Charles Syphax (1791-1869) holds his grandson, William B. Syphax. NPS hide caption

Charles Syphax (1791-1869) holds his grandson, William B. Syphax.

Charles Syphax was an enslaved resident of one of the cramped living areas prior to the Civil War. He oversaw the dining room at Arlington House and married Maria Carter, an enslaved woman whose mother was raped by George Washington Parke Custis, the original owner of the home who was the step-grandson of George Washington. Charles married Maria in the mansion's parlor, in the same spot where Maria's half-sister, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, would marry Robert E. Lee a decade later.

Stephen Hammond is Charles Syphax's great-great-great-nephew and a family historian. He thinks the memorial is reopening at the right time. "This is an incredibly important time in the history of our country. We are evaluating the long-term legacies of that time and this house."

A room in the North Slave Quarters building at Arlington House. Andrew Harnik/AP hide caption

A room in the North Slave Quarters building at Arlington House.

He believes the restored mansion is now a place where people can talk about those legacies.

"We recognize that in this particular space, there are going to be people who disagree with how this new presentation of history is being told. And so we need to recognize that it's about the whole history."

Despite all the work that's been done to add nuance and complexity to the history of Arlington House, it remains an official memorial to Robert E. Lee, who remains a controversial figure in the national conversation about how to preserve history without lionizing its darkest chapter.

That's a task both historians and National Park Service officials seem to agree should be at the heart of the next steps for the property.

Descendants of General Robert E. Lee and enslaved people unite for change: "We want to move forward"

Visitors can return to Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, starting on Tuesday. An extensive overhaul by the National Park Service brought together descendants of both General Lee and enslaved people who once lived and labored on his estate. It was a moment nearly 200 years in the making. But to get to that moment required taking many steps forward.

Inez Parks and Steve Hammond have roots at this historic site. Parks' great-grandfather, James, dug the first graves at Arlington.

"There's a people, deserving people. They need their stories told," she told CBS News' Jericka Duncan.

Hammond said when he comes to the site, he thinks of the people who actually helped build it.

In new exhibits opening Tuesday, the lives of those who labored for free are now a greater focus. The Park Service restored former slave quarters that had become the site's bookstore.

"The fact that we have chosen to change it back into a place of honor. I think is a very big deal," Hammond said.

CBS Village

Aaron LaRocca has worked for the National Park Service for 15 years. He said he couldn't have imagined a day where those lives would become a focus of the museum. "We've really been able to progress to uplift the story of all the people here," LaRocca said.

It's a story Steve Hammond and his family have spent years unraveling. Hammond learned that General Lee freed his relative, Charles Syphax, and dozens of other enslaved people.

"Robert E. Lee ultimately signs a deed to free 40 people that were enslaved here, and Charles Syphax is one of those," he said.

Hammond said that the stories are very complex and that he thinks they're worth the country knowing more about.

Rob Lee and his sister Tracy Lee Crittenberger agree. They're the general's great-great-grandchildren. While the family has kept the name alive, they've worked to bury the ideas associated with it. After watching last summer's global reckoning on racial injustice, the images of Charlottesville , and watching statues of General Lee come down, his family spoke up.

"As a Lee family, we stand completely in alignment with the social justices that are going on today. There's no chance that we're going to be the leaders of this, but if we can do one small thing here, is just to say we want to move forward," Lee said.

Billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein donated more than $12 million toward the National Park Service's restoration project. He said he wants to remove the Robert E. Lee name.

"Well, I think that Robert E. Lee is a person who symbolizes for some people things that probably are not appropriate," he said. But renaming the memorial would take an act of Congress.

"Drop the Robert E. Lee name from it, but it doesn't expunge his history here," Hammond said.

"It's not just about General Lee. It's about all the families that lived here and all their voices," Lee said.

Generations later, families, connected by a painful past, freed the untold stories to honor the people who made this a national treasure. Hammond said he's been looking forward to this moment for years.

"I get emotional talking about it. It's a very powerful opportunity to bring people together and try to make a difference and a better world," he said.

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General Robert Lee - History

  • Occupation: Military leader and general
  • Born: January 19, 1807 in Stratford Hall, Virginia
  • Died: October 12, 1870 in Lexington, Virginia
  • Best known for: Commanding the Confederate Army of Virginia during the Civil War

Where did Robert E. Lee grow up?

Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807 in Stratford Hall, Virginia. His father, Henry, was a hero during the American Revolutionary War where he earned the nickname "Light Horse Harry". His mother, Ann Carter, came from a wealthy family.

Despite his family's pedigree, they were not rich. Robert's father had made some bad business deals and lost all of the family's money. When Robert was two years old, his dad went to debtor's prison. A few years later his dad went to the West Indies and never returned.

Since Robert's family didn't have any money, he saw the military as a great way to get a free education and to have a career. He entered the West Point Military Academy at the age of 18 and graduated in 1829 near the top of his class. After graduating, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers where he would help build forts and bridges for the army.

In 1831 Robert married Mary Custis. Mary came from a famous family and was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Mary and Robert would have 7 children over the years, including three boys and four girls.

Lee's first encounter with combat and war took place during the Mexican-American War. He reported to General Winfield Scott who would later say that Lee was one of the best soldiers he had ever seen in battle. Lee was promoted to colonel for his efforts during the war and had made a name for himself as a military leader.

In 1859, John Brown led his raid at Harpers Ferry. He was protesting slavery in the South and was hoping to start up a revolt among the slaves. Lee was in charge of a group of marines sent in to stop the raid. Once Lee arrived, the marines quickly subdued John Brown and his men. Once again, Lee had made a name for himself.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Lee was offered command of the Union army by President Lincoln. Lee, however, was also loyal to his home state of Virginia. Although he didn't agree with slavery, Lee felt he could not fight against his home state. He left the United States Army and became General of the Confederate Army of Virginia.

Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia

Lee took command of one of the most important armies during the Civil War. The Virginia army fought many of the key battles of the eastern front. Lee chose talented officers such as Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Jeb Stuart. Although the Confederate armies were constantly outnumbered by the Union armies, Lee and his men managed to win many battles through their brilliance and courage.

Lee earned the nickname the Grey Fox. The "grey" was because he wore the grey uniform of the Confederate soldier and rode a grey horse. The "fox" was because he was smart and cunning as a military leader.

Civil War Battles where Lee commanded

Lee commanded during many famous Civil War battles including the Seven Days Battle, the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Cold Harbor, and the Battle of Appomattox.

Lee fought brilliantly, but eventually the overwhelming numbers of the Union forces had him surrounded. On April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia. He received good terms for his soldiers, who were given food and allowed to return home.

Although Lee could have been tried and hung as a traitor to the United States, he was forgiven by President Lincoln. Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He worked there until he died from a stroke in 1870. Lee only wanted peace and healing for the United States after the Civil War.


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