Was Robert E. Lee a patriot or a traitor?

Questioning Lee doesn't sit well in an area that prefers the Stars and Bars flying in place of a U.S. flag

Confederate general Robert E. Lee: Did he commit treason by resigning his commission in the U.S. Army to lead those who declared war on his country?

Confederate general Robert E. Lee: Did he commit treason by resigning his commission in the U.S. Army to lead those who declared war on his country?

Questions over the “legacy” of Virginia son and Confederate General Robert E. Lee are emerging once again on the campus of the university named for him and George Washington in Lexington.

A group of law students want Washington & Lee to remove Confederate flags from the grounds, “acknowledge and apologize for participating in chattel slavery,” officially recognize Martin Luther King Day and ban a neo-Confederate march on campus during Lee-Jackson Day.

Their demands, of course, are not sitting well in a town where some would prefer the Stars and Bars flying in place of the American flag on streets.

Calling the students involved in the demands part of “a hotbed of these kinds” and claiming they “are not entitled to be offended,” the “commander” of the Lexington-based Stonewall Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans told Luanne Rife of The Roanoke Times the students “would be better off in Communist China than in the United States.”

Strong words by Brandon Dorsey, the so-called “commander” who still thinks celebrating a war fought to protect “states’ rights” that included the “right” to own and use slaves is a source of pride.

As a native-born Southerner, I have long been bothered by the questionable practice of honoring those who, by most measures of patriotism, abandoned their country and became traitors by fighting against it.

When Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army and signed on to command the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, he became — under the Uniform Code of Military Justice — a traitor of the United States.

Is such an action worthy of honor?  History has varying opinions on the matter but Virginia’s insistence of keeping a state holiday that honors both Lee and another Confederate general — Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — for their actions raises questions about whether or not the hatred that sparked the Civil War is buried or still alive and well in the Commonwealth.

Confederate flags still fly in front of some homes (usually trailers with tires on the roofs) in our area or drape the back windows of pickup trucks that are also adorned with bumper stickers that say “Forget Hell!” or proclaim other beliefs that the reasons for the war were valid.

Anjelica Hendricks and Dominik Taylor are two Virginians among the seven students protesting W&L’s continuing “tradition” of honoring a sordid past.

Hendricks told The Roanoke Times that W&L ignores Lee’s failures as both an American and a human being when it asks students to “sign an honor contract to uphold our honor according to the honor of Robert E. Lee.  Signing that contract in the shadow of a slave owner, and beneath plaques honoring Confederate soldiers, and battle flags bowing to a movement to keep black people enslaved is hurtful.”

“I’m a native of Virginia. I know what it’s like to remember the past,” she said in her interview with the Times.  “However, I didn’t feel the racism and disrespect as I did in being asked to uphold an honor that aligns with the views of Lee.”

Taylor says the university’s practice of allowing neo-Confederates, costumed as soldiers of the South, to march across the campus and hold a ceremony on Lee-Jackson Day  hurts students and faculty and dishonors the school.

Proponents of the right to honor Lee claim that he and his wife inherited slaves from her father and immediately set about to free them.  History, however, sasy otherwise, noting that freedom for the slaves was part of Lee’s father-in-law’s will and that Lee fought in court to delay that freedom before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation forced him and other slave owners to comply.

Which, once again, raises the question:

Was Robert E. Lee a patriot or a traitor?

17 Responses to "Was Robert E. Lee a patriot or a traitor?"

  1. blutodog  April 18, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Traitor. Had he won though he would have been a founding father of a “new” Nation. Washington was by definition a traitor to the King. He won so he was a President instead. The victors write history, so Lee is a traitor.

  2. Burl Phillips  April 18, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    Mr. Thompson, its obvious where your sentiments lie, and like most of your kind you take full advantage of your job in the media to proselytize and rail against something about which you obviously know nothing. If you and the liberal students who are attending W&L college don’t like it, that’s too bad. I question why if they are so incensed about the college they attend, let them go to some place like Berkeley or one of the many Yankee ivy league colleges, where they can join hands and sing Kum-by-ya with their fellow liberal buddies. You disgust me by your smarmy self-righteous criticism of a man who is a real American hero, Confederate American. It is pointless for me to try and dissuade you of your hateful opinion, and I wish you’d keep it to yourself. That and go to hell at your first opportunity.

  3. Danny Adams  April 18, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    Doug, now you’ve gotten me curious about something: We have a lot of people in this area who claim to both be patriots while also being supporters of the Confederacy / Confederate flag, so I wonder . . . how many of them would defend someone who flew a Confederate flag over the U.S. flag on the same pole? Though admittedly while I’d like to know the answer to that, I don’t have the guts to try it myself. :)

  4. Marc S. Allen  April 18, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    How could he be a traitor to his country? He served his country, the CSA, with honor and distinction. The CSA was lawfully formed by the legislatures of the several states. The legislatures voted to form their own country for the same reasons their grandfathers and great-grandfathers formed their own country. If you care to take the time, you can find out exactly why the new country was formed. And no, it wasn’t so they could keep their slaves. Slavery didn’t become an issue until January of 1863, when the tyrant Lincoln made it a reason. When the states seceded to form the CSA, Lincoln put out a call for volunteers to join the Army, instead of requesting the US Congress to declare war, as is required by the US Constitution. There is so much the historical revisionists have kept from the American people by slanting the truth or outright falsehoods.

  5. Peyton Carnohan  April 18, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    There is some question that the real reason for the civil war was economic: slavery gave the south an economic advantage over northern states, so rhetorical started a war to eliminate that advantage. Possible?

  6. Finnegan's Wake Music  April 19, 2014 at 9:39 am

    It’s obvious that at least one of your critics considers opposition to slavery a hateful liberal trait.

  7. Dave  April 19, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    Lee did resign his commission from US Army so technically, he would not be a traitor. What has surprised me is US citizens still taking sides 150 years after the Civil War ended. My wife and I visited the Antietam battlefield a couple of years ago. We decided to drive over to Harper’s Ferry WV after our visit to Sharpsburg MD. Boy did I get an education. We took a back road to WV and I saw more than my share of of Confederate battle flags flying on people’s lawns. I thought I was traveling through 1863 Maryland. That was an eye opener.

  8. Pabo  April 20, 2014 at 3:12 am

    If anybody wants to claim some sort of “honor” to the Confederacy, then they should be flying the Confederate Flag, not one of many battle flags (i.e., the “stars & bars”).

    Lee & Jackson were traitors to their country, pure and simple, ZERO room for debate. Their loyalty to their state/region does not change this very simple fact. If they had simply left the Federal army and simply not supported it against the Confederacy there wouldn’t be an issue, but they took up arms, and that seals the deal.

  9. Ted Remington  April 20, 2014 at 9:09 am

    What is being forgotten here is that there was an entirely different mindset in the antebellum era, and that mindset affected pretty much everyone. People did not view themselves as citizens of the United States, rather they believed they were citizens of the state in which they were born and raised. From everything I have read Lee agonized over the decision to resign and “go South”. The being an American thing only came about as a result of the Civil War.

    But the war has been over for almost 150 years. Isn’t it time to let go and get on with the job of doing something about the future?

    On a lighter note: Police in Lexington reported that a man dressed as Popeye broke into Lee’s tomb, stole his left femur, and used it to bludgeon another man during a mugging. For the first time in history, crime and criminal were exactly the same: A salt with a dead Lee weapon.

    • Doug Thompson  April 20, 2014 at 1:08 pm

      Ouch. A good one but ouch. :)

  10. John  April 21, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    Ted, your observation requires more nuance. Some, not all, people of the era considered themselves as citizens of their respective states first, and of the U.S. second. The most telling examples are the officers of Southern birth who did *not* resign their commissions and join the attempted Confederacy. (George Thomas, Montgomery Meigs, Phillip Cooke, maybe 10 more general officers alone) Notable for this discussion are several of lee’s own extended family. As Elizabeth Brown Pryor writes, discussing a letter discovered only a few years ago (written by Lee’s daughter):

    ” Like many border-state families, the Lees and their friends were sharply divided on the issues. When Lee consulted his brothers, sister and local clergymen, he found that most leaned toward the Union. At a grim dinner with two close cousins, Lee was told that they also intended to uphold their military oaths. (Samuel Phillips Lee would become an important admiral in the Union navy; John Fitzgerald Lee retained his position as judge advocate of the Army.) Sister Anne Lee Marshall unhesitatingly chose the northern side, and her son outfitted himself in blue uniform. Robert’s favorite brother, Smith Lee, a naval officer, resisted leaving his much-loved berth, and Smith’s wife spurned her relatives to support the Union cause. At the same time, many of the clan’s young men, such as nephew Fitzhugh Lee, were anxious to make their mark for the South in the coming conflict, creating a distinct generational fault line. ”
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/19/the-general-in-his-study/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

  11. Ted Remington  April 21, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    John:

    Yes, I get what you’re saying. One minor point, about one of my favorite historical figures from that era:

    Montgomery Meigs was not a southerner. His father was born overseas (Bermuda, Bahamas, some other British dependency in the new world?) and Montgomery was raised in Philadelphia where his father was practicing medicine. Montgomery actually had very little to do with the South, attended U Penn and then the USMA. Most of his service was in the north, IIRC. And he flat hated the South.

  12. woody188  April 22, 2014 at 7:21 am

    Ah, to be young and naive. We’d have to lose a few other holidays, monuments, and landmarks if we were to simply say we won’t honor those that held men as slaves. Our nation was born out of brutal violence as are most nations. And it was Lincoln’s brutal violence that kept it together, right or wrong. Had Lincoln followed the peaceful path of self determination, the USA would not exist as it does today.

  13. John  April 22, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Ted, Meigs grandfather (and family) resided for a time in Bermuda, then Georgia, followed by Cincinnati and Washington, DC. Roots did not run deep in that family. Our Meigs was born in Augusta Georgia. You do have a point, though. Most of his childhood appears to have been spent in Philadelphia and he attended the U. of Penn. before West Point.

  14. realoldguy  April 24, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    Sorry old white guys… but you lost! And the South has been losing ever since.

  15. John  April 25, 2014 at 9:55 pm

    Marc, Sorry to say, but “revisionism” is precisely what you have posted. To begin, the attempted CSA was not lawfully formed. The only “lawful” way for a state to remove itself from the Union was/is with the consent of the co-states. There never was an escape clause in the Constitution that allowed for unilateral secession, all the secession ordinances notwithstanding. The most telling evidence that the secessionists had no confidence in their legal assertion is that *they never took it to court for adjudication*. They instead chose the “field of honor” as the deciding venue, and they lost.

    Next is the assertion that the war was not about slavery until 1863. The men who engineered, promoted and attempted to carry out secession believed, from the start, that it was all about their right to own other human beings. They say so in their writings leading up to the war. Their biggest contention with the Federal government was the issue of slavery: in the territories, returning runaways, being able to transport them to free states, etc. Slavery was at the top of the list of issues in most ordinances of secession. Fear of what Lincoln might be able to do regarding slavery is what prompted the first round of attempted secessions. That is not my interpretation, it is what they wrote, and I’ll take them at their word. (No slavery, no secession, no war.)

    Finally, since unilateral secession was not legal, no independent country existed and Lincoln was dealing with armed insurrection.
    “In all cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws, either of the
    United States, or of any individual state or territory, where it is
    lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia
    for the purpose of suppressing such insurrection, or of causing the
    laws to be duly executed, it shall be lawful for him to employ, for
    the same purposes, such part of the land or naval force of the
    United States, as shall be judged necessary, having first observed
    all the pre-requisites of the law in that respect.
    Insurrection Act of 1807, ch. 39, 2 Stat. 443, 443
    The Supreme Court in 1863 validated Lincoln’s contention that, when a conflict is initiated by others (whether foreign or domestic) a response does not require waiting for congress to convene, debate and decide.

    For Lee, this meant that he participated in an armed insurrection against his lawful government. Any citizen that does such a thing is guilty of treason, unless they succeed (like Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, etc).

    @ Dave (above): Lee resigning his commission only means that he did not violate his oath as an officer.

  16. Jon  April 27, 2014 at 8:14 am

    Robert E. Lee was completely loyal to his ideals and to his duties.

    Unfortunately, those ideals were completely upfucked. And on that I condemn him.

    Jon

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