Academic journal article Civil War History

Robert E. Lee: Postwar Southern Nationalist

Academic journal article Civil War History

Robert E. Lee: Postwar Southern Nationalist

Article excerpt

ON FEBRUARY 17, 1866, Robert E. Lee appeared before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction in Washington to discuss issues of race and politics. A reluctant witness, Lee nevertheless was quite forthright in his defense of the secession of the South in 1861 and the current efforts of Southern white elite figures to wrest back control of their section from the threats posed by black empowerment.

On the surface, Lee continued to claim that he was above partisanship and discord. He asserted at the onset of his testimony that he was not well acquainted with current political issues. "I have been living very retired, and have had but little communication with politicians," he testified, rather disingenuously, since he had been in constant communication with such men. Maintaining an Olympian perspective for public consumption would be a major component of Lee's postwar Southern nationalism: he would be the true conservative statesman above the fray, a position that would both increase his value to other Southern white leaders, and heighten the esteem he had gained during the war, which was of great importance to him. Unlike the naive prewar engineer who could not think politically without getting headaches, Lee had been politicized by the secession crisis and the war, and afterwards he was quite aware that his super-political status was a political position in itself, especially helpful when synchronized with his comrades who opposed and sought to roll back Reconstruction.

By the time Lee testified to Congress, Andrew Johnson had come into conflict with congressional Republicans about how far to push change in the defeated South. While his opponents wanted to punish the leaders of the Confederacy, pass laws and constitutional amendments to guarantee civil rights for blacks, protect their rights as free workers and offer them suffrage, Johnson opposed all such uses of federal authority, supporting Southern white men and northern Democrats who were organizing to abort all such political and social changes, and to return the former Confederacy to the Union with white people firmly in control of African Americans.

Lee was well positioned to take up Andrew Johnson's proffered handshake across the Mason-Dixon line. He testified to the congressional committee that the former secessionists "are for co-operating with President Johnson in his policy.... Persons with whom I have conversed," Lee stated (almost immediately refuting his position that he had been living very retired), "express great confidence in the wisdom of his policy of restoration, and they seem to look forward to it as a hope of restoration."

As nearly as possible, Lee argued, that restoration should be a return to the status quo ante, the reinstitution of slavery excepted. As part of his position, Lee stoutly defended the legality of secession. Citizens of Southern states such as Virginia had not committed treason in 1861; "they considered the act of the State[s] as legitimate," under the Tenth Amendment, "merely using the reserved right which they had a right to do.... The act of Virginia, in withdrawing herself from the United States, carried me along as a citizen of Virginia ... her laws and her acts were binding upon me." Besides, secession had been brought about by a blundering generation of national politicians. "The position of the two sections which they held to each other was brought about by the politicians of the country; that the great masses of the people, if they understood the real question, would have avoided." In that sense, demagogic politicians had "wheedled" the nation, particularly gullible lower-class white voters, Lee suggested. He sought to narrow the meanings of secession (and even the war) in the name of an essential constitutional continuity, the better to sharply limit new forms of federal intervention during Reconstruction. Along these lines he even favored Southern states repaying Confederate debts contracted during the war against the Union rather than repudiating them as the Republicans were insisting--debts held by former Confederates such as himself. …

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