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Adam’s Apples – In defense of Robert E. Lee

By James Mack Adams

This is not the column I had scheduled for this month. Recent events in the news prompted me to lay that one aside for a time and go in another direction. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” as poet Robert Burns wrote.

Following the recent chaos and tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, the movement to remove all symbols of the Southern Confederacy from public display has gained momentum. Now, some are labeling those thousands of soldiers who fought for the Confederacy as traitors. That would include my great-great grandfather. Even the iconic Robert E. Lee is being called a racist and a traitor who deserved to be hung for treason instead of admired.

What follows are some facts about Robert E. Lee the soldier, educator, and citizen. I will leave it up to the reader to decide if the man deserves the slings and arrows being aimed at him.

The Lees were one of the oldest and most prominent families in old Virginia. Two of Robert E. Lee’s ancestors, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, were signers of the Declaration of Independence. His father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee was George Washington’s cavalry commander during the American Revolution and also his very close friend. Henry Lee delivered the eulogy at President Washington’s funeral and at that time coined the now-famous words, “First in war. First in peace. First in the hearts of his countrymen.” Washington was Robert’s lifelong hero and role model.  His mother encouraged him to be like “the great Washington.”

Young Robert desired to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a soldier. He entered West Point in 1825.  He graduated in 1829 ranked second in his class. He did not receive a single demerit during his entire four years at the Academy.

Not long after his graduation from West Point, Lt. Robert E. Lee married Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. When Martha married George Washington, George legally adopted Martha’s son from a previous marriage. And so, George Washington’s adopted son, Mary Custis’ father, was Lee’s father-in-law.  The Washington and Lee families were thereby united by marriage.

Yes, Robert E. Lee did own slaves. Mary inherited Arlington Plantation and the slave laborers after her father’s death in 1857. So, Robert became the master of Arlington. Mary broke the laws of the day by teaching the slaves how to read so they could read the Bible. Robert and Mary continued to use slave labor at Arlington until Robert freed them in 1862, in accordance with his father-in-law’s will.   

Lee’s first test of his military leadership was the Mexican-American War in 1846. He was Commanding General Winfield Scott’s primary staff officer and chief engineer. General Scott was to remark years later that Lee was the best soldier he had ever seen.

In the early 1850s, Lee got a new assignment that he considered one of the highlights of his military career. He became the superintendent of the United States Military Academy (West Point). This assignment helped prepare him for his future role as educator and college president. 

Lt. Col. Lee of the United States Cavalry was stationed in Texas when some Southern states started talking about secession. He was ordered to return to Washington where he met with Mr. Francis Blair, an unofficial advisor to President Lincoln. At the meeting, Blair told Lee that President Lincoln was offering to him command of all Federal forces being raised to put down the Southern rebellion. Lee was outspoken about being pro-Union and against secession. With much reluctance, however, He declined Lincoln’s offer saying that he could not make war against the Southern people nor would he lead an army that would invade his home, Virginia, and threaten his family. He resigned his commission after nearly 36 years of faithful and distinguished service in the Federal Army and joined the Confederacy. It was a gut-wrenching decision, but one he felt he had to make. 

When General Lee returned to his camp following the surrender meeting with General Grant at Appomattox Court House he told his men to lay down their arms, go home, take care of their families, and be good citizens.

After the war ended, Lee was asked to serve as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He hesitated before accepting because he feared his involvement might bring disfavor upon the institution. He finally agreed and served as president of the college until his death five years later. During those years, he oversaw an extensive building program and updated the curriculum. Lee was a devout Christian. The first new campus building he had constructed was the chapel. After his death, the name of the college was changed to Washington and Lee.

Lee dedicated his final years to doing all he could to heal the wounds of a tragic civil war and bring the country back together. His strongest desire was a re-united America.      

Robert E. Lee was a very private man. He did not enjoy adulation nor did he like to be the center of attention. It made him uncomfortable. I think he would be very uncomfortable and probably would strongly disapprove of statues and other memorials being erected honoring him.  He was just that type of man.