While listening to a radio interview about the future of Robert E. Lee’s Charlottesville, Virginia statue I learned just how far some historians go to demonize Lee. While the critic conceded that Lee’s statue should not be torn down he argued that it should be updated with qualifying signage to reveal the general’s underlying racism. He claimed that Lee was “livid” when the general learned of the Emancipation Proclamation and referenced a January 1863 letter as evidence. After investigating I discovered that the applicable letter was one Lee wrote on January 10, 1863, which was nine days after the second version of the Proclamation. (Keep in mind the term: “Second Version.”) The letter made a single reference to the “degradation” that would result if his army were not reinforced.
The problem with the historian’s claim is summed up by Mark Twain’s humor: “Most things did not happen when they were supposed to and some never happened at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.” Lee’s critic basically invented something that never happened.
Lee’s cited letter to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon was a plea for more civilian troop recruitment in order to avoid the “degradation” of defeat. One Fredericksburg battlefield historian speculated in 2011 that the “degradation” mentioned in the letter referred to the emancipation of slaves. The usual suspects jumped on his bandwagon. Nonetheless, there are several problems with the interpretation.
First, the January 10, 1863 letter to Seddon does not mention the Emancipation Proclamation. It does not even mention slaves or African-Americans.
Second, on the same day Lee wrote Seddon another message complaining of “the atrocious orders of Federal General Milroy” who had occupied Winchester, Virginia nine days earlier. A 2003 study of Civil War Winchester by Jonathan Noyalas explains Lee’s anger:
Milroy fought a war not only against Confederate troops but against the Confederate population as well. He firmly believed that only an Old-Testament style scourge of the land could rid this country of slavery and restore the Union. Milroy’s strong convictions moved him to inflict his will on the Winchester population. Exiles, arrests of civilians (women and children included) secret detectives and widespread destruction of property were the norm under Milroy’s occupation.
Third, the original nineteenth century compilers of the Official Records of the Civil War specifically notated that the “degradation” referred to was Lee’s expression of the consequences of failure to defeat opponents like Milroy. They concluded that the two letters in the first and second points noted above were directly connected.
Fourth, if Lee were to be reflexively angered over the Emancipation Proclamation it would not likely have been in January 1863. It would have happened three months earlier in September 1862 when the surprising preliminary version was first announced. The January ’63 version was mostly an official follow-up.
A delayed response by Lee would have been comparable to a Hillary, or a Donald, supporter getting enraged when the opposing candidate is inaugurated in January 2017. It’s more likely that the anger would surface in November 2016 when the election results first become known.
In the instance of the Emancipation Proclamation the case for an earlier expression of anger by Lee—if there ever was one—is even stronger. Many people, including Union Major General George McClellan, felt that the September ’62 version was a deliberate attempt to incite a slave rebellion in the South. In contrast, the January ’63 version had a more moderate tone because it urged the people thereby made free “to abstain from violence except in necessary self-defence.” Such advice was missing from the September ‘62 version.
It is pointless scholarship to replace one myth with another, but it might be a political agenda.
My Civil War Books
The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated